* Today marks December 1st and the official onset of the Christmas silly season. So here’s a suitably festive tale from the far-distant archives.
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I am going to meet Santa. No, really.
This is not some department store wannabe with a beer gut, a stick-on beard and halitosis, nor a drunken uncle in a dressing gown and wellies.
Ever since I was little and new Space LEGO was about as good as life could get, everyone has told me that Santa lives at the North Pole. Yeah right, I thought.
But this year I’ve made the ultimate pilgrimage to Rovanieme in northern Finland for a private audience with the big man himself.
This is my chance to check Santa’s credentials and ask whatever happened to that Scalextric I wanted in 1978.
To be honest, though, now I’m about to meet the big guy, I’m a bit nervous. That’s why I’m on the toilet.
Santa’s toilet! Can you believe this? I’m actually sat on Santa’s toilet. The very one where he settles down to practice his ho-ho-hos and deposit his little Santa parcels.
Come to think of it, I think he has warmed the seat for me. But that’s Santa, eh? He thinks of everything.
I’ve got a confession too: I had reindeer for lunch.
Now I know eating Rudolph is tantamount to saying I’m a bad, bad boy and deserve no presents, but hey, it’s minus 10 outside and I was hungry after the night train from Helsinki.
And besides, Rudolph comes served on a delicious bed of mash potato and loganberries.
Santa knows about my bon-viveur tendencies because, naturally. Santa knows everything.
Now, before I get my one-to-one with big daddy Xmas, I’ve got to work to earn my keep. You see, I’ve been recruited for the day as one of Santa’s little helpers.
I know what you’re thinking. I don’t look good in red and haven’t worn pixie boots since a brief and, frankly, embarrassing Fields of the Nephilim phase when I was 15.
But they’re an elf down at the Santa Claus Main Post Office in the official Santa village and so I’ve manfully stepped into the breach.
It is, after all, Christmas.
When children around the world write letters to ‘Santa Claus, The North Pole’, this post office, located next to a marker for the Arctic Circle in a Santa theme village is where they end up.
Better still, and in the spirit of Christmas, the resident elves sort through the letters and send out typewritten responses from Santa to the best.
The post office today handles around 600,000 letters per year. During December, it receives 32,000 letters each day from 184 counties with Japan, the UK and Poland providing the largest bulging mail sacks.
That’s a lot of mail to sort while festively dealing with the Japanese coach parties and enduring the endlessly chirpy Christmas music, which is piped around the whole complex on a repeat loop tape.
To me, it’s enough to make the most ardent Christmas fan want to go out and terrorise turkeys.
Thankfully, however, Santa has sagely hand-picked helpers like cheery Salla Taurianinen, a 21-year-old business studies student who is one of the three full-time elves employed to sort the mail this year.
“I guess I’m a Christmas freak,” she smiles as we sit down next a box of mail ominously marked X-files. “I’ve always loved Christmas since I was little and love the atmosphere here as the big day approaches.”
As we start sorting through the mail, Salla teaches me the rules for which letters get a place in the ‘deserves an answer’ pile.
“We will send out 40,000 replies by next Spring but that still means we have to be very selective of the deserving letters,” she explains.
She adds, her little elf hat at a jaunty festive angle:
“I look for letters which are more than just a list. Maybe it has a picture or some special message.”
Once we start wading through the piles, it soon become clear that the task provides a rare insight into the human condition. Present requests range from Emily aged three in Hampshire who asks for “Pillows, priced £3.99” to Sayo Yamanashi aged 12 in Tokyo who wants “wings to fly like a bird in the sky.”
An ambitious request given air traffic restrictions over central Tokyo but, by way of a sweetener, her dad has enclosed a cheque.
As the piles grow and more tourists pour through the doors en route to the grotto, we come across a single letter from Iraq, adorned with stamps of Sadam Hussein in strikingly festive pose.
“In our country, Christians are few but God is always with us,” writes Osama Mohammed Shash aged 10 of Baghdad.
The standout letter, though, has all the elves reaching for the Kleenex. It comes from Ilhovana Perez who explains she first heard of Santa aged 23 when she escaped Cuba and fled to Germany.
She writes: “I find it very sad that I never experienced the joy of Christmas and I want so much for my little girl now aged six to know your kindness as I never did.”
“Please send her a reply so both she and I can forget the sadness that has touched our lives.”
My shift over, the moment has come for an audience with the big man himself. As I approach tentatively, I can see he’s reading Harry Potter and waving off another Japanese coach party in near-perfect Osaka district patois.
Of course he is. Santa is all knowing. I feel suitably chastened. How could I ever have doubted this was the real Santa?
“Normally I get a lot of letters which are just big lists of presents but, this year, I’m reading more letters wishing simply for peace and understanding across different cultures,” he explains as we settle down in his grotto.
“I feel a bit sad that Christmas has become a big business; I fear the original meaning has been lost under the weight of materialism,” he sighs, waving at the webcam and smiling as the resident photographer snaps a souvenir shot (available for a token fee after my consultation).
“Then again,” adds the old man wisely, “I suppose that’s why I’m still needed – to make sure that children still have their dreams.”
This story first appeared in The Big Issue in 2001. Liked this? Try Last Tango in Finland.
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