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Santa Claus is 'real' in Lapland
LONDON, England (CNN) -- The most traumatic childhood moment for many people, aside from starting algebra lessons at school, is the suspicion that Father Christmas may not exist.
For those who still carry the emotional scars of that terrible discovery, glad tidings are at hand. Santa lives: He's fat and happy like in all the pictures, and can be found in the town of Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland, near the Arctic Circle.
There are, of course, hundreds of people claiming to be the "real" Father Christmas. Walk into any department store from Nova Scotia to New Zealand during the festive season and you're guaranteed to bump into a fat bearded man in a red cloak shouting, "Ho, ho, ho," and handing out presents to wide-eyed children.
If the world is full of "real" Santas, however, the one in Rovaniemi has good claim to being the realest of them all, if only in terms of the number of people who believe in him.
Each year he is visited by some 500,000 fans and receives more than a million letters from 150 different countries (any letter addressed to "Father Christmas, Lapland" will likely find its way to Rovaniemi).
Reindeer and a Roosevelt
Situated just 6 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi (pop. 35,000) is the capital of Finnish Lapland and one of Finland's most popular tourist destinations.
In summer, when the sun never sinks below the horizon -- hence its title, "The Land of the Midnight Sun" -- Lapland offers river rafting, fishing trips and wildlife safaris.
In winter, when there are only a few hours of light each day, it is a centre for winter sports such as skiing, dog sledding and snowmobile safaris.
By far its most popular draw, however, is the so-called Christmas Triangle, a group of Santa-related attractions including a Santa Theme Park, a Santa Toy Factory, a Santa Technology Park and, most popular of all, Santa's Village.
The latter sits directly on the Arctic Circle, an illuminated cable marking its precise position. The village began life in the summer of 1950 as a log cabin built for Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during a trip to the Arctic.
Since then it has developed into the hub of the world's Santa industry, with a Santa Claus post office -- manned throughout the year by a permanent staff of 10 -- a host of souvenir shops and, most important of all, Father Christmas' cabin, where you can queue to meet the man himself.
"I actually live away to the north inside a mountain called Korvatunturi, or Ear Mountain," Santa says. "It's shaped like a pair of ears, you see, which is how I hear the wishes of children all over the world."
Since the contents of Ear Mountain -- toy workshops, elf dormitories, reindeer stables -- are top secret, of course, Santa prefers to hold court in the village, where he spends each day in a rocking chair beside a fire in a large log cabin, dispensing festive bonhomie to those who come to visit him.
"We are open all through the year," says Jarmo Kariemi, who runs Santa's office. "Although obviously we get most people at Christmastime. They come from all over the world, especially Britain, which is obsessed with Father Christmas."
Such has been the demand for an audience with Santa that he now has his own Internet radio station -- called, not surprisingly, Radio Santa Claus -- and his own Web site, where you can send him e-mail or watch him in his rocking chair.
Just a fat man in a fake beard
Ultimately, of course, the Rovaniemi Father Christmas is, like all the others, just a man dressed up to play the part (sorry!).
While the original Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, was, according to tradition, a 4th century bishop in Turkey, this one gets paid by the local council and conducts interviews via his mobile phone.
"Santa Claus is our main commercial figure," admits Ann Pelttari-Bergman, Rovaniemi's director of tourism. "He generates almost 500 million Finnish marks ($70 million) for the local economy, and is thus very important to us."
Despite this and claims of numerous rival Santas, the one in Rovaniemi insists he is the real thing, refusing to answer to any other name. In fact, no one contacted in the town will say he is anything other than Santa.
"I'm most certainly the real Father Christmas," he says. "I can't understand why anyone would say I wasn't. I guess some people just haven't got any good spirit."
And while cynics might dismiss him as a clever marketing tool, one need only look at the faces of the children who come to visit him -- many of them sick or from deprived backgrounds -- to know that for them, at least, he is the real Santa.
Which begs the question how, if he is the real thing, does he manage to deliver presents to every child in the world in a single night -- a feat once calculated to involve visiting 822.6 children per second at an average speed of 39,000 mph.
"Well," he chuckles, "it's quite a lot of work, but we manage somehow. We use a bit of magic, and Rudolph is very good."
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