S Claus Esq

A rare break on her trek gives Justine Gosling a chance to unleash her inner child but also contemplate the horror of the little known Winter War and Finland’s struggles during the Second World War

I’m on my way to meet the real Father Christmas in the Finnish arctic Lapland. It’s a novelty tourist stop on the walking Finland aspect of my Iron Curtain expedition. It’s 25 degrees, the sun is shining and nobody wants to talk about Christmas in August…. It is my first “rest” day in nearly three weeks since my walk began. I’m making really good progress having walked over 530km and I am about to exit the Arctic Circle. Santa actually lives just south the Arctic Circle in the biggest town in Lapland, Rovaniemi, which we are about to enter.

Lapland hasn’t always been a place for children to come and experience their Christmas dreams, it has witnessed three wars in the last century. In the Winter War which began just three months after the start of the Second World War, Finland defended its eastern territory against invasion from the Soviet Union in a conflict lasting 105 days between November 1939 and March 1940. The Soviet Union aimed to gain land to ring fence and “protect” their boarders as well as acquire valuable natural resources. The conflict ended with the signing of the Moscow peace treaty as Finland realised help was not coming from the League of Nations, and that alone, they would be defeated. Finland ceded land to the Soviet Union which displaced 12 per cent of its population at the time but retained its independence.

The Continuation war began the following year in June 1941 whereby Finland was in alliance with Germany against the Soviet Union. Finland was not therefore occupied by Germany, but welcomed the Germans into their country and allowed them safe transit. Germany’s primary goal was to gain the only year round, ice free port in the Soviet Union, Murmansk, which was the key disembarkation point for supplies delivered by the Anglo-American Artic convoys destined for the Eastern Front. The government of Finland at the time stressed to the western allies that it was fighting as a co belligerent with Germany against the Soviet Union only to protect itself, but Finland was also vocal it its ambitions to regain land lost in the Winter War from the Soviet Union. Because of this the West declared war against Finland. The modern Arkikum museum in Rovaniemi displays photos of how the Finnish population welcomed the Germans, sharing saunas, the rewards from hunting, drinking and dancing together. The Finnish government never inflicted any anti-Jewish measures on its population, despite repeated requests from the Nazi’s. Indeed Finnish Jews actually fought against the Soviets in alliance with the Nazi’s according to information displayed at the Arkikum museum.

By 1943 Finland sought an exit from the war after the Germans failed to achieve many of its goals and its people were starving due the collapsed economy and lack of agricultural work force. Finland began secret negations with the Soviet Union to cease offensives in 1943. Hostilities were formally ended by the Moscow Armistice in September 1944 whereby Finland lost more territory in the east and paid compensation to the Soviet Union. Finland’s military was also to be demobilised within 14 days after their army had expelled the German army. This lead to the Lapland War.

The Lapland war raged in northern Finland for seven months from September 1944 as the Finns sought to oust the Germans from their country who were retreating to Norway. Both sides wanted to avoid hostilities but the Finns were under huge pressure from Soviets to evict the Germans quickly and were angered by the Germans “scorched earth policy” of burning not just useful buildings but homes also. The Germans felt betrayed by the Finnish government for switching alliances and therefore some fighting was inevitable.

Consequently, the town Santa Claus now lives in and I am walking into, Rovaniemi, was burnt to the ground with 90% of all buildings destroyed by the bitter retreating Germans. After the Second World War Rovaniemi was rebuilt in a novel design by the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The reconstruction road and park plan of Rovaniemi is concealing a puzzle picture of a reindeer and its antlers. Two branches of the central park are outlined as reindeer horns, two are defining the reindeer’s head and one as its back. The athletics track outlines the reindeer’s eye.

Today Finland is very weary of its eastern neighbour. The country is not in NATO and military service is mandatory for all males. With such large territory and a comparatively small population of just over 5.5 million Finland would struggle to defend itself in war and has no international treaty of support signed. Therefore, its defence policy has always been to keep good relations with its much larger neighbour to the east, hence their hesitation to join NATO, not wanting to tip the delicate balance.

Rovaniemi is a big tourist draw around Christmas time for visits to see Santa Claus, the northern lights and for fun in the snow with huskies and reindeer sleigh rides. The invisible line of the Arctic Circle is encompassed in the Santa Claus village and marked on the ground with its coordinates for tourists. This latitude marks the southern boundary of the Arctic region, known for its light summer nights and sunless winter days. The position of the Arctic Circle is not fixed. It directly depends on the Earth’s axial tilt, which fluctuates within a margin of 2° over a 40,000-year period, due to tidal forces resulting from the orbit of the Moon. The current latitude of the Arctic Circle is approximately 66.5°N, but it moves north at an annual rate of 15 meters.

Santa Claus wasn’t very joyful when I met him and didn’t even give me a “hohoho” whilst I read out my extensive and eclectic Christmas list for husky puppies, a reindeer herd, a Land Rover, a crate of GH Mumm champagne and a boat amongst other things. The big man told me that no, he didn’t eat reindeer steaks and that his long curly beard took three centuries to grow. I was relived to be informed that I was on Santa’s “good list” as I was raising money for two charities through my expedition. Walking with the Wounded is a charity for veterans that aims to rehabilitate injured veterans back into employment and sport. Hope and Homes is small children’s charity that operates in Eastern Europe. They work to place children back with their families who were given up due to poverty rather than being orphanages. I will visit them in the later stage of my expedition in Moldova.

The next day I realised why Santa Claus was lacking merriment when I met him and why he wasn’t reciprocating my attempts at a little flirting. The Santa Claus village where he and his elves live had been declared bankrupt, thought mostly due to the lack of Russian tourists as a direct result of the collapse of their economy caused by western sanctions. It was nothing to do with my Christmas list, honest! riddle_stop 2


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