Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Christmas Goat

I can’t let Christmas pass by without a few words about Santa Claus.  Among Americans, there is a common misconception – at least as Finns would see it – that Santa resides at the North Pole.  Everyone in this country, however, knows the real story:  Saint Nicholas in fact lives in Finnish Lapland, and always has.  He makes his home at Korvatunturi, a remote fell (rounded, treeless mountain) that is close to the Russian border and not much else.  Deep in one of Finland’s largest national parks, with few roads nearby, Korvatunturi gives Santa the extreme privacy that, at least for eleven months out of the year, he obviously craves. 

The Finnish name for Santa is “joulupukki”, which if translated literally means “Christmas Goat”, or more precisely “Yule Goat” after the Nordic pagan holiday of Yule.  In keeping with his pagan background, joulupukki started off being much more naughty than nice.  The original joulupukki was an old man dressing as a goat, complete with horns, who went house to house demanding gifts and leftovers from the Yule feast.  Nowadays people might actually welcome someone taking all that excess ham and turkey off their hands after a bit of over-indulgent Christmas feasting. 

File:Santaandgoat.gifLike so many pagan customs, Yule and the goat that came to symbolize it were eventually absorbed -- or looking at it another way co-opted -- by Christianity to create the present-day celebration of a child born in the Middle East at a time when Finland had barely emerged from the Bronze Age.  Along the way, the Finnish joulupukki was transformed from a cantankerous goat-man into the familiar bearded, jolly old elf who today brings joy to children and retailers around the world. 

While Finns have happily adopted the American-style Santa, there are still differences in his modus operandi.  I don’t know what the practice is today in the States, but when I was a kid, we never saw Santa except in a department store, and only rarely then.  Santa visited our house in the dead of the night on Christmas Eve, deposited his presents under the tree while the whole household (or so we thought) was fast asleep, and left without a trace.  The secrecy of it only seemed to add to the magic of the whole enterprise. 

In Finland, most children come face to face with the old goat himself.  Maybe it helps that the journey from Korvatunturi is so short that when Santa drops by on Christmas Eve it's still well before bedtime, in fact, often soon after the Christmas dinner has just ended.  Funny how that works.

Joulupukki's visit is great theater for little kids, who excitedly wait for the jingle of a bell announcing his arrival, and are awe-struck when he comes through the door.  It’s also a good source of seasonal income for enterprising folks with the right costume, a flair for amateur acting, and a deep, jolly voice.  Not only does Santa simply carry in the bags of wrapped gifts, he also sits for a few minutes chatting with the children, who often treat him to a song or two.  Before he sets off again, he’s also sometimes treated to a toast by the father of the house, usually in the form of a “snaps” of vodka.  The obvious problem with this custom becomes apparent if a Santa is feted with a toast at each stop on his appointed rounds through the neighborhood so that over the course of the evening he gets jollier and jollier -- even to the point that it impairs his credibility as Santa.  Or his ability to drive.

Despite the unshakable certainty in the minds of Finns that Santa is a local boy, there are other claims to the contrary.  Norway and Sweden (which, with Finland and Russia, occupy parts of Lapland, the natural habitat of reindeer) also claim to be the natural habitat of Santa.  I think, however, that Finland has won the battle for world opinion.  Thanks to persistent marketing, or to the fact that Finland has the much stronger claim, many people around the world have come to believe Santa is a Finn. 

It is said that every year some 600,000 admirers in 150 countries send letters to Finland, addressed to Santa.  They are delivered to the small city of Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle, around which a local Christmas-themed cottage industry has sprung up, including Santa Claus Village and a special Santa Claus Post Office.  These attractions are completely dedicated to promoting the modern, heartwarming, and commercialized Santa, combined with the natural allure of exotic Lapland.

Rovaniemi isn’t really that close to joulupukki's traditional hideout, but it is in Lapland and, unlike Korvatunturi, it benefits from having an airstrip long enough to accommodate aircraft bigger than a reindeer-drawn sleigh.  Every December, charter flights from Britain and most other large western European countries arrive with planeloads of Santa tourists.  Back when the Concorde was still flying, British Airways used them to ferry UK tourist in and out of Rovaniemi on 8-hour visits to the land of Santa Claus. 

They might reconsider such trips after watching a new Finnish movie called “Rare Exports”.  The film, which certainly appeals to the quirky and somewhat dark sense of humor that Finns sometimes display, draws on the original myth of the Finnish joulupukki to tell a suspenseful tale about life in Santa’s home turf.  Watch it with care.

Merry Christmas!


  1. One of the things about the Pagan religions (there were so many of them!) that Christianity had to compete with were the cool-ass holidays. How does such a nasty, jealous, hateful, dour religion such as Christianity compete with religions that had kickass holidays that were entrenched and which the local populations adored?

    Answer: Christianity stole them. Or, to use your own term, co-opted them. After that, it was just a matter of a couple of generations of killing off and beating (literally) the competition into submission and thus followed 2,000 years of hatred, intolerance, and ignorance.

    Are you familiar with the Germanic character known as Krampus? Brings a sack full of switches to beat bad children. In fact, he sounds a lot like joulupukki.

  2. Krampus sounds a bit like what the Finns do at Easter. Kids (mostly girls) take pussy-willow switches, decorate them with ribbons. They then dress up as witches and go around the neighborhood trick or treating. When someone opens the door, the "witches" wave a switch at them while reciting a rhyme, then trade the switch for candy.