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Christmas traditions in Lapland and Finland

Heading out to Lapland for your Christmas holidays means you can immerse yourself and your family in snow, Santa and sledding. But you may not know some of the more niche ways that people in Lapland and Finland celebrate the festive season. You might like to join in on a few of the traditions to add some extra quirk to your trip – Christmas Eve sauna anyone?

Getting ready for the big day

Much the same as in the UK, Christmas preparations start about a month before Christmas in Finland on the first day of advent, which is also when advent parades and Christmas markets take place.

What's different however is that in Finland you get your tree just before the big day. Many people don't head out to get one until the 23rd or 24th December – and it's customary to haggle with the seller for a bargain.

The trees are usually minimally adorned with decorated gingerbread biscuits, electric candles and glass beads, while there may also be a nativity scene in the house. Instead of bright lanterns and Santa figures outside, the Finnish people make intricate decorations from straw and red ribbon and place twinkling ice lanterns outside their properties.

Everyone in Finland makes an extra effort to be at home for Christmas and the fishermen try to get their boats into the harbour by 21st December, which is St Thomas' Day. It's also traditional for all Christmas baking, beer brewing and house cleaning to be finished by this time. Finnish people hope for a lot of snow by then as it's thought to be a sign of a good crop the following year – although snow at this time of year is pretty much a given.

Santa comes early

Christmas Eve is the biggest day for Christmas in Finland, marking when the big Christmas meal is served and Santa comes to visit. The festive food starts with a traditional breakfast of rice porridge and plum juice, before the main meal of the day is eaten in the evening. The feast can include baked ham, cured salmon, rutabaga casserole and beetroot salad, as well as plenty of homemade beer and glogi mulled wine.

After dinner it's time for a visit from the man himself, and as Santa lives in Lapland, he visits Finnish children first before delivering presents all over the world. This means that the children get to see Santa as they're still awake. Here Santa – or Joulupukki – always uses the door and on arrival he announces 'Are there any well-behaved children here?', to which the children naturally shout yes.

Another big Christmas Eve tradition is heading to the sauna to unwind after a busy day. As there's a sauna for around every three people in Finland, there are plenty of places to head. Sometime after the sun sets, families will often visit the cemetery and light candles in remembrance of loved ones, which creates a pretty scene of twinkling lights in the snow. Many attend the Christmas mass at midnight, too.

By contrast, Christmas Day is generally a time of rest with the family, while Boxing Day involves more activity such as sledding, skiing or skating.

The Christmas goat

Although nowadays he's very giving, the origins of Santa in Finland come from the story of a rather mean Christmas goat. The Finnish word for Santa is Joulupukki – meaning Yule Goat – as in times gone by a goat would scare the local people and take away their presents. Over time the goat mellowed, eventually giving presents rather than receiving them and only scolding children who had been bad, leaving them with a bag of coal in place of gifts.

Where Santa lives

Although British children tend to believe that Santa lives at the North Pole, anyone who visits Lapland will find out for themselves that's not entirely true. In 1927, a Finnish children's radio presenter revealed the exact location of Joulupukki's home as Korvatunturi Fell, Ear Mountain, in eastern Lapland. But as that's close to the Russian border, instead he comes down to the Santa's Workshop Village at Napapiiri, near Rovaniemi to visit people.

Here you can see Santa's helpers sort all his mail at Santa's Main Post Office, head to Santa Park for elf workshops and sleigh rides, or even enjoy excursions with the reindeer and huskies at Salla Reindeer Park.

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