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Santa may be Finnish, but traditions similar in most countries

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Merry Christmas!!

For those fans of the Dallas Stars that don’t celebrate Christmas, Happy Holidays to you as well.

With several different countries and cultures represented on the Dallas Stars, this story is devoted to exploring some of the variations in the Christmas traditions celebrated by the Stars players.

For example, while it is Santa Claus who delivers presents to the good children of North America, in Finland the gifts are distributed by Joulupukki (pronounced Yoo-le-Poo-kee), and in Sweden the jolly guy in the red suit is known as Jultomte (Yool-tom-tay).

Common among each of these nations is the notion that Santa is an older, obese gentleman (‘fat’ just seems so mean-spirited these days) with a long, white beard who has his elves making the presents, and flies around in his open sleigh propelled by reindeer on the night of December 24.

But the actual method of distribution of the gifts, as well as the specific timing of delivery, varies. First of all, in the U.S. and Canada, we all know that Santa usually arrives around midnight, after everyone’s asleep (even the mice), and shimmies down our chimneys to stealthily stow the presents under the Christmas tree, perhaps pausing momentarily to partake in a cookie and a glass of milk (the reason he’s so rotund?), before moving on to the next house.

People say that Americans are consumed by the demand for instant gratification, but at least we wait until the morning of Dec. 25th to open our Christmas presents - in Finland and Sweden, they open them the night of the 24th. 

That’s one thing both Scandinavian populations agree on - Santa visits in the early evening, after dinner on Christmas Eve, to bestow gifts to the children. And there’s another custom both countries participate in that might seem a bit too elaborate for us North Americans - the kids get to see Santa and meet him as he drops off the goods. 

“On the night on the 24th, between 6 and 10, (Santa comes) so the kids can see him,” said Stars rookie defenseman Nicklas Grossman, a native of Stockholm, Sweden. “You sit up all day - it’s like the longest day on Earth when you’re a kid - waiting for Santa Claus coming, so you sit up, having dinner with your family, and just watching cartoons on the TV and you just wait for Santa to come. Then after dinner, he usually shows up.”

“He’s coming to all the houses, kids can sit on his knee and talk to him,” reported Finnish winger Jussi Jokinen. “He spent like maybe 10 minutes in every house. Lots of families, I think maybe 90-95 percent of families are doing that, so it’s pretty cool.”

Of course, by actually having Santa interact with the children every year, some logistical calisthenics are necessary to pull it off and keep it believable.

“We had a pretty good set-up back home, you always saw him coming out on the fields, lugging a big trunk with gifts,” Grossman recalled. “A relative or a neighbor dressed up and came over, so no one knew, right? Because everyone’s like, ‘Ah, you know, it’s Dad,’ but Dad was here. ‘Who is it? This is Santa.’ Then the neighbors come over to my dad and say, ‘Hey, can you come over for a couple of hours?’ You help each other out and it’s pretty funny. That was great.”

“There’s lots of men who are working like a Santa Claus during the holidays,” Jokinen noted. “I think it’s so good for the kids, they are so excited during Christmas. It’s pretty cool.”

The biggest difference between the beliefs in Finland compared to Sweden (and North America as well), is that Santa - or Joulupukki - is actually Finnish, and doesn’t live at the North Pole, but in a town in northern Finland, in the province of Lapland.

“I think we are proud that Santa Claus is from Finland and he’s from a city called Rovaniemi, it’s 150 miles north from where I’m from (Kalajoki),” Jokinen said. “Rovaniemi is the capital city of Lapland, the biggest city there. So many tourists from the outside, from Finland, come there, sometimes during the summer, sometimes during the winter, during Christmas. There’s an old village there where he’s living, and he says hi sometimes when kids and tourists go there, so it’s a pretty big deal.”

The legend is that Santa has an office in Rovanieimi, which is near the Arctic Circle, but actually lives in a remote mountain further north called Korvatunturi, which means ‘Ear Mountain’ - a place that allows him to hear and receive the hopes and dreams of children and adults alike from across the world.

As the story goes, Santa wouldn’t be able to live at the North Pole (which Canadians believe is in remote northern Canada), because reindeer wouldn’t be able to survive on the vast frozen tundra, but in northern Lapland, reindeer is a common animal and subsist quite well in the wilderness there. 

Santa makes his office in Rovaniemi so the frequent visitors don’t disturb the elves and the inner workings of his operation, but he does want to be accessible to his fans, and in fact, as Jokinen noted, there are different vacation packages and tours available for people to visit his office and meet with him.

“I think that Christmas is the biggest thing in Finland, our biggest holiday,” Jokinen said. “Kids remember all the things, waiting for when Santa Claus is coming on the evening of the 24th.”

Not surprisingly, Grossman politely refuted the notion that Santa was Finnish.

“No, I think he’s Swedish, but that’s just my opinion,” he said.

Despite the various differences, everyone agrees that Christmas is a fun time of year and recalls the excitement of being a child anticipating Santa’s arrival.

“You’re always waiting, you’re so happy,” Grossman said of his memories of Christmas Eve as a kid. “I remember it pretty well, it was an exciting time when you were a kid, it was pretty fun.”

“I think Christmas is my favorite holiday, too,” Jokinen said.
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