Until I had kids, Christmas had become a forced round of family meals and rubbish TV. But when my daughter was about three and a half, I was reminded exactly what it’s all about.
For two months before Christmas we played her favourite game, which consisted of her pretending to be asleep while I crept around her bedroom in the guise of Father Christmas, leaving mock presents dotted about. Come Christmas Eve, we put milk, carrots and magic dust out for the reindeer while the obligatory mince pie and stiff shot of Scotland’s finest firewater graced the mantelpiece next to an over-sized stocking. My daughter believed and loved every single moment – and so did her once-cynical parent.
If it’s this magical at home, how wonderful must it be to take your kids to ‘The Home of Father Christmas’? Well, the simple answer is… It depends.
In Finland, for example, a massive December industry has grown up around Father Christmas, including one-day trips when you spend more time travelling than you do in Lapland.But even the longer trips don’t necessarily mean you’ll see the real Lapland. The cheapest trips for seven nights in Finland are invariably to the likes of Levi and Yllas, but these are identikit ski resorts that could be anywhere.
But if you escape the ‘Santa Centrals’, Lapland is a true winter wonderland of childhood memory. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for, and if you want a genuine experience in Lapland, including a private and intimate meeting with Father Christmas and a husky safari that lasts longer than it takes a hungry dog to wolf down a bowl of pet food, you’re going to have to stump up for it.
For me, the Father Christmas experience should form part of a Lapland holiday (albeit a very important part) – dog-sledding is also a must, as is speeding across a frozen lake on a snowmobile, driving a reindeer-pulled sleigh through a snow-clad forest, ice-fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and – of course – searching for the Aurora Borealis.
You don’t have to cross the Arctic Circle either. A long-standing Activities Abroad favourite is Kuusamo in Finland, an area of natural beauty, fells, forests, lakes and rivers where your family can enjoy activities tailored to young children. The family-friendly Kuusamon Tropiikki Hotel has a superb swimming pool and softplay area to enjoy during a break from your outdoor adventures.
The Father Christmas experience at Kuusamo really is magical. Families are collected by one of Santa’s little helpers and taken to Santa’s beautiful lakeside house. During your visit you do some baking with Mrs Claus and make greeting cards for your friends back home (a card from Santa’s house – incredible!). Everyone enjoys lunch before fun and games in the snow, led by Santa’s elves.
And parents shouldn’t ever be overlooked – this is YOUR holiday too. My fondness for Kuusamo may be swayed by my recollections of relaxing in the spa and swimming area enthusing about a day spent with huskies and reindeer and feeding the local wildlife – while the kids shot down the 45-metre waterslide shouting ‘watch me, watch me!’.
A Father Christmas trip should be a family holiday where both kids and parents alike experience the magic. It’s an expensive business doing it ‘properly’, but surely it’s far better to come home with a million marvellous memories than disappointed and disgruntled.
The secret is to do your research. Contact the tour operators and make sure they’ve been there themselves and that you know exactly what is included. Ask ‘How long is the husky safari?’ and ‘Can you tell me more about our meeting with Father Christmas?’. Good tour operators know what they’re talking about and make sure you enjoy a brilliant time in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Alistair McLean is founder of activity specialist Activities Abroad. Read more about family holidays in Lapland.