Coming face-to-face with Santa Claus at the Arctic Circle
By Patricia Kelly
Web posted at: 6:33 p.m. EST (2333 GMT)
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ROVANIEMI, Finland (CNN) -- Step off the plane at Rovaniemi airport in Finnish Lapland, and the magic begins.
In continental Europe, where I'm based in Brussels, daylight would be well under way at this time of the morning. But here a full moon is still high, the sky a deep, almost royal blue.
Combined with the stars, the reflection off the snow creates a mystical blue light that drives my cameraman wild. Joseph Backes starts shooting the moment he comes down the airplane steps.
It's only the promise of many more magical shots that persuades him to leave the tarmac, itself a densely packed carpet of snow.
I'm astonished at how easily planes land and take off in the Arctic Circle, when airline schedules further south are thrown into chaos at a mere sprinkling of the white stuff.
This part of the world is known as "the land of the midnight sun." Between May and July, the sun never sinks below the horizon and doesn't set at all on Midsummer's Day.
At the beginning of December, when we were there, it's properly daylight for just a few hours. Throughout Christmas and January, the only natural light comes from moon, stars, campfires and the spectacular electrical storms known as the Northern Lights.
The temperature was deep into minus-degree territory (Celsius and Fahrenheit). We all became instantly aware of having nostril hair -- it froze solid on contact with the cold air! A weird experience the first time, as we tried to work out what on earth was happening.
Many visitors and tourists come here for winter sports and wildlife expeditions.
We were on another mission, in search of a legend. The Finns claim this is where the real Santa Claus hangs out.
For Joseph, sound engineer Jacques Henry and me, our regular assignments covering NATO and the European Union tend to be dominated by men in gray suits.
This time, we were in search of a man in a red suit.
Competition between the Scandinavian countries as to exactly where the real Santa Claus lives can get fierce.
The Finns are brought up believing he lives about 300 km (186 miles) northeast of Rovaniemi, on the Russian border, in Korvatunturi Mountain.
That translates as Ear Mountain -- so-called because its twin peaks resemble rabbit ears. That's how, goes the story, Santa Claus can hear children all over the world.
We were informed that Santa comes down to the "Santa Village" near Rovaniemi every day, and goes back to the mountain at night.
The village, open year-round, is becoming a popular destination for those in search of a glimpse of Santa, with a half-million visitors a year.
Some of the people we met were on day trips from Britain. Some tour operators even supply warm clothing as part of the deal.
Santa Village grew around a small log cottage built for U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950, when she decided she wanted to cross the Arctic Circle.
The village is built right on the Arctic Circle line, and an illuminated cable stretched across the village defines just where that line is. We ceremoniously crossed the Arctic Circle line and took our photographs standing by the Polar Circle monument to prove it to the folks back home.
Santa's Main Post Office is next door to the monument. The helpers, dressed in red dungarees, red- and white-striped shirts and the ubiquitous red hats, are on public view as they work at sorting through children's letters.
They received some 702,000 letters last year from 150 countries and are expecting a million of them this year. Not all are answered, but they are all read.
We were pleasantly surprised to discover that not everyone asks for presents, although most are hoping for a visit, and many of the letters offer news from home and drawings.
Santa also gets sent presents and loads of thank-you letters. And Finnish toddlers traditionally send Santa their pacifiers when they break the habit.
The notes from children in war zones ask Santa to please stop the fighting.
Santa's reindeer are a huge attraction, and tourists can travel the Santa Claus way just as I did: in a sleigh pulled by a reindeer.
We met a Laplander family who have spent their lives working with reindeer. They told me about reindeer races in which a skier is pulled behind at speeds of up to 70 km/h (43 mph).
Luckily for me, my reindeer -- called Hiiri, which translates as Mouse -- was a bit more sedate and barely broke out of a walk.
For the more adventurous, there are husky dog sled rides and snowmobiles known as "ski-doos."
And if you can bear not to think about Rudolph, Dancer and Prancer et al., reindeer meat is on the menu alongside bear stew. Both brown bear (there are no polar bears in Finnish Lapland) and reindeer must be culled to keep numbers manageable.
The highlight, of course, is the visit to see Santa Claus.
It's the children's faces that I shall never forget: eyes like saucers, bright red cheeks and grins from ear to ear.
One little girl told me she thought Santa was at least 1,000 years old. Another solemnly declared that, in her opinion, he was 31.
Another girl was chatting nonstop about how brilliant he was, when she suddenly broke off to stare at a group of local Finnish children dressed in red outfits who double as Santa's helpers during school vacations.
"Are they real elves?" she asked me, her mouth hanging open. I could only agree they certainly looked like it -- and that was telling the truth.
Santa is huge, and it didn't look like padding to me. Oversized furniture adds to his larger-than-life image.
Santa somehow manages to communicate with his visitors in a variety of languages. The conversation is scattered with deep, rolling chuckles.
It's not only the children who come away with shining eyes. We didn't meet a single adult who didn't express delight.
As one elderly gentleman escorting his grandchildren explained, he never got to see the real Santa when he was little, he could only imagine he existed. And now that he'd seen him for real, it was wonderful.
And a previously cynical television crew pledged they'd be back one day -- with their own children in tow.
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