Tag: Finland

Story of the week: Posting a letter to Santa in Finland


* 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.

Special delivery

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.”

Private audience

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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Story of the week: the best saunas in Helsinki, Finland


* I’m really delving back in the archives this week. I read a story on the BBC News Magazine this week about sauna culture in Finland. It reminded me of this, one of my very first freelance stories as a cub freelance writer. I’m reproducing it here in full – and, yes, the intro does now make me cringe.

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Geri Halliwell recently revealed her new beauty regime involves taking a hot shower followed by plunging into an ice-cold bath.

This may sound like another new age fad for the erstwhile Spice Girl turned yoga guru. For your average Fin, however, the custom of taking a sauna then rolling naked in the snow has a 2000-year heritage as a means to promote physical and mental well being.

Indeed, for sauna mad Fins – a country of 5m inhabitants and 2m saunas – sauna is a whole way of life deeply entrenched in the national psyche.

Historically, babies have been born and dead bodies laid out for last rites in the sauna.

Even today, most families have a private sauna at home regardless of the size of their flat (over 100,000 private saunas in Helsinki alone) and the first thing the Finnish UN troops do when posted overseas is to build a sauna. Even if they’re in the middle of the desert.

However, tourists, who are used to electric saunas at UK gyms, fail to appreciate that there is a whole world of sauna reserved for the connoisseur – much like fine wine or art.

Indeed, the world of sauna is run according to a strict hierarchy with the communal-garden electric sauna relegated to lowly amateur status and the aspen wood-fired sauna, whereby the pile of sauna stones is heated slowly and thoroughly by burning logs, considered the Holy Grail amongst the sauna cognoscenti.

After the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, when Finland’s success was attributed to the sauna they imported from home, the word about sauna spread. It’s now popular across the globe but the Fins still know how to enjoy it best.

There’s an old Finnish saying:

“A woman looks at her best one hour after the sauna.”

So, if sauna really is the best natural cosmetic to keep the body and mind healthy, throw away the products, potions and herbal remedies and check out these sauna hotspots around Helsinki.

Sauna Seura

Based just outside of Helsinki in the suburb of Espoo, Sauna Seura is run by the Finnish Sauna Society, which campaigns fervently to preserve what they describe as the ‘pure values of sauna’.

As such, their members and guests only three smoke saunas and two wood-burning saunas are the king and queen of the local sauna scene. Most Fins dream of bathing in an authentic steam (loyly in Finnish) sauna at a rural summer cottage, then swim naked in an adjoining lake.

Sauna Seura recreates that romantic idyll in the capital, even down to building a plunge ice-hole and providing sauna whisks of leafy birch twigs (vasta). When used to vigorously thrash oneself, these cleanse, disinfect and smooth the skin.

There are separate days for men and women and a masseur on stand-by and. Beware: given its pure sauna ethos, swimming costumes are strictly forbidden.

Take bus number 20 from Erottaja (from Helsinki’s central Esplanade Park) – the journey takes approximately 15 minutes. Pre-booking is required on 00 358 9 6860 5622.


Kotiharjun public sauna

Family run and shamelessly traditional, the wood-fired Kotiharjun sauna (one of very few left in central Helsinki) regularly wins sauna of the month awards and was recently named Helsinki’s best public sauna.

Although India is regarded as the original home of the steam bath, the Fins made it their own establishing the optimum temperature of 85-90°C and countering the dry heat by throwing water on heated stones to push humidity towards 100%.

Kotiharjun upholds this tradition vehemently making its twin saunas (one for ladies, one for men) half furnace, half sauna.

Apart from its traditional rustic charm, it is also legendary for Pirkko, the resident never-blushing washer woman who spends her working day scrubbing burly naked men with an industrial-sized loofa after they have savoured the connoisseur sauna experience.

Harjutorinkatu 1, 00 358 9 753 1535.


Yrjönkadun uimahalli swimming hall

This labyrinthine Art Deco building, dating from 1928, looks like something out of a bacchanalian Roman orgy. Split across three floors are three wood-burning saunas and two steam saunas as well as 25-metre and 12-metre swimming pools.

Yrjönkadun was recently renovated to include high-tech gym equipment while retaining the original mosaic-dappled features. The ornate nature of the surroundings inspires a silent reverence and visitors are expected to adhere to strict sauna rules.

Noise in the sauna, it is believed, will drive away the sauna spirit hence, even for the 6.30am intake of young executives heading for a pre-work swim, sauna peace forbids them to use their Nokia mobiles in the building.

They can, however, pop into a cabin for a quick snooze after their sauna alarm call.

Yrjonkatu 21b, 00 358 9 3108 7401.


Café Tin Tin Tango

Taking a sauna has traditionally been something to make an evening of. Hence, the owners of this cosy café bar and bakery hit upon the idea of combining a night out with a night in the sauna.

Customers book the sauna out back by the hour and gather groups of friends together to drink beer and sweat it out. It’s the ultimate Finnish boys’ night out.

There are even washing machines if you fancy doing your laundry at the same time and regular local art exhibitions.

Töölöntorinkatu 7, 00 358 9 2709 0972.



Sauna is all about warming-up and then cooling down.

The funky underground Saunabar expands on this maxim, encouraging revellers to warm-up in the saunas then chill out in the alcoves to tunes by top local DJs and live bands.

After work, it fills with young Fins playing pool and sinking designer beers before stripping off and basting like Christmas turkeys in the two saunas for hire.

However, despite their contemporary spin on sauna culture, Saunabar is strictly traditional in its segregation of sauna seekers – two the saunas are not mixed.

Eerikinkatu 27, 00 358 9 586 5550.


* This story first appeared in The Guardian in 2002. Liked this? Try also Last Tango in Finland [pictured above].

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Story of the day: Last Tango in Finland


The snow has gone and so (nearly) has January. So pick up the tone with one of my more offbeat stories for The Observer.

I uncovered this idea on a trip to Finland and, having already worked the sauna and suicide motif, this seemed another great to look at a familiar destination in a new light.

Even if it did mean me, ugh, taking to the dancefloor.

Here’s an extract:

The Finns took tango to their hearts, but also brought a dour sense of Nordic gloom to the music, tempering the Argentine ardour with a dash of minor-key melancholy, and adopting some of the rhythmic characteristics of traditional Finnish folk dances.

Contemporary Finnish tango ballads speak of lost love, dark winter nights alone and your girlfriend running off with your best mate.

“Melancholy is beautiful to the Finnish soul. The sadder the tango, the more Finnish people love it,’ says Maarit Niiniluoto, a tango historian. ‘The paradox of longing for someone while dancing very close appeals strongly to Finns.”

Read the full story, Lapp Dancers and Latin Lovers.

Have you been to Seinajoki? Is there another great angle on Finland I’ve missed?

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