Lap(p) of the Gods
Words by Paul Oswell
It was as early as an hour into the trip, 30,000 feet up over an icy ocean on four hours’ sleep and two cups of machine coffee, that I began to regret taking this particular assignment. At just a tweak after 6am, some of the hundred-odd hyperactive toddlers accompanying me had ill-advisedly been allowed to take control of the inflight PA system like some teeny-bopper version of aeroplane hijackers.
Delirious with power, they decided to show no mercy, and had immediately broken out into a hangover-piercing chorus of "When Santa Got Stuck Up the Chimney". Some of them were singing in a pitch only detectable by dogs and particularly attentive sea mammals. I expect it’s different when it's "one of your own" but I'd failed to procure a small child to bring with me, and I couldn’t help feeling that I’d rather be Saint Nick, dangling precariously from a sooty, undersized flue, cursing my dietary habits as I nervously eyed the smouldering coals, than in my present air-bound predicament.
Being taken by plane to meet Santa Claus at his arctic hideaway was the kind of trip that I’d always thought was the reserve of a certain demographic of child. Specifically, either petulant brats with rich parents who gave in immediately and without question to their every ludicrous whim, or terminally ill children – the kind who had already been forced to open their presents in October, and as a loving send-off from their parents, were then forced to eke out their final hours in comforting, life-affirming, sub-zero temperatures.
But no. Apparently it was open season as far as Santa visitation rights went these days. Every child with the desire and ability to blub at annoying levels until their parents signed the booking forms were winging their gift-obsessed way northwards to sniff out, hunt down, and possibly kill via the medium of pestering, Father Christmas.
The carols on the plane began to get wear a bit thin, even for those people related by blood to the infant singers. One of the cabin crew suggested the children tell us some jokes, a suggestion that was immediately withdrawn when the first eight year old stepped up to the microphone and delivered the line
“What do you call a woman with two black eyes?” His dad, who you suspected had told this joke to his son in a moment of misguided conspiratorial misogyny, positively shot down the aisle to grab the mic from his son’s hand, though sadly not before the charming punchline “Nothing – you’ve already told her twice” had been delivered to a crowd of open-mouthed passengers.
God bless us, every one!
Our destination, Roveniemi in Finnish Lapland, was, on the face of things, quite intriguing - after all, it's not every day that you get the chance to step inside the Arctic Circle, and with the sun beaming down as we made our descent on a crisp December morning, well, just how cold could it be?
Minus thirty-five is a temperature that I’d assumed was only used in conversation when discussing freezing inert gases in covert, Government-sponsored lab experiments, but apparently some people actually live in these conditions, too. Even the fur-clad local guides who met us in the special decompression and shock treatment room at the airport were conceding that it was "a bit chilly".
We'd arrived the day of a freak cold snap, though day-to-day operations were seemingly running like clockwork. Finnish children have it hard - apparently school is only cancelled if temperatures dip below minus forty, presumably the teachers all too busy fighting off advanced hypothermia to give out maths homework.
But there was no time for sitting around, weighing up the chances of taking the return flight with all your limbs gangrene-free; we were there to “find Santa”, which meant, it soon became clear, “be lead through the unforgiving Arctic tundra via a series of vaguely Christmas-themed activities to a jobbing Nordic drama student in a rented costume.” Without wanting to seem Scrooge-like, I was already doubtful about our chances of being sufficiently motivated to jingle any of the way.
Before we left the airport, we were kitted out in bountiful layers of thermal overalls and boots to insulate our extremities. Outside, even though everyone was wrapped up impenetrably, you could tell it was a different kind of cold. Cold that could really hurt you. That said, the immediate scenery was pretty spectacular, especially if you were into heavy snowfall and fir trees as a central motif.
To get things rolling, we were lead into a nearby teepee and offered a cup of warm milk that came from an unspecified mammal. Our guides repeatedly informed us that the animal was “kept on the premises”, which was neither reassuring nor unduly worrying .
We assembled around a smoky fire and sat passively as a nervous girl in national costume daubed each of our faces in charcoal for no readily obvious reason. She muttered something under her strikingly visible breath about us “all being her reindeer now”. I could only assume that she was actually on the staff, and not just a member of an evangelistic wing of a sinister Lappish cult.
The ordeal by wigwam over, we went outside to meet some actual reindeer. Sadly, they failed to live up to their musical reputations. The extent of their ‘reindeer games’, for example, only stretched to forlornly dragging us round a circular track whilst the brutal temperature wormed its way into our snowsuits, my testicles long having retreated up to somewhere near my small intestine.
Granted, my particular sledge-puller did indeed have a very shiny nose, but I had a feeling that this was more symptomatic of a harsh strain of reindeer flu than any kind of suitability to being a leading light in Santa’s sleigh team.
After a certain amount of dashing through the snow, though not much laughing as we went, we stopped for lunch, my only thoughts being how long it would be before Rudolph and his mangy cohorts made a guest appearance on the menu.
