ROVANIEMI, Finland (Reuters Life!) - A fire-engine red hat that is long and pointy, a pair of heavy boots, a woolen overall and bells tied to her belt, elf Fir Cone steps out into the deep snow to start her next Christmas show.
At 10 a.m. the first of more than 20 charter flights lands at Rovaniemi airport in northern Finland and hundreds of children and parents stream out into the sub-zero temperatures where they hope to meet Santa Claus, reindeer and the ‘real’ Christmas in Lapland.
Along with dozens of elves, Fir Cone (aka Elina Hakala), stands at the gate and points to a group coming her way.
The first planeload of tourists to visit Santa landed in Lapland about 20 years ago and today, roughly 500,000 tourists -- mainly from France, Great Britain and Russia -- visit Rovaniemi and the nearby Santa Claus village each year.
Fir Cone will be responsible for the group throughout the day, but there are many other busy elves already positioned at the various activity sites the tourists will visit next.
Tricky Dicky drives the bus; Pom-Pom waits at the restaurant, Snowflake feeds the reindeer and Jingle cleans Santa’s house.
They are all part of a program designed to offer up the Yuletide spirit to visitors on a short visit. Each elf has its role, and a limited time to give his or her all.
For Fir Cone, the first moments are crucial, she said.
“They arrive on the plane, get onto the bus, and then you have about 10 minutes before you get to the first destination and in that time you have to be able to create an atmosphere, the Christmas magic they are looking for,” she said.
The elf is very often the only person the tourists meet face to face.
“You have a few minutes to capture their attention... you’ve got to give 110 percent of yourself,” she said.
On the bus, Fir Cone recounts the story of Santa as part of her role to bring children and parents under the town’s magic Christmas spell. Every now and then the children will ask unexpected questions like why doesn’t she have pointy ears.
“Well, elves’ ears start growing when they are 300 years old and I am only 107,” Fir Cone said, laughing.
Straight from the airport, the families are brought to a nearby reindeer farm, where they can look at and feed the animal or sit in one of the sleds pulled by pairs of Husky dogs.
Seeing the most in the shortest amount of time is the key to a visit and the pressure is on. Tourists pay about 500 euros ($719) for a day and want to get their money’s worth.
After lunch the group head back out into the cold.
Fir Cone keeps a watchful eye on how the adults and especially children handle below freezing temperatures.
“Growing up in these conditions, cold for us is so normal, but when we see the kids coming from England, they’ve never experienced a cold like that,” she said. “Elves must know and notice, ‘okay this child right now is freezing’ -- It’s small things like that that count.”
Additional coats, gloves and hats are stored in the back of the bus, and brought out whenever needed. Slippery roads is the other trap elves are taught to constantly watch out for.
Keeping a group of 50 people happy -- especially when half of them are under 12 and its starting to get to the end of a long cold day -- can be a challenge.
“As long as you keep the kids happy, the parents are happy too,” she said.
Fir Cone feels like an actor each day, having to jump from one role to another, without a break in-between.
“It’s improvisation, but also knowing what the job entails,” she said, adding that knowledge about the ice age, making a fire from ice-covered logs and taking care of toddlers is all part of the game.
The climax of each trip is the visit to the bearded man at his home in the Arctic Circle, some 8 km (5 miles) from town.
All elves are in their positions when the bus ferrying the visitors stops outside Santa’s wooden house.
Children and parents are herded inside - each hoping to exchange a word with the old man and tug on his beard to see whether it is indeed real.
Shops in Santa’s village bring out their goods and Santa’s helpers help market the toys and gadgets they’ve been helping to make all year.
“Being a salesman is partly what we are here for,” Fir Cone said.
A wish, a letter and a picture entry in Santa’s big books later, visitors are back on the bus and rushed to the airport where Fir Cone waves them goodbye.
“By that time you’re exhausted, and yet you know that the next day it will start all over again,” she said.
After Christmas is over, Fir Cone will continue her job as an official Lapland guide. The dress will change, but most of the tasks will stay the same, she says.
Visits to Santa’s village will be part, even of the summer’s routine. Christmas is all year-round in Rovaniemi, she said, adding she still has yet to tire of it.
“How can you get tired of living a fairytale?”
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