One January afternoon, with snow falling thickly, I traveled by bus from Rovaniemi, Finland, a few miles north to SantaClausVillage. I had wanted to go there ever since I heard the village had a post office. I was touched to imagine children writing to Santa, and curious to hear that Finland had a near-monopoly on the Santa letter trade.
I trudged through the snow to the post office, a log-cabin-style building divided into two rooms. One room has a fireplace, a wing chair, sacks of "mail" and a large wooden desk. All are props for photographs. During the Christmas rush, 4,000 people a day, from all over the world, come to sit briefly at the table or in the armchair and be photographed.
The other room has a counter and the usual postal paraphernalia, used for the post office's real function: to handle the hundreds of thousands of letters that arrive yearly from 184 countries. The letters are sorted and shelved in cabinets with glass doors, locked against those who would rifle them for stamps. They are labeled A-Z, Afghanistan to Zambia.
For two hours I sat and read letters while postal worker Tuija Pulju, wearing a red elf hat, red felt skirt and red reindeer-patterned sweater, came by from time to time. Children sent photographs, of themselves and siblings, of their dogs. Others sent only greetings to Santa and Mrs. Claus, or made requests: "Please Joulupukki [Finnish for Santa], Pray to God to bring peace once more to Sri Lanka."
Every year, tourism students at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi turn up to answer the mail. The volunteers send 40,000 form letters to people who give return addresses, and hand write responses to 1,000 or 2,000 letters. These are the ones at the emotional core of the post office, the letters asking for medical care for a dying parent say, or, for a new limb to replace one blown off by a land mine.
"We can see everything that is going on in the world through the letters," said Pulju. "After Bosnia, we received many letters. September 11, that was in the letters. There were people asking for peace, an end to destruction."
After I'd been reading a while, the post office manager came out to greet me. Like Pulju, Taina Ollila was dressed in red: smart red suit, with a feather boa around her shoulders and bright red lipstick. She introduced herself as "Chief of the Elves." I asked how Finland had gotten the Santa monopoly. St. Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey, after all. It wasn't until an American farmer, Maj. Henry Livingston Jr., penned "Twas the Night Before Christmas" around 1808 that jolly St. Nick turned up with eight reindeer and a sleigh. (Recent scholarship has unseated New York professor Clement Clarke Moore as the poem's author.) In 1863, Thomas Nast illustrated the poem and decided to dress Santa in a red suit and make his home the North Pole. In 1927, a Finnish radio personality called Uncle Markus announced that Santa's home lay on the border between Finland and Russia; by 1985, Mr. Claus had migrated slightly south to this log cabin. Finland's officials decided to market the Santa story to the rest of the world. "We've been successful beyond our dreams," says Ollila. "Last year, something like 180 film crews came: CNN, BBC, the Italians, Koreans, Brazilians, they were all here."
Ollila adjusted her boa and looked at the letters I'd been reading, from a school in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. "Sometimes," she confided, "I get fed up with the film crews. All they want is footage of the letters or of the addresses. But all of us who work here, we're affected by what we read. The sadness of children's lives, their hopes and dreams. People used to have the saints to call on when they felt they couldn't reach God himself. Now, some of them think, "If God can’t help me, maybe Santa can.'"
Before the day was over I'd written two letters. "Dear Santa," I wrote on the first one. "I need a new laser printer, preferably an HP Laserjet. Thanks! Barbara." And on the other I wrote simply, "Dear Santa, Joy to the World and Peace on Earth."
Then I mailed the letters and stepped back out into the falling snow.