ROVANIEMI, Finland: The letter came from Italy, addressed simply “Babbo Natale,” but that was enough to reach this frozen, far-north address – along with hundreds of thousands like it from around the world.
Some arrive without postage. And they’re written in a host of languages – “Père Noël et ses lutins, Planète des rêves” (France), “Djeda Mraz, 96 930 Articki Krug, Finska” (Serbia), “Santa, Santa’s Grotto, North Pole, Lapland” (Britain), “Santa!!! North Pole, Finland” (United States).
Other people make the trip to Santa Claus’ Village in the Finnish town of Rovaniemi near the Arctic Circle to meet for themselves the recipient of all these December missives.
“Oh ... Santa Claus,” said Akihiko Asao and his wife Chihiro, 30, who came all the way from Yamanashi, near Tokyo.
“I believe in Santa Claus a little, in my heart,” he admitted, smiling as he tugged the long, curly white beard of the roly poly man in red.
“He’s real, we believe in him!” insisted in unison Dino Tariciotti, 28, and Federica Paglia, 29, who came from Rome “just to see him, he’s wonderful.”
A surprising number of the visitors here are adults without children in tow.
For the man with the funny red hat atop a mop of white hair, whether the guests are young or old, it makes no difference at all.
“When you are my age – I’m over 400 – everybody is a child,” Santa told AFP, noting that “people make big efforts to reach Rovaniemi and see me.”
The youngest visitors are clearly true believers.
Five-year-old Xavi from Vinaros, Spain, gets straight to the point as he sits on Santa’s lap. He pulls out a long wish list of Christmas presents with drawings and gives Santa an oral explanation as well just to make sure he understands.
“That’s a train, and that’s a workbench,” he says in Spanish.
Next, 6-year-old Dimitri steps forward, overcomes his shyness and gets down to business, asking Santa boldly: “Are all the presents ready?”
An atlas in Santa’s office marks some of the far-flung places from where his visitors hail, including North Korea, Mozambique and the Pacific Islands to name just a few.
As every year, Santa – local lore holds – will leave Rovaniemi on Dec. 24, making his first stops in Scandinavia where children receive their presents from “Santa” in person.
Then, according to a Swedish study, his Christmas Eve tour will see him travel to some 2.5 billion homes around the planet.
In order to make the trip on time, the report by the engineering consultancy Sweco said Santa’s reindeer must travel at a speed of 5,800 kilometers per second. This means he has only 34 microseconds at each stop to shimmy down the chimney and drop off his gifts, the study concluded.
Impossible, say cynics, who suggest that Santa’s sleigh, weighed down with presents and traveling at supersonic speed, would encounter such massive air resistance that the entire contraption would burst into flames and vaporize almost immediately.
“But there is a trick: It’s the time machine,” confided Rovaniemi’s Santa.
In fact, before any of the visitors step into his office, they pass in front of a giant scale. This, he says, makes it possible to slow down the Earth’s rotation to make the night of Dec. 24 last a lot longer.