Consuming Dark Histories in Santa Claus Village
Santa Claus’ office and workshop sit along the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, and from his arctic headquarters Santa spends the year checking his list and entertaining visitors to Santa Claus Village. Nestled in the Lapland woods, the village’s highlight is perhaps Santa Claus’ office, where Saint Nick and his elves hold forth for reviews of children’s behavior and photographs. The Village’s attractions also include a post office, reindeer, a husky park, snowmobile trails, and shopping ranging from jewelry to log houses. Not far away sits Santa Park, an underground labyrinth of caves including an elf school, gingerbread bakery, ice bar, and an Angry Birds Activity Area; for good measure, Santa’s “hidden command center” Joulukka sits in the heart of the forest in the same area.
It may be tempting to dismiss the Finnish holiday attractions as shallow consumer experiences, and a variety of scholars and ideologues routinely scorn places like Santa Claus Village and Disney World or reduce them to yet another post-modern self-delusion. Much of contemporary tourism may be a search for pure diversionary pleasure in such places that embrace spectacle, celebrate patently inauthentic narratives, and offer unadulterated joy. In the midst of the Santa attractions’ imagination of the Yuletide, though, a quite concrete and even dark history exists in an especially fascinating relationship with the theatrical Christmas narrative woven in Santa Claus Village.
Santa Claus Village began as a cabin placed along the Arctic Circle in June, 1950 to welcome Eleanor Roosevelt, and from the cabin the former First lady sent a letter with the Arctic Circle postmark to the President. The Arctic Circle cabin and post office remained modest tourist attractions for visitors traveling into Lapland after Roosevelt’s visit. In 1984 the Finnish Tourist Board resolved to promote Lapland as Santa’s authentic home, and a year later the newly dubbed Santa Claus Village opened. The holiday tourist trade has been quite lucrative: in December 2013, Lapland hotels recorded 381,981 accommodation nights, and 1.75 million rooms were rented in Lapland over the whole year. Foreign guests accounted for 57% of all Rovaniemi’s overnight guests in 2013; visitors from the UK accounted for nearly 116,000 rooms in December 2013 alone (a figure that does not include the legion of day-trippers who take direct flights to Rovaniemi for a holiday visit with Santa Claus).
The Santa tourist fantasy is perhaps a predictable confirmation of global Christmas ideologies that may simply promote consumer culture. Santa Claus Village may invoke a sort of contrived “authenticity” in its presentation of holiday folks legends, a winter landscape, and Finnish cultural referents, but it is patently contrived theater akin to Disneyland’s Main Street USA; that is, few tourists descend on Santa Claus Village oblivious to holiday avarice as much as they seek an imaginary experience that is made especially compelling by Lapland’s remote winter landscape. Santa Claus Village is “real” in the sense that it reproduces Santa Claus mythology in a distant landscape whose isolation is underscored by the white Arctic Circle line cutting through the middle of Santa’s office.
The escapist pleasure-seeking at Santa Claus Village might seem profoundly complicated by the landscape that today surrounds Santa’s headquarters. Roughly 220,000 German soldiers were stationed in Northern Finland between June, 1941 and September, 1944, a period of World War II known in Finland as the Continuation War. For more than three years the Germans and Finns were co-belligerents against the Soviet Union, who had attacked Finland in the November, 1939 Winter War before a treaty in March, 1940. Fearing renewed Soviet attacks, the Finns joined the Germans as co-belligerents against the Soviets, and the Germans’ main operational headquarters was established in Rovaniemi. Of the Luftwaffe’s nine regional airfields in Finland and northern Norway the base at Rovaniemi was the largest. Two grass airfields had been built at the site in 1940, and that field was significantly expanded when the Germans arrived in 1941.
When the Finns reached a cease fire agreement with the Soviets at the beginning of September, 1944, the Soviets demanded that the Germans evacuate northern Finland in roughly two weeks. This was an impossible deadline because of the extent of German troops and equipment in northern Finland, and the Soviets expected the Finns to take up arms against their former German comrades. The Germans and Finns secretly agreed in mid-September that retreating Germans would systematically destroy bridges and roadways essential to pursuing armies and that the Finns would strategically avoid battle with their former comrades. However, by late September there had been a series of conflicts between Finns and the retreating Germans; the Germans had systematically mined much of Finnish Lapland; and the region was leveled in the Germans’ wake. Perhaps no event in this final phase of the war (known to Finns as the Lapland War) is more deeply part of wartime lore than the October burning of Rovaniemi. Even today Rovaniemi continues to be routinely referred to as a city that rose from the “ashes of war,” and when Finns entered the town they found nearly nothing standing except the emotionally powerful aesthetics of lone chimneys protruding from the ashes of the town. Following the war Rovaniemi was rebuilt under the direction of Alvar Aalto, perhaps Finland’s most famous 20th-century architect and designer, so it is today a quite distinctive cityscape.
The former Luftwaffe field is now the Rovaniemi airport and known as Santa Claus’ Official Airport, sitting roughly a kilometer from Santa Claus Village and about 10 KM from the town itself. The support base around that Luftwaffe airfield reached to the present-day Santa Claus Village, and within 50 yards of Santa’s Office sit exposed foundations from the myriad support structures that once dotted the spaces around the airfield. The remnants of the Nazi support structures are perhaps mundane: that is, the woods contain scattered remains of barracks, workshops, railroad tracks, roadways, bakeries, trenches, and assorted support and storage structures that may lack the traumatic impact of prisoner of war and concentration camps. Snowmobile paths and walking trails are scattered throughout the woods around the eroding remnants of the Luftwaffe base, which have been preserved but remain un-interpreted for the legion of tourists who have come to consult Santa Claus.
The foundations and scatters of German-era discards surrounding Santa’s headquarters are perhaps an awkward contrast to Yuletide consumption. Sharon Macdonald has argued that consumption is often “predicated upon forgetting,” and Macdonald suggests that many people in post-war Germany see the nation’s post-war consumer boom as “an unhealthy repression of the awkward past.” The tension between consumption’s historical evasions and the material presence of contentious heritage was perhaps most clearly illuminated in Nuremberg in the late 1980s. In 1987, the largest surviving Nazi-era structure, the Congress Hall at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, was proposed as the location for an upscale shopping center. The structure is protected, but if its exterior is maintained its interior could be remodeled with some limitations (though the plan was eventually rejected).
Dark histories exist as part of much of the contemporary landscape, and they may appear to some observers as an awkward material presence in the face of contemporary life. That may seem particularly jarring at Santa Claus Village, where the German presence is well-preserved but meaningless ruins whose heritage remains unclear to all but the best-educated tourist. Sharon Macdonald approaches interpretations of such potentially unsettling histories as “intervention.” She argues that such intervention is commonly “couched partly in terms of a countering of crass consumerism or commercialism,” a maneuver that approaches heritage as “an ethical space.”
However, the contrasts between ethical heritage sites and consumer spaces like Santa Claus Village risk being drawn in over-polarized terms in Rovaniemi. The history of the Finnish co-belligerency with the Germans may be unclear if not utterly unknown to many foreign tourists, but there is no evidence that contemporary Finns have been ignoring their wartime heritage. On the contrary, the war has possibly more resonance in Finnish public memory than any other single historical event. After the war soldier’s cemeteries and heroes’ monuments were built all over Finland mourning the losses of the war, and that memorial landscape was eventually extended to German dead as well; just a few kilometers away from Santa Claus Village on Norvajärvi’s shores sits a German War Memorial that opened in 1963 and holds the remains of 2530 German soldiers who fell in central and southern Finland. The wartime heritage seems far from disappearing: for instance, Petri Raivo estimated in 2000 that more than half of Finland’s World War II commemorations have been erected since 1975.
Ville Kivimäki’s study of Finnish collective wartime memory argues that Finnish discourse has revolved around an effort to illuminate a continuing Finnish struggle for survival in the face of global powers like the Soviets. In the wake of the Winter War, Finns were desperate to preserve their autonomy and embraced the Germans as Waffenbrüder, cementing generally warm feelings for their German brothers-in-arms (notwithstanding the complications of the Germans’ devastation to Lapland). The dilemma for Santa Claus Village’s scores of non-Finnish guests may be that this discussion distances Finland from National Socialist atrocities that occurred beyond Finland itself; for many people outside Finland, the war’s narrative has become a moral tale of inhumanity, and visitors may be reluctant to risk granting German foot soldiers a humanizing historical analysis that could be extended to National Socialism.
Petri Raivo estimated in 2000 that perhaps 170 World War II battlefields were preserved in Finland, but the traditional notion of a battlefield with a historical marker does not accommodate the legion of wartime spaces like the Rovaniemi base. Most of Finland was more akin to a home front like London than a battlefield, so contemporary Finland is not characterized by a host of epic battle sites as much as the landscape is marked by a range of modest traces of the military. The universal presence of traces of World War II has made places like the Rovaniemi base’s ruins seem somewhat more prosaic to Finns than they may appear to many visitors (although many Europeans would understand the complications of living in the midst of heritage landscapes).
Perhaps no other historical narrative could so effectively remove the traumatic shadow of National Socialism in northern Finland than Santa Claus himself: after all, in the fantastic Santa tale woven in Rovaniemi, it was “around half a century ago that Santa Claus started to frequently visit the Arctic Circle near Rovaniemi,” just as the Germans retreated. Reluctant to tackle the complexities of the Luftwaffe’s presence in the midst of the Marimekko outlet, Santa’s handlers may have decided to let the ruins of the military remains silently crumble in place. The interpretation of the German military presence alongside Santa’s village may risk reducing the Finnish wartime experience to a trite experience, but turning a complex or even traumatic heritage into a commodity is a danger in nearly any heritage tourism. The northern Finnish war narrative actually might be told in no more powerful if unexpected terms than it could be in Santa’s shadow.
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Market Square Rovaniemi October 17, 1944, canned goods ruins October 20 1944, and German Prisoners of War in Tornio October 10, 1944 images from SA-kuva (Finnish Armed Forces).
Santa Claus Village winter image from Santatelevision