The sun was already setting as we headed back out at the crack of noon. There are only a couple of hours of winter daylight this far north, but it made a fittingly dramatic backdrop for our chance to drive snowmobiles into the forest. I was told that technically they should be referred to as "skidoos", even though “skidoo” sounds like the least technical term ever coined.
Handily, the sound of the engines drowned out the frostbitten wailing of the increasingly bored toddlers, who were getting more and more weary of having to put up with all this atmosphere-creating activity in order to get their grubby mitts on some yuletide loot.
I was too busy to care about that, though. I was enjoying fulfilling my secret agent fantasies, ripping through the woods on the diesel-powered sled, taking corners at high speed as I dodged the imaginary bullets and praying that Santa’s gift to me would be a Bond girl of my choosing lying in front of a three-bar electric fire.
This was all going quite well until I ungracefully banked into an off-piste snowdrift, only then hearing the cries of protest from the mother and child I’d been towing. Luckily, the only damage done was to my driving credibility, though the child may well have grown up with an irrational fear of being towed behind a skidoo in a plastic sleigh. There must be support groups for that kind of thing.
We finally stumbled across a woodland cabin, which we were informed “could be the place we were looking for”. I sensed violence could erupt if it somehow turned out not to be.
The guides had been unendingly energetic so far, and were surely on some kind of polar Prozac. They set about whipping the surviving children up into suitably festive states of frenzied excitement as we prepared to penetrate Santa's prefab grotto. Sadly, my enthusiasm to get inside was less to do with the anticipation of the climax of the trip and more to do with the opportunity not to be outside for a while. In my near-delirium to escape the permafrost, my mind was coming up with steamy images of the group frolicking in the sauna-like temperatures sure to be on offer inside.
Disappointingly, the magical world of the interior turned out to be not much more than a bit less draughty. The only heat source was the faint glow of a coal fire, which was annoyingly eclipsed by the form of the corpulent scarlet philanthropist himself as he sat regally in the corner. The children became suddenly focused, and pulled out their Christmas lists, some the size of legal reference books complete with complicated cross-referencing systems. The adults pulled out their hip flasks.
All the parents began to desperately hope that the next few moments were going to deliver as much magic as they felt they’d paid out for. They went crazy with their cameras as each of the awe-struck children were lead by Santa's helpers, played either by children playing truant or seasonally-employed midgets, up to sit on his knee. Even for the most cynical and childless amongst us, it was a beautiful, heartwarming sight.
Jesus, I thought. Brandy really goes to your head at these temperatures.
The pleading and bargaining over, the man himself made a noticeably swift exit through a back door, the children no longer too concerned with his presence or absence now that their demands had been negotiated in person. We were then allowed to warm ourselves by the fire, and a thawed-out six year old sat next to me. I asked him if he’d enjoyed coming to find Santa.
"Oh yes! It's been very good! Like magic!"
“How was it, actually meeting him in person?” I wondered.
"I was a bit scared. But then I sat on his knee and he was very friendly. He made me laugh!"
“Will he be stopping by your house on Christmas Eve then?”
"Well,” conceded the boy, “He said he would, but I don't think it WILL be him, because when I looked very hard I could see the sellotape under his beard."
Ah, the magic of Christmas. Dress it up how you will, it still boils down to a fake in a fat suit.
The business end of things taken care of, we were shepherded out of the cabin and back into the pitch black glacial hell, where most of us took up the offer of an impromptu husky dog ride simply as a means of generating some heat.
The mutts were obviously gagging for a hot bowl of doggie chow, judging by their enthusiasm to get the rides over with. Each punter, hitherto rendered numb to almost any sensory stimulus by the cold, was suddenly sat bolt upright as their flimsy wooden sled was whipped around the icebound track. The dogs actually seemed faster than the skidoos, and I have to admit it was exhilarating, in the way that I imagine catching your hand in the short spin cycle of a washing machine must be.
Later, we were whisked away by coach to ‘sample’; that is, be coerced into paying over the odds for, traditional Lappish crafts in Ye Olde Neon-Lit Shopping Centre. Most of us chose to forgo the hat making demonstrations and “the chance to say goodbye to Santa”, which already had a queue reaching the sign that said “You Are Forty Minutes Away From Santa”. I had a feeling that most of the goodbyes were being said amid frenzied attempts to add to their lists the presents that had slipped the children’s minds until they’d caught a glimpse of what someone else had ordered.
For the rest of us, it was time for the concerted drinking of alcohol-infused coffees and a cursory re-acquaintance with the nerve endings at the tips of our limbs.
One transfer to the airport later and we were clambering onto the plane, performing the compulsory check to make sure we hadn’t left anything behind – our fingers, for example.
The in-flight film entertainment announced by the attendant was “Shriek”. I had visions of a feature-length infant’s carol service, though thankfully it turned out to be the less sinister “Shrek”. By the time the opening credits rolled, though, most of the target audience were already sound asleep, replaying the finer points of their face time with Santa and dreaming contentedly of the coming week’s material gain.