In Santa Claus Post Office in northern Finland two elves in red felt hats are poring over one of the thousands of letters to have arrived that morning. Fortified by little more than a tray of hot berry juice and spicy gingerbread, they have spent hours sorting them in pigeonholes according to their postmark. Geopolitics and the spreading global footprint of the Santa phenomenon are difficult to keep pace with. ‘Do we have a box for Southern Sudan?? one asks. ‘And what about Tuvalu??
The elves are full-time employees of the Finnish post office, but a job at this branch requires skills that would not be needed behind an average post-office counter. Leaving aside the costume, these elves have to work with children and reindeer. The previous week they had to perform an elf dance for a TV programme that has 200 million viewers in China. ‘In other post offices they couldn?t handle what we handle here,? elf Heidi confides.
The post office is on the outskirts of Rovaniemi in the Arctic Circle, a city where snow covers the ground for half the year and temperatures average around a crisp minus 10 during the winter tourist season. It is so far north that the darkness gives way to a crepuscular gloom for only about two hours a day at this time of year. Tourists come to drive huskies, ride snow scooters at high speed along frozen rivers, watch the swirling green northern lights and indulge in the Lappish tapas ? a Rudolph-unfriendly combination of salmon, berries and reindeer meat.
The main function of this post office is to sort and reply to some of the 550,000 letters that arrive each year. This week, the second in December, is peak season with 30,000 letters a day arriving on flights from Helsinki. British children remain committed correspondents; a fifth of all the letters last year came from Britain, second only to Italy. ‘The most polite letters are from Chinese and Japanese children,? elf Riitta says. ‘And those from Catholic countries, such as Italy and France, don?t expect so many presents. They say, ?I don?t expect anything, but if you can, and if you have time…?? Recently, the number of letters to Santa has fallen from 600,000. Nobody quite knows why. ‘It?s a big fall,? elf Riitta says. ‘We?re thinking it could be the decline of letter writing.? Finland?s Santa does not reply to emails.
Though a working post office ? customers from the town can drop in here to post their tax return or buy stamps ? Santa?s post office is the centrepiece of the Santa Village theme park set amid a pine forest. Here, as well as having their letters to Santa postmarked with north pole, quivering children get an audience with Father Christmas, enjoy a dash through the snow on a reindeer-pulled sleigh, stay in an igloo hotel and visit Rudolph?s family in the petting zoo. (Out of season, corporate team-building retreats involving snow sculpting can be arranged.) In peak season 20 flights a day arrive at Rovaniemi airport, depositing sacks of mail ? and 400,000 tourists a year (half of them British families, often on a gruelling day trip).
A few years ago it seemed global warming was threatening business at the Santa Village. Some years tourists expecting to arrive in a winter wonderland had to contend with English-style drizzle. But recent years have seen northern Finland enjoying more traditionally arctic winters. Sadly, the economic climate in Europe has meant that visitors from Spain, Italy and Greece have stayed away, and even the numbers from Britain are down, but tourist numbers from Asia have soared. Russians are the single largest group of visitors.
The Finnish post office isn?t alone in receiving and replying to letters from Santa. Since the 1950s, American children have sent their missives to the Alaskan town of North Pole. Thirty years ago, Canada Post created an address for the million Santa letters sent to them annually ? ‘Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada HOH OHO?. Eight hundred thousand letters are sent by British children to the Royal Mail?s special address ‘Santa/Father Christmas, Santa?s Grotto, Reindeerland XM4 5HQ?. (A reply is sent from a sorting office in Belfast before Christmas if they include a return address and send it in time for the normal last Christmas postal date.)
But, if correspondents stray from this formula and use the names of any real places ? such as Lapland or Greenland, then the letters will be sent north to either Finland or Denmark (from where they won?t get a reply: austerity cuts killed off Greenland?s letters from Santa several years ago). Those that arrive in Helsinki are airfreighted to Rovaniemi for the post-office elves to sort into piles and respond to. Under normal circumstances, letters with an address as vague as ‘Santa, North Pole? would be marked as undeliverable and condemned with an addressee unknown stamp, but the post offices in many countries tend to forward Santa letters to Finland even if they are not stamped. This isn?t the result of any formal postal treaty ? in fact Royal Mail denies that it does it, perhaps fearing a rush of stamp-free correspondence ? but it does seem to be a sprinkling of goodwill that has escaped the post office accountants.
The fact that this avalanche of mail arrives in Finland at all is a tribute to the ingenuity of the international postal network. The workers manage to decode the most spidery children?s script and the world of topical make-believe scrawled on the envelopes: ‘Father Christmas, Reindeerland?, ‘Father Christmas, Top of the World?, a cheery ‘Yer man Santa, Elfland?, and, most often, simply ‘Father Christmas, Santa?s Grotto?. According to the Universal Postal Union, the trade body for postal services around the world, the letters to Santa result in six million extra items of mail for the world?s postal operators to process. Perhaps also there is business sense in their seasonal sentimentality ? it is an unrivalled marketing opportunity. In the age of email, instant messaging and texting, a note to Father Christmas is probably the first letter a child will write, a way to learn about the arcane rituals of letter writing: the structure, the formal salutation and the use of a postcode.
It is early afternoon.?Outside, the mercury is falling and the daylight is already fading. Inside the wood cabin of Santa?s post office, a crackling fire is generating a fierce heat. Coloured smears of light from the snow-laden Christmas tree outside are playing on the windowpanes. All is quiet. Then a group of British and Irish tourists spill through the door. The children are high on sugar, expectation and a lack of sleep. Eventually they settle in the corner to write their letters. Some of their mothers have had enough. ‘Conor, your writing is disgusting. Write properly!?
The elves insist that if I am to read the letters, I have to wear an elf hat. For 10 minutes, armed with a paperknife, I?m privy to the hopes and dreams of children around the world. My reverie is abruptly ended when I notice that a queue has formed by my chair. The other elves, I also notice, have disappeared. A group of children are proffering their letters to Father Christmas. Fearful of breaking the Santa spell, I fall into character and promise to deliver the letters to my boss, Father Christmas. As the queue snakes around the room, one of the parents asks me how long I have worked here. When I admit the truth, there is a mini-riot.
The real elves return to save me and they tell me about the unsolicited gifts that turn up for Father Christmas. Every day dozens of carrots for Rudolph that have turned to black mulch after weeks in the postal system arrive. ‘We were once sent an old-fashioned razor so that he could shave his beard off,? elf Riitta says. ‘And an Italian lady sends us the same present every year ? a painting of Elvis. But usually there is a lot of chocolate and candies.? Some of the gifts are more bizarre ? including a copy of The Godfather in Polish and a red posing pouch.
Keys are sent by children who worry that in this age of gas flues, triple-locks and sensitive burglar alarms, Father Christmas won?t make it over their threshold. Others send change-of-address cards. Some letters have a sad note; when a child in the family dies, often a sibling will worry that Father Christmas needs to be told about the loss.
Millions of children learning English around the world seem to have been set a task of composing a letter to Father Christmas. ‘Sometimes you know they?ve used Google Translate because they make no sense,? elf Heidi says. ‘This Christmas has been bestowed upon us quite expeditiously. I would be full of jubilation if I have these gifts, and I hope you enjoyed my letter. Love buoyantly from Jasmine.? In the spring after the letters arrive, 40,000 of the best ones ? those that have a return address, obviously ? will be chosen for a response in one of 12 languages they are able to translate ? including Japanese, Korean and Mandarin.
Letters are chosen according to the effort that the writer has made (shopping lists don?t tend to make the grade). Those that do get a response are treated to a wholesome version of Father Christmas ? part eco-warrior, part teacher and part tourist promotion officer ? that is far removed from the Falstaffian bearer of gizmos that our children are used to. ‘The clean nature of Lapland gives our animal friends a happy place to live and a place to enjoy the peaceful and beautiful environment,? his letter reads. ‘You too can keep nature clean and tidy.? His wife, Mrs Claus, has not been ordering iPads and games consoles but ‘making soft toy elves from wool?.
Sadly, some British children post catalogues with the toys they want highlighted in fluorescent pen without bothering to write a covering note. ‘Finnish children have a wish list but they also write a proper letter,? elf Riitta says. ‘In Britain it?s rare to have a letter with other content apart from their wish list.? The elves fish out their favourite letter from this year?s pile ? a 30-page long shopping list from an English boy. Next to each request is included the price, the name of the retailer and the product serial code. After painstakingly recording this orgy of Hornby sets, walkie-talkies and Eddie Stobart lorries, he concludes, ‘PS These are the essential things that I would like in my stocking. Could you get me some surprises as well??
Some correspondents are aware they should show restraint. ‘Dear Santa, can I please have the following ? an iPod Touch, a DS game and any type of book. I usually choose a lot of things but would just like these things because people in the world are homeless. If you want to give more presents, you can.? Green-tinged pieties about saving the planet are common, though tend to come from children from Scandinavian countries. ‘Children often wish something for others,? elf Riitta says. ‘Food for everyone or fresh water for everyone. One girl sent us a letter saying that she is growing a grapefruit tree and, when it?s big enough, she wants to send it to the Third World.?
But beneath the materialism, there is a yearning for Christmas mystery and magic. Grace, aged eight, has had her faith in Father Christmas shaken. ‘Tyler in my class doesn?t believe in you. He thinks it?s your parents that bring the presents, but I don?t believe him.? Others are concerned with the practicalities of life in the grotto. ‘Do you regularly have a shower? Where are the toy workshops? Is your biggest elf taller than one metre?? And, ‘What do you wear under your suit?? Others have got their Christmas dramatis personae confused. ‘Do you know Jesus? What?s he like??
Most poignant are the letters from poor children, who ask not for the latest tablets but for winter clothing. A 14-year-old girl from the Bronx has carefully drawn a chart with each of her brothers? trouser, shirt and shoe sizes. ‘I have three brothers. Me and my brothers and mom are living in a shelter. Please help us!? Cielo, a fifth-grade girl from Brooklyn, writes, ‘My father needs a heavy jacket for the winter time. He just started work and he needs to be warm. His size is medium. Please, Santa, don?t forget my parents. After that, please can you get me the Uggs?
For the first time this year, letters asking for help have come from the benighted southern Eurozone countries. A Spanish mother writes in asking for a football kit for her son so that he can play for his school team, and a Greek girl writes, ‘Since mommy pregnant seven months ago, my father leave us. Sometimes we don?t have enough money for food and can?t buy toy. I want a Barbie and a bicycle.? The elves admit this is the most difficult part of the job. ‘Sometimes it can be so emotionally draining.? elf Riitta says. ‘One child who wrote asking for toys said, ?We don?t know what to ask for since we?ve never had anything to play with so we don?t know how to do this.??? But these letters also show child-ren?s reserves of fortitude. ‘There is always some kind of happy thought in the ending ? all hope is not lost,? elf Riitta says.
Age is no barrier it would seem. One father from Britain writes, ‘This year I have been very busy with parenting, running our motorbike breaking business and DIY. We have three children. I have helped them, ferried them here, there and everywhere to their various after-school activities. I have to admit that I am sometimes driven to the verge of insanity with the children?s demands and the (at times) fractious behaviour between them all. Further, our generally frantic lifestyle does get me down.? But the writer?s life has been brightened by a ‘very good cricket season? in which he ‘took more than 30 wickets including seven in a single innings?. The only fly in the ointment was the fact that ‘the captain failed to bowl me in two games meaning that I missed out on the bowler of the season trophy.? His modest Christmas list is limited to ‘an attractive modern clock and a pair of good quality gloves?.
The most in-demand toys of 2012 were Moshi Monsters ? fluorescent cartoon animals ? and Lalaloopsy rag dolls. Along with iPads, and even designer clothes. ‘I read one letter asking for Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton,? elf Heidi says. ‘It was from a 12-year-old.?
The inner sanctum?of Santa?s Village ? the grotto ? is at the end of a long subterranean corridor. There are strange creaks and groans ? apparently the noise of tectonic plates shifting ? and the sinister tick of a clock. Only the emergency exit signs are visible. For children expecting the puce-cheeked Disneyfied Santa, this is all a little too brooding and folklorish, the point at which five-year-olds tend to burst into tears.
Santa is sitting in a wooden chamber, surrounded by wrapped presents, wearing a Finnish smock, boots that look as if they?re made of reindeer hide, and a greyish beard that extends below his knees. He is wry and even slightly melancholic. He seems no more likely to emit a ‘ho, ho, ho? than to break out into a rendition of the Macarena. In place of a booming voice there is a barely audible Finnish lilt. What, I ask, makes the ideal letter to Santa? ‘I like it when a young child has learnt to write because one of the problems is that not all children these days have the possibility to learn to read and write,? he says. ‘But very often I realise that the writer doesn?t really want an answer. He or she writes the letter to share things ? and that is a good letter because it has served its purpose.?
Santa, it turns out, is a pessimist about the impact of technology on the lives of children and complains about the standard of handwriting. ‘In the past 50 years there has been a change in the school system. They don?t teach handwriting any more.? And what refreshment should children leave out for you? ‘Mince pies are appreciated because we don?t have them in this country. The wine is not necessary.?
As my designated slot draws to a close, he delivers a true Christmas message that seems miles away from the mountain of gaudy merchandise in the gift shop next door. ‘Age is not important. What is important is how you are in your heart, how you feel. I always said that the child inside you never fades away.? And, touched by a dusting of Christmas magic, I head out into the pitiless arctic winter ? as another coachload arrives.
source :nana gyeman boampong