Oobah Butler takes the slow train north in a quest for festive enlightenment
I used to love Christmas. I grew up as the youngest of six, and it was a huge thing in our house.
No matter the circumstances, its glow attracted family, friends and beyond into our small, terraced house in Redditch every December. As the years passed things started changing. My older brothers and sisters, one-by-one, stopped returning; relatives started passing away. Home became more and more bare. Before long I also left, moving to London for work. Now I find it difficult to escape the city and find refuge in the warmth of the Christmas spirit like I used to. I assumed this was a normal thing to go through in your twenties, and in the past you would’ve reconnected when you have your own children. However, with no chance of broke generation woke being able to afford kids, this isn’t going to happen and I desperately miss that feeling of woozy, wintery happiness.
Somehow, my benevolent paymasters at ShortList became privy to this and decided to send me on a Festive Quest. Before I knew it, this man child was leaving London to make a pilgrimage to Lapland in search of that most elusive thing: The Christmas spirit.
My adventure begins in Helsinki where I board a sleeper train that in 13 hours’ time will deliver me straight into the dark, cold (so cold) heart of festivity. Slowly making my way through narrow hallways toward my cabin, I get the chance to process my first Finnish scenes. Lime green upholstery, jaundice-hue halogen lighting and unwashed men drinking at brittle, plastic tables; the inside of this train is a Wimpy restaurant frozen in 1998. This will be my home for the next 13 hours. After 1,000km in this metal coffin, pointed in the direction of the north pole – I’ll wake up to every child’s wildest festive fantasy.
We arrive at Rovaniemi Station at 7am and, from the moment that the airlock-like porthole is unleashed, I’m slapped in the face by mistakes: Why did I think a bomber jacket would be enough to shield me from sub-zero temperatures? The cold wind bites my bare hands and cheeks, and my eyes stream with water. I seek respite from this agonising paralysis by jumping straight into a cab. As we drive the music on the radio is interrupted by a news bulletin.
“There’s a swan trapped in the middle of the river Kemijoki,” the driver explains. “It’s our national bird, the swan, and is the last one of the summer. They can’t rescue it because the ice isn’t thick enough to stand on yet.” This is a Rovaniemi cover story, this is utter remoteness.
After heading deep into shimmering woods, scaling steep hills and icy roads, I step out. Nobody can live here, surely? Then I hear it: a loud bellow from some way up the path where a rosy-cheeked lady stands is ushering us over. This is Annemari – a kind, Lappish local who has invited us for dinner. Within seconds I’m offered three different types of hot drink, given a full set of suitable clothing.
Her Uncle Ari is sat in the corner, silently carving himself a knife handle from reindeer antler as Annemari multi-tasks as she excitedly talks through the dishes she’s prepared.
“This is Siika fish my uncle hunted, this is moose caught by my father.” Everything in the home has some sort of story – like it’s cut from a bygone era. And I don’t know whether it’s Annemari’s long, translated stories of the Lapland she experienced as a child, where reindeer were the only method of travel, or the iridescent ping of a microwave - but the sentiment makes me long for a reality I know can no longer exist, for either of us. We continue eating, drinking and reminiscing long into the evening until eventually, it’s my time to leave. With lunchboxes stuffed under each arm, I reluctantly bid my host farewell.
MEETING THE ELVES
I awake dry-mouthed to a call from reception: I’ve overslept and have ten minutes until we leave. Today I’m headed over the arctic line to spend time with ‘Santa’s elves’ to learn the secrets of their magical village. Watching the snowflakes fall from some sort of Christmas mobile, I hum carols. We pull up in what looks like the middle of nowhere, until two fresh-faced gap year types appear, a boy and girl dressed in green tunics, with Whoville noses and painted freckles.
The girl hops, speaking in a playful high-pitched voice.
“Ooh, hello, are you a human boy?”
I laugh, nod, and extend my hand to her straight-faced friend, which, almost immediately, sparks him into character: “It’s good to have somebody on the nice list come along to see us in these woods!”
It’s going to be a long day.
Their workshop is a literal fairy-tale, a giant wooden structure crammed full of tea-stained maps and machines taken from a 1950s interpretation of the year 2000. I notice a giant thermometer on the wall. Lady elf hops over. “That’s our Kindmeter! Put your hands on it, think your happiest thoughts, and it will show how kind you are!”
Within seconds, I’m clutching it but the only things that come to mind are: Ginsters’ pasties, Chris Tarrant and Phil Collins’ Buster soundtrack. Is this it? Have they finally got me? The Kindmeter illuminates: something that apparently impresses the big man. He wants to see me. Of course, he does. The next thing I know, we’re waiting at the roadside for our ride, an abandonment of reality has come over me and my stomach is turning. I can tell this, because when I spot the girl elf discreetly behind a tree chatting into a burner phone it doesn’t get me howling with laughter, rather, sadness. After a fruitless half-an-hour waiting for the Christmas taxi, the boy elf throws in the towel and grabs his own car, taking us to Santa Park. Top guy.
We arrive to a chorus of ‘Jingle Bells’, Elves frantically rush around holding presents, a “Ho” echoes down the hallway and suddenly there he is. A long, white beard hanging over what I’m sure is a personalised Varsity jacket: Father Christmas.
“Here’s the one who overslept this morning! How are you, Oobah?” He chortles.
“I’m fine, Santa.” He stops, grabs hold of my shoulder and squeezes.
“No, how are you?”
I’m taken aback: I can’t really remember the last time anybody asked me this. And – without really considering it - I plunge into a few overly intimate details of my life’s anxieties. After five full-on minutes, he brings me in for a hug. I swallow the lump in my throat, and leave. Session over. He should have a psychiatrists’ couch next to him.
A FAMILIAR FACE
Later that night, I head to Rovaniemi’s centre imbued with what feels like Christmas spirit. Far from the wooden builds and huts of the wilderness, it has the wide streets and block system of urban American, though the temperature has it deserted. I find a bar that feels like a bustling local on Christmas Eve. Pulling up a stool I join the merriment. It feels profound, it feels real. Then, among the noise, I pick out a proud cockney voice. I spot the face of – no, it can’t be – handsome, tanned, plucked eyebrows and a shock of jet-black hair: Joey Essex. Joey fucking Essex.
I rush over: “Joey, this is weird, what are you doing here? I’ve come here looking for the Christmas spirit and I’ve found you, Joey Essex.” Joey smiles, flashing his snow-white teeth: “Nice! That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it?” He nods toward a friend. I’m confused. “Yeah, for ITV. We met Santa yesterday.”
He continues and, over the next five minutes I gather that, yes, Joey Essex is quite literally making the exact same thing as I am. Same itinerary, same thing. All of a sudden, those tender moments feel less legitimate, less significant. I finish my drink and return to the cold.
I felt duped. They’d put the Kool-Aid in front of me, and I had slurped it right up. Turns out you can come all the way to the arctic, and basically just be at Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. I needed to see the real Lapland, the places that they don’t want you to see. Somewhere like: Paha Kurki, Lapland’s premier Heavy Rock bar. Inside, men huddle over barstools, a teen practices darts alone, a PowerPoint slideshow of women and motorcycles cycles. Luke, the frowning bar man, serves me a half litre. What does he, a man who has never left Lapland, do on Christmas? “I sit alone, probably make tortillas.” He smiles. “Like a lot of people here, I got sick of it a long time ago.” Other locals echo this sentiment. I’m done.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
The next morning an Elf-O-Gram wakes me up from my hotel phone, and I let it sound out - give it to Essex, I’m not interested. I’m done with faux-experiences: I want Lapland without Christmas. So, I clear the schedule, and choose a snowmobile excursion into the wilderness. A straight-faced, silent Finnish army vet picks me up and we drive silently, beyond the reaches of civilisation. The Finns ‘don’t do’ small talk, I’m told. And I can see how spending every day in the mercy of sub-zero, limited daylight temperatures and endless festivity could make you a deep, nihilistic thinker.
Pine branches brush my face as we wind around sheets of clear snow. After an hour riding, we pull up near the foundations of a ruined building. Not far from here during the war, I’m told, the Red Army tried to award Stalin a present for his birthday, which happened to be just before Christmas. The Russian’s tried to take a ridge nearby and the Finns – in -20 conditions – held back the Red Army using just knives. “It wasn’t a very happy Christmas for Stalin,” our guide Jarko intones gravely.
Sheltered in a Lavvu – a kind of tepee utilised by Finland’s indigenous Sami people – staring into a fire. I can’t get the tale of the Red Army out of my head. The brutal reality of pre-Christmas Lapland. Our guide Jarko walks through the doorway as a female voice shrieks with horror from deep in the pitch black. Jarko laughs to himself as he wraps salmon in foil; I’m terrified. Some of us, you see, are taking part in a sadomasochistic ritual: a dip in a frozen lake.
“It’s like a drug,” Jarko tells me. The only common ground I envisage is a shaking jaw. It’s my turn next. Having stripped down, I follow my breath and the flaming torches along the forest path. The snow falls thick. The soles of my feet stick to ice. I tremble uncontrollably, as a man tells me not to panic.
“Remember to breathe” I hear, climbing onto the ladder. I take my first step; my body jolts. I take my second; my breath escapes me. The third, and my arms lock. As the water engulfs my shoulders, I stop. The flash from a camera lights up snowflakes, my vision like static from a television. Then it disappears.
The next second, I’m being pulled from the ice. I can see again. From my toes to my eyeballs: pins and needles. I’m overcome with a kind of euphoria. As I’m rushed back to the warm fire, Jarko laughs and gives me a knowing look. “How do you feel?” I can’t even respond. “In Lapland, every Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas, we do this.” He takes a deep breath. “It helps us to appreciate the small things. Now, get warm, drink, and eat. It’s Christmas!”
As warmth returns to my body, I have a moment of clarity. Christmas brings life to the lifeless. Lapland without Christmas is stagnant, underappreciated, knife fights in the snow and - with it - happiness, excitement, work, colour: vitality. It’s hard to shake this feeling. And in the early hours, waiting to depart in an airport that simply wouldn’t exist without Christmas, seeing excited families pouring in from arrivals and mothers’ holding their gobsmacked children up to see the snow, it’s hard to question the credence of the holidays. If Christmas and its traditions can transcend both the utter commercialism and brittle cold of the arctic circle, then surely it can shine through metropolitan, millennial life. We just have to take a dive, and trust it.
(Photos: Will Bremridge)