Reindeer can be seen wild running by the side of the frozen forest in Finland. So it is not surprising that the Santa legend with his sleigh pulled by reindeer originated in Lapland. Joulupukki (Santa in Finnish) has a long history of wearing red robes, using a walking stick and driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer, going back centuries.
Joulupukki literally means Christmas goat and comes from a pagan tradition where the last sheaf of wheat from the harvest was fashioned into a goat to promote good tidings at the Christmas festival. It is now possible to find in Northern Scandinavian straw or birch wood goats decorating Christmas scenes. Sinta or Santa Claus, a version of Saint Nicholaus, became entwined with this concept of Joulupukki once Christianity arrived in Scandinavia.
But back to reindeers. On arrival in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, we headed off in the cold drizzle to a reindeer farm on the outskirts of the city. Reindeer are part of the deer, caribou and elk family, have cloven hooves and lose their antlers every 12-18 months. In Finland, they are released into the wild every spring, where they mate and give birth before being rounded up mainly by hand in the late autumn by reindeer farmers.
Our farmer explained that his family had been herding reindeer for over 200 years and he is part of a community of herders who work together to bring in the animals from the wild, a type of farming cooperative. Each has his own brand however and branding is done by hand with a very sharp knife. The animal numbers are carefully controlled to ensure food sources are protected and they are corralled in the winter. Reindeer eat birch bark and a type of bearded fungus that grows on the birch. This tree is incredibly hardy, growing in the Arctic north where no pine or spruce will grow. Tiny, stunted birch grew in the permafrost of the fens, where we picked berries. With increased land clearing, especially for mining, the food source for reindeer is threatened. Added to this, they fall prey to lynx and foxes, all reason to bring them in for wintering.
We watched a group of males locking horns with each other and others rubbing their antlers against the trees rubbing off the soft, velvet covering. Our farmer explained that the antlers which are living bones and flesh grow each year and then die, leaving the skeleton horns to fall off in the wild. It looked incredibly painful.
The farm is under threat and after we adjourned to his warm teepee, where we sat on reindeer skins around a log fire, he told us that the farm can only survive with the added income from winter sleigh rides for tourists. There was no snow or rides for us but he did give us a rap being from one of the top three countries that visit his farm. Apparently some groups refuse to enter the teepee because of the smoke from the fire!
We spent the last day in Rovaniemi at the Arkticum Museum, a fascinating exhibition of Lapland culture but also of environmental activism. The Finns almost single handed convinced the other Arctic countries including Russia to form the Arctic Council. The Rovaniemi Process as it was called at the time began just as the Cold War was ending. The cooperative arrangements to protect the wildlife and resources of the Arctic, however took over 15 years of negotiations. This happened in a town that was completely razed as part of the scorched earth policy at the end of the 2nd World War.
Our evening was completed with a meal at Roka, Street Food and Bistro where we shared an Arctic North platter, which included reindeer sausage with lingonberry sauce, various smoked fish and Archipelago bread.