“Mum’s fallen down a hole,” pipes up a helpful child — my eldest — as I let out a yell.
Yes, I have. I’m thigh-deep in a muddy hole and it’s really quite yuck. Alice in Wonderland this is not and, while I’m not transported to another land, where I do find myself is still quite something else. In freezing temperatures, lit up by the soft moonlight reflected by icy snow, this white-coated pine forest in the heart of Ranua, Finland is truly, sparklingly beautiful. It’s only 4pm but the darkness has already descended, with a quarter of Finland’s surface over the Arctic polar circle, at least one day a year the sun doesn’t set, or rise. And at this time of year, in December, there’s less than six hours of daylight a day.
A flicker of twinkling orange light beckons a path towards our destination, faintly visible through the trees. We are one of two families — friends — delivered here by a traditional wooden sled (pulled these days by a traditional snowmobile), with cosy fur-lined seats. It took just a 15-minute ride from our lodge into this deep, dark forest. But, for now, there’s a little extra time to pause and muse, as I’m stuck and getting colder by the minute.
My son tries to hoist me out of the hole — mini-sink holes such as these are a result of global warming, we’re informed — while I discreetly try not to draw more attention to myself. Fortunately, another Dad comes to the rescue, laughing and teasing as he helps me out of the hole (it was really deep). Soggy socks, and a mucky, muddy all-in-one ski suit add to my discomfort, but ribbing is arguably far worse.
We’ve forsaken the full-on Disney-esque Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi — complete with elves, Mrs Claus, the big guy himself, the toy factory, post office and, most terrifying of all, the shop — for the opportunity to meet Father Christmas in a more authentic setting. We’ve come here, to Ranua, on a trip that involves the big outdoors, a little Sami culture, and Finnish nature at its finest.
Once I’m freed, we continue our short walk, treading carefully through frozen snow, stepping over tree roots, dodging more mini pot holes, past thorny bushes and green morasses, towards the light we can see emanating ever more clearly from a hidden log cabin, smoke chuffing up from its chimney. The noise from our group has surely alerted our arrival, but the children tread on the slippery wooden steps, peering through the windows excitedly before not so carefully knocking on the door. A pot-bellied, white-bearded, red-suited, heavy-booted Santa opens the door.
“Hello, hello,” he says, his gentle voice belying a hint of his Finnish heritage.He beckons us in from the cold, into his wooden cabin, lit up by a candle, and a warm open stove. There’s a writing desk to the left and fur-lined benches behind. The children take a seat as Santa ensures we’re all comfortable by the open fire (I remain standing to try and dry my leg).
A heavy-set large old tome has been left open on the desk, where Santa appears to have been interrupted from his scribing. He takes his seat, picks up his ink pen and explains: “This is the naughty and nice list. Have you been good this year?”
The children are unusually quiet and somewhat bashful, their eyes betraying a sense of curiosity, perhaps disbelief… or perhaps not. Father Christmas, Santa Claus, St Nicholas, the big man, the dude: could this be the last year our children believe in him?
He says each of our names, including us parents, and questions if we have written a wish list and letter to Santa. Looking into his book, he points to the columns, noting the different lists he has created. There is a question mark by the dad’s name — he hasn’t been assigned to either list yet.
The children giggle with excitement.
“Dad, what have you done?”
Santa is smiling: “The question mark, it just means I’ve not made up my mind. There are still a few more days to make good before the big day.”
The kids are shy but the burning questions prevail: how does he manage to deliver all the presents and manage to slip into everyone’s houses unseen?
Santa says: “The elves help with the presents and leave them under the tree and in the stockings. I have a magic key that lets me in.”
He asks them to wait a moment as he reaches round for a big, woolly sack, sitting unnoticed in the corner until now. Fishing out a present for each child, their wide eyes are locked in excitement, looking at us, the parents, willing us to let them open them there and then.
He wishes us all a lovely Christmas. My daughter comments Santa was very kind and friendly; my son says it was a nice, warm hut and Santa was a nice man.
I’m cold, my leg is still wet, but I’m also kind of fuzzy inside. The children are seven and nine years old and, for now, it seems, they still believe in Father Christmas. And being able to take them on an ‘Alice in Wonderland journey’ with holes or without, well, that’s kind of special.
The next day, we take a snowmobile safari. The Dad, who did the ribbing, falls down a hole. Perhaps Santa’s extra little gift for me? Maybe, he’s not on the ‘nice’ list after all.
Who: Maria (mum), daughter Rae (nine) and Luca (seven), and friends of the family (mum and dad and two children, also nine and seven).
Best for: Children who believe in Father Christmas.
Highs: “We took lots of funny videos while sledding when we fell and continued to slide straight down.” Rae
“I loved feeding the arctic foxes. The white haired arctic fox was my favourite.” Luca
How to do it: Ranua Festive Family Adventure — costs from £1,695pp for four nights full board. The trip includes local transfers, activities (entrance and guided tour of Ranua Wildlife Park, including feeding the animals and meeting the polar bears), a husky safari, reindeer sleigh ride, Northern Lights snowmobile safari and a Father Christmas visit; cold-weather clothing for the duration of the holiday, wilderness guides and instructors, plus international flights (London).
Published in the 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family