It was about a couple of months ago when the chances of having a nice holiday in the sunshine dwindled before my eyes. We had been saving for a while and were almost ready to think about booking somewhere when my wife showed me a brochure of a slightly different kind.
On the front was a picture of Santa Claus – THE Santa Claus – waving and smiling on his sleigh, complete with a couple of reindeers in front. Yes, her destination of choice was Lapland. Freezing cold Lapland – the real one up in freezing cold far north Finland, a ridiculous number of miles north of the Arctic Circle.
”It might be too late next year,” she said. ”Carys might not believe in Father Christmas by then.”
Carys turns six next month. She had a point.
”Hmm,” I mumbled, eyeing the vastly overinflated prices. Two nights in a winter wonderland, it seemed, cost the equivalent of an all-inclusive week in a Mediterranean resort.
But the wife’s eyes were glowing at the idea – never mind how the kids would react – and she found a good deal online. So, a little reluctantly, I agreed.
There was plenty of time to get things ready. Hats, gloves, chapsticks, that sort of thing. Not your usual holiday checklist, alas, but looking through the brochure and seeing what we were going to do – husky rides, a magical sleigh ride through the forest for a private meeting with Santa – I began to look forward to it a bit more. The kids would love it certainly, if the press reviews were anything to go by.
One said of arriving at Santa’s log cabin: ‘By now we are breathless with excitement, let alone our five year old Jack… we can’t take our eyes off the door slowly opening to let us in. We peek one by one round the corner. Ahhhhhhhhhh… There he is. So he IS real.’
Another described their daughter’s jaw dropping as she spotted her actual letter in Santa’s hands: ