Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Seeking Santa Claus – Close Encounters of Elfish kind




This is the jolly festive season of Christmas and all things good so let me today tell you how and where I met the grand man in red suit and what happened thereafter.

To begin with, I have three distinct links to Santa Claus: (a) Our first names start with identical alphabet (b) Quite like him most of my life I have spent in extreme cold and snow laden places and in Polar Regions (c) We both travel the world spreading joy and cheer and smiles at strange and dark places. To my knowledge he never went to South Pole and here I actually outpace him. All this definitely makes me Santa’s country-cousin if not a direct descendent.

Just like any of you, especially when you were a child (and I hope you still are), I have always wondered about the things that Santa is known for. His red suit, elves and reindeers, his gifts, why does he come through the chimney, did he ever fight with his wife, why does he go Ho Ho etc, and above all why is he so fat. So I always knew that if I ever met him I am going to quiz him like never before.

Being born in a typical Hindu home Santa never looked for me on Christmas or on any other occasions either, neither did my dilapidated house have a chimney and I had never seen a mistletoe or a Christmas tree in reality till I was 15. Reindeers were as distant to me as Alpha Centauri. But I knew of Santa and his mischievous elves and his reindeers for sure. I had Christian childhood friends and the cookies and cakes that I loved to eat at their homes always told me that Santa was definitely a good man and a nice one to meet. As my fondness for mountains and cold places around the world grew I also realized that sooner or later I am destined to bump into Santa’s home since he essentially lived in and around the Arctic Circle. All I had to do then would be to simply walk up to his porch and give few decisive but delicate taps on the door and ask my questions while enjoying some home cooked delicacies from Mrs Santa Claus’ kitchen; or so I thought.

I met Santa on eight occasions at eight different locations on Earth; which are his designated and often locally claimed residences including summer or winter retreats though one of them seems dubious as you would discover later. This is more than I can say for my own blood brother who lives in Rome whom I have met only thrice in the last twenty years. Now friends hop into my sled and let’s meet Santa.

Chugging along the Alaska Highway (ranks in my top ten road journeys in the world) from Yukon to the White Mountains in Alaska while we crossed the Canadian border, the border guard dropped in smilingly as he stamped my passport and wished me to hand deliver a letter from his daughter to Santa Claus. Are you serious I asked! Of course he is; my friend and driver assured me, we would be going through North Pole, Santa’s home. Stunned I allowed my heart to stop leaping like a tree frog. Really… wow, I finally said. Sure thing, I took the pink envelop from the jocular guard and we sped off into the horizon. That was my first meeting with Santa. Five hours later we roll into the drive way of Santa Claus even as the early winter dusk obliterates the pale sun from the sky filling it up with streaks of orange twilight as far as one could decipher. Go ahead, Sat, my friend says, deliver your letter. You will find me in that pub. As I zip up my down jacket into the chilly breeze I wonder what Santa is doing at nearly 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Though I couldn’t argue with the choice of his village, after all he does live in North Pole.

With less than 2000 permanent residents, North Pole is a small township outside Fairbanks, Alaska. It is absurdly far from the other four North Poles (geographic, magnetic, geomagnetic, NP of inaccessibility) and the only one with permanent human dwellings. It is a beautiful quaint little picture-perfect habitation of really warm and loveable people. The house of Santa is a long portico wooden building, white all over with red bordered frameworks. You simply cannot miss it, as a huge fiber glass statue of the man himself greets you outside. Murals depicting Santa’s stories cover the outer wall. It is his dwelling cum toy manufacturing unit. Surprisingly at this hour there are no visitors outside the house. Pushing all my incredulity aside I step up to the main door and tap the knocker. A while later the door opens.

A short statured man with an impish smile, dressed in green shiny overalls and red elfish cap looks out. He smiles and raises his eyebrow. He looks similar to Pepper Minstix (the elf guarding Father Christmas’ hideout) from my fairytale book. I have a letter for Santa, I say. He sizes me up and down and realizes that he is indeed talking to an adult. He cannot see you right now, he is busy; you may leave the letter with me, the elf says. I have come from very far, I insist. How far, he asks. India, I blurt out. That takes him by complete surprise. Really, he says. I show him my passport. He holds the door open and shows me to a wooden floored room with a comfortable hearth blazing on one side. As I look around I have no doubt that I am indeed at Santa’s house. There are piles of gift boxes, letters from all over the world, dolls, etc littered around. Few minutes later Santa enters. Shell shocked I shake his hand. He is a rotund and jovial man of indeterminate age, though if we believe the legends then he has to be around 400 years at least. He offers me coffee and cake. We chat amicably about things I never thought I would. I ask him my ‘Santa questions’ and he quizzes me about India. After around 10 minutes I take my leave, he is the Santa Claus and I know that each second of his time is precious. He bids me goodbye at the exit and confirms I am the first visitor from India at his door.

My next encounter with Santa happens nearly a year later at a place around 8000 km from the first. For most people Santa is a native of Scandinavia and lives somewhere in the Lapland (land of midnight sun), which arguably can include the northern ends of Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Greenland (Denmark) though most Finnish would argue that Lapland is their exclusive territory. Poor Russians don’t even have an opinion or claim to citizen Santa though the entire Northern Siberia bordering Finland Lapland qualifies to be so. Therefore on my first trip to Scandinavia when I land at Oslo, the first thing I ask my friend is whereabouts of Santa. She gives me a queer look and predicts that I am suffering not only from jet lag and delirium but perhaps starvation as well, emaciated as I used to be in those good old days.

She drives me home and I meet her octogenarian grandmother. The sweet lady confirms that Santa has two homes in Norway though being summers I may not find him at either. As our climbing calendar is quite full, Emma, her grandma and I head off to Drøbak, the nearest of Santa’s Norwegian home to Oslo. The 40 km journey is gobbled up in under 40 minutes under the old lady’s deft driving. Even if we were on a wild goose chase (as Emma tells me); I like the journey for the astonishing beauty of the landscape and my friend and grandma’s happy songs. It turns out to be a tiny village located on the east bank of Oslo Fjord. A typical harbor habitation, the air reeks of fresh sea and marine life. We park the car short of the village square and cross its cobblestoned corners and enter the lanes looking for Santa. I spy a round signboard hanging from a tree, warning that Santa might be skittering around delivering his goods. Grandma assures me that in summers he is usually inside his toy factory. Emma makes a face; even then she looks radiant as the dawn.

We amble through slope-roofed cottages and gardens, walkways and neatly trimmed pathways but barely come across a soul, leave aside the man in red suit. Suddenly we burst upon the sparkling blue sea and the harbor. I have to check myself; the sight takes my breath away. Before we can reach the pier we walk through a sparsely populated outdoor café. White awnings throw shade on the tables. The smooth breeze cut across the fjord and ruffles my hair. Maple trees wave gently. Emma brightens up, she loves water. Grandma goes out of control, she loves surfing. I am ecstatic, I love everything within sight; and I wonder where’s Santa? We gather our thoughts over frothing cups of Norwegian coffee and plot our next move.

Emma insists we hire a boat and go swimming. Granny refuses to give up and so do I. Granny asks a passerby and the gentleman laughs, laughs at me specially and then points in some indeterminate direction. While Granny jumps up in joy, Emma longingly eyes the wafting blue waves. Let’s go, Granny declares triumphantly. We enter another lane and then another and another finally coming across an orange-grey house with big lattice covered bay windows that doesn’t look even remotely like Santa’s home. Granny knocks on the door while Emma and I stand at a safe distance admiring the stone fountain nearby. A pale man opens the door and chats up with Granny. I eye him carefully. He is trim and tall without any beard and is dressed in an open khaki shirt and khaki slacks. After a brief moment Granny gestures; meet Santa, Granny introduces. Even as I shake the proffered hand, I say silently, no ways. This is the con of the century. It is vacation time for me, my elves have gone home as well and so has Rudolph and his friends; Santa explains. He will grow big and fat by winters, Granny assures. I ask him my ‘Santa questions’ and he spins some really interesting yarns. We talk, we laugh and we take leave. On our way home Granny confides that we had just visited the famous Tregaarden’s Julehus founded in 1976 to merchandise Christmas and Santa related products. It also runs Santa’s post office where children and parents send their letters to Santa. In real terms Santa does not have a home in Drøbak and the guy I met is the postmaster. I told you, Emma bounces from backseat. Drunk in Drøbak delicacies and delectable diversities I am far too merry to care and I agree with Granny that the postmaster is as good a Santa that Santa can be.

Continuing my journey through Scandinavia, I have my next encounter with Santa in about a month after Drøbak, in Mora. As we drive towards Lake Siljan from Stockholm I wonder once again why is Santa so far down south at 61 degrees North. While we zip through the Swedish tundra I remain silent taking in the spectacularly pristine landscape. Nestling by Lake Siljan, Mora sits right in the largest meteorite crater in all of Europe. Mora has many claims to fame, one being the home of Santa (according to the locals) and the other being the end marker of Vasaloppet, world’s longest and oldest cross-country ski race. While Mora is a diminutive human habitation of exotic panorama, Lake Siljan is immense and vibrant blue. We visit Tomteland, the theme park and finally I find myself at the door of Santa’s home. You can’t miss Santa’s caricature on the rooftop in his sled with the reindeers. We find Santa outside playing with few kids. He is exactly the way he should be, remarkably similar to the one in North Pole. We chat up a while, meet the elves and two of his reindeers; Comet and Cupid, Santa informs. Rudolf is out, he offers. I ask my ‘Santa questions’ and we take his leave.

I have to wait for two years before I meet him again in his so called actual Lapland territory of Finland. With the natural wonders of Finland in mind I opt for the rail journey to Rovaniemi, the capital of the Lapland Province, which has the most authentic claim to Santa Land. Straddling plumb the Arctic Circle I have no doubts that Santa indeed lives in Rovaniemi. Who wouldn’t? I would, if I could. There’s not a spot in Finland that wouldn’t accelerate your heartbeat and in Rovaniemi it will pause for you to catch your breath and eyes in that order. It is among the prettiest cities I have ever seen anywhere on earth. The air is cold and clean and the Kemijoki River winds its way through. The ski slopes and the distant snow covered hillocks beckon me fondly. No one has to tell me, it is writ everywhere right from the station where I disembark. Santa peeps out of large signboards and effigies. I drop my bag at my friend’s place and take off on a trot for Santa’s village around 14 km away. It is late autumn and the sky is faintly abuzz with the northern lights. A passing motorist gives me a lift to the village. Santa’s village at Rovaniemi is the official residence and work place of Santa. It is rather a mini-complex of different workshops and offices run by a well informed and happy bunch of humans besides Santa and his elves. The place is full of kids and adults simply hanging out and having fun. There’s enough distraction and food for everyone. Thick layer of snow lies on ground. People crowd into the souvenir shops and pet the reindeers roaming around freely. I go to look for Santa and he proves elusive. He could be anywhere, one of the elves inform. I have to make two more visits before I meet the man. Finnish Santa is fun, though he speaks little and laughs more. He is jocular as he can be, bearded to his knees and portly as a polar bear. He expresses his surprise as to how far I had traveled to gain his company. I ask him ‘Santa questions’ and he asks me about India. He has never been there, he confides. I invite him to my home, you will love it, I assure him. One day for sure, he says while parting company. During our conversation I learn that he actually resettled himself from his secret home in the mythical mountains of Korvatunturi in the Urho Kekkosen National Park further north bordering with Russia and is an extremely dangerous place to go. Since everyone wanted to meet him but none could reach Korvatunturi he shifted to Rovaniemi, which is well connected to the rest of Finland. Excited I ask him for directions to his original home; sharing with him some of my extreme adventures and he agrees that perhaps I will be able to reach there after all.

When I return home and tell my friend I got to travel to Korvatunturi, he laughs. It’s a story cooked up by a radio jockey half a century ago, he tells me. There’s nothing there, he assures me. Is there such a mountain and such a national park, I ask and he affirms that there is. That finalizes my decision. I check the map and find that the park is around 250 km further north way too deep into the Arctic. I also learn that all roads further up were closed due to heavy snow. But I am adamant, if Santa can go so can I. I gather information and learn that there are indeed few private logwood huts in the park where some people do travel in the winters on sleds. I scour through Rovaniemi, almost driving the pretty pair of lasses at the tourist office out of their mind till I finally find a hunter’s son who is going into the area to look for his dad. He is delighted to find my company. It is a long and incredible story as to what happened thereafter and is way beyond the purview of this post, suffice it to say that we managed to find his dad and Santa’s secret hideout and even met Santa in person and returned alive and healthy to Rovaniemi after an incredible adventure lasting eleven days.

My sixth Santa encounter takes place at his northernmost residence (holiday home rather) at Uummannaq, West Greenland. It was my first trip to Greenland and even reaching Uummannaq is an adventure in itself. I was a part of a glaciology study team hence everything was paid for; else I don’t think I could have ever managed it. It is pointless here for me to talk about Uummannaq since the place is so extraordinary and the adventures that I had there are among my finest may be I will write a separate post about it later. Let’s focus on Santa here. While en route I had no inkling that Santa had a home there. Only when we landed at the helipad did I see a tiny notice saying that Santa visited Uummannaq on vacations. None of my companions, several of them Greenland veterans, knew about it either. On inquiry from our local guide, who in turn led me to an old seal hunter; from whom I learn that there is a hut on the distant shore of Ikerasak Island where it is said that a big fat man in red suit comes once in a while, though he is not sure. My head spins as my imagination flies asunder in pure joy of exploration and the story unfolds into a drama. I won’t deliberate over it any further and will leave you with the thought that did I find Santa’s home in Uummannaq and did I meet the man himself!

The only time I visit Santa during Christmas is in 2007 when I pass through Norway on my way to the northernmost human settlement in the world; Svalbard. I know of the place from my earlier visit to Norway and I had done my research and train bookings, etc long before I arrive in Oslo. After presenting myself at our Oslo Embassy, I board the train to Tynset from where I will take a bus to Savalen, one of the official and legitimate residences of Norwegian Santa. Norway in winter can only be described as one of those places on earth that are totally out of the world. The train cuts through the snow draped fur forests as I look around and smile at my fellow passenger. It is jam-packed. People from all over the world want to reach Savalen during Christmas. Everyone is jumpy-happy; children are running all over, adults are past caring. Santa is everywhere. It is the big day. I am carrying my tent and would be camping on the snowy outdoors as the hotel rooms are way too expensive. I discover with joy that there are many following my suit. The compartment is overflowing with skis and camping gear. Every now and then someone or the other breaks into a carol or ‘Jingle bell…’ with the rest chirping in. I feel I am aboard the ‘Christmas Express Train’ to eternity.

The moment I spill out of the bus, literally carried and pushed forward by my excited fellow revelers I know that at last I have found Santa in his real den. Though Savalen is a good 4 degrees south of Arctic Circle I feel Arctic air in my lungs and the contagious festivity. It is impossible not to break into a song and dance. Unending ski slopes dotted with snow covered pines, and wave of crowds around takes me back to my childhood where anything could be possible. Soon enough Rudolph appears poking his red nose at us followed by his brethren. Santa’s logwood cottage throws lights all around. I simply move along with others taking in the wonders one after another. Elves and Santa’s helpers are everywhere. A team of huskies lap around as well.

I stick around in Savalen for two days and do everything that one possibly can in the Arctic; hurl myself on skis whispering to the rushing breeze, take endless tumble on snowboard (of all the winter sport, this is my Waterloo), skate on frozen lakes, chase the huskies, feed reindeers, gobble cookies, cakes and coffee at Santa’s kitchen, dip in smoking thermal pools, gaze fondly at the northern lights and meet Julenissen (Norwegian Santa). Predictably, he is fat, jocular, goes ho ho ho, and wears his trade mark red suit. He offers me Norwegian waffles as well. When my departure is evident my heart urges me to linger. The one at Savalen remains till date my most enchanting Christmas.

Earlier this year I find Santa in the land of elves, fire and ice. You got it right, in Iceland. Icelandic claim to Santa has always been regarded dubious by most Santa aficionados and honestly the Icelandic themselves are not too keen to press the point further. Just like their regular fun loving and carefree attitude any Icelander would say, it is the way it is, take it or leave it. They have their own version of jólasveinarnir, a mischievous bunch of 13 elves who live in mountain hideouts and invade the towns and villages during Christmas fortnight. This is my third visit to Iceland and I have no doubts that Santa’s elves are definitely somewhere around, if not the man himself.

Iceland is a mystical land and even an hour’s drive out of Reykjavik in any direction will transport you into a land of fairytales. In this trip I head for the northeastern-most region of Iceland. I camp in Husavik and proceed further. I have never been this North in Iceland before. Barely a slingshot south of Arctic Circle I am hopeful of meeting the man in his Icelandic avatar. During my epic walk from the shores of Greenland Sea to Myvatn I cross glaciers, ice caps, torrential waterfalls, bubbling geysers, mist, rain and storms and amidst all that, the man in red suit. This time he is riding a RV. He offers me a lift, which I gratefully accept. We talk and we laugh. He is modern Santa and has replaced Rudolph with his RV; he is equally comfortable with his GPS, Satellite phone, Mac book and other luxuries of technology. He has a sizable library and surprisingly he has been to India as well. I say hello to his wife, the lovely blue eyed Mrs Claus. We are on vacation, she informs since it is early June and far from Christmas. Santa drops me off the highway and speeds away with a loud ring from his bell and ho ho ho. As I stare dumbfounded at the receding RV I read for the first time the red letters on its rear door: Santa Courier delivers anything anywhere anyhow. The unmistakable Rudolf stares out from a logo beneath the letters. Predictably he is carrying a mail delivery sack on his back.

That brings me to the end of my Santa encounters. Throughout this post I am sure I have raised more questions than answers and many of you are eager to unravel further, but I have only little to add.

My ‘Santa questions’ that I asked to all the Santa’s I met produced answers startlingly similar in content and color though worded differently perhaps. They all insisted that I tell others, especially back in India how to reach Santa Claus. So here are the contact details of Father Christmas (of only those who can be reached):

Santa Claus House
101 St. Nicholas Dr.
North Pole, Alaska 99705
Phone: 1-907-488-2200
Toll Free: 1-800-588-4078
Fax: 1-907-488-5601
Email: info@santaclaushouse.com

Santa Claus
Julenissen i Norge
2500 Savalen
Norway
www.julenissen.no

Santa Claus
Julenissen
1440 Drobak - Drøbak
Norway
www.julehus.no

Santa Claus
Santa Claus` Main Post Office
Santa Village, Fin – 96930 Napapiiri
www.SantaClaus.fi

As evinced from above, Alaskan Santa is most tech-savvy.

I am aware as much as you are by now that the eight Santa’s I met across were not the same person and were all mortals like you and I and so were the elves and the reindeers. But the legend is larger than life and makes us believe what our minds reject. When I pointed out that it is nigh impossible for them to reach out to nearly 3 billion children worldwide they all told me the following: Since I can’t be everywhere for all the children at the same time, I have delegated the task to all the parents and through them I fulfill the child’s wish. But only problem these days are that most of the parents themselves don’t believe in me anymore. Can you do something about that, since you travel so much and meet so many people.

I promised that I will try and this post is it. Well it all boils down to your belief really. Santa can be everywhere and nowhere. But if I had the power to decide then I would place him at the most beatific of his legendary homes, Greenland. I would have loved to build a home for him in the Himalaya too but it won’t suit Rudolph and his friends who pull Santa’s sled.

Just few days before the Climate Summit at Copenhagen starts I call up Santa to inquire if he would be there too since his Arctic world’s existence is severely threatened. I work in this field along with several international organizations and am keen to know Santa’s point of view. Perennially jovial, he sounds rather subdued.

I worry about global warming, Santa says. What are we going to leave for our children since essentially we live in times borrowed from their future! I sincerely hope and wish that the adults and the world leaders and every parent on this planet will take the steps necessary to stop our planet from destruction. We speak for nearly a quarter of an hour. I inform him that my paper for corrective measures is being presented there. While ending the call, I assure Santa that we will do whatever he wants us to do. He has spread happiness and selfless cheer over centuries to each one of us and as children he had given wings to our dreams and hope; this is the least we can do for him and for our children.

I am sure you all will join hands with me in leaving a better and healthier world to our children. We owe it to these little angels; we are living in times borrowed from them after all.

Merry Christmas, love, joy and peace to all of you from all the Santa’s across the world

6 comments:

  1. wow!! this is certainly the best Christmas post I have read so far!!! enjoyed every bit of it!!!! I am posting a link to it on my blog and also on FB....

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  2. this post bought a smile on my face and reminded me of all Christmas mornings i used to excitedly get up and find my gifts and a special message..hope that tradition continues..Merry Christmas to u too..

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  3. this is so good... i would love to experience the same thing in my life

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  4. cute. The language needs some work though!

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  5. This is really cute, S and i was smiling all the way through, imagining you chatting up with santa :-))))

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