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The real-life Santa Claus

By Sara Nyberg

Photo: Martti Kainulainen/Lehtikuva Cycle Santa Claus: Timo Alarik Pakkanen’s Santa prepares to deliver presents by motorcycle.

If you didn’t know that Santa Claus lives in Finnish Lapland, well, now you do. But he also has an office in Helsinki.

It’s common knowledge that Santa Claus lives in northern Finland. However, fewer people know that he has a year-round office in the nation’s capital. As I enter the small premises, I’m astonished.

A man with a long, grey beard that reaches down to his round belly greets me at the door. His shirt is red, but he’s not wearing a costume. At first he looks a bit scary, but soon I notice a twinkle behind his round glasses. His eyes are piercing but he’s smiling. I have to believe this is the true Santa.

Full of magic

Photo: Martti Kainulainen/LehtikuvaClick to enlarge the picture
Pakkanen’s search for perch: We used to wonder what Santa did during the off-season. Now we don’t have to guess anymore.

“Our house was full of magic, so for me it is natural to be Santa,” says Timo Alarik Pakkanen, the real-life Santa. “My mother was a novelist and she wrote children’s books.” For 50 years now, Santa Claus has been Pakkanen’s alter ego. The role never stops developing, so Pakkanen never gets bored. He is as excited as ever, and any time of year he’ll tell you, without pause for thought, how many days are left until Christmas.

Pakkanen was a schoolboy when some neighbours asked him to play the part of Santa on Christmas Eve. He enjoyed dressing up and distributing gifts to the smaller children, and they liked it too.

Word of mouth got around, and he had to visit more and more families each year. For almost 20 years, that was his contribution to Christmas Eve parties. Then the Finnish Tourist Board wanted to take Santa to the Netherlands to mark the start of the Christmas season. After that, Finnair took an interest in Pakkanen. Eventually the work came to occupy his time all year round.

Happiness, hope and comfort

Santa’s trips take Pakkanen all over the world. He has visited Japan every year since 2000, and lately the country has grown in importance. In summer 2011, Pakkanen visited people who had suffered from the tsunami the previous April. Santa Claus brought them happiness, hope and comfort.

“I didn’t have to say a word,” Pakkanen remembers. On the contrary, people wanted to talk to him, to tell him their stories of survival. And, as they do in many Asian countries, many wanted to touch Santa’s robes or beard. Children wanted to sit in his lap. “Kids are similar everywhere,” Pakkanen says.

Japanese families living in Finland initiated the visit. Several companies joined the effort, and Santa wound up with chocolate, clothing, milk substitute and boots to give to the children. Finnair participated as the official airline of Santa Claus.

Out meeting people

Photo: Martti Kainulainen/LehtikuvaClick to enlarge the picture
Helicopter help: It doesn’t possess the finesse of a team of reindeer, but Santa owns one just in case.

When not travelling, Pakkanen works in his hometown, Helsinki. He sometimes appears on Market Square or at the famous Rock Church in the neighbourhood of Töölö. For visitors from international cruise ships, Santa Claus is often the first Finn they see. He hands out maps of Helsinki; he enjoys acting as a tourist guide, recommending places to go and providing advice about how to get to the attractions.

A surprising number of people stop to talk to Santa. “I always ask where the travellers come from,” Pakkanen says. “I follow world news and read about various cultures, so I try to mention something about their country.”

He keeps track of his stats: On the streets of Helsinki he has met people from 82 countries and from 40 US states. He has talked to people from 55 German cities and 24 cities in the UK. “I talk to each and every person who wants to meet me. I always choose positive, everyday topics – no politics!”

Sometimes even Santa is surprised. A few years ago he was sitting near Market Square when a group of men in suits and ties walked by, looking serious and important. A few seconds later, one of them ran back and asked if the minister might sit next to Santa for a photograph. “German foreign minister Joschka Fischer came to greet me and we posed for a picture,” Pakkanen says, laughing.

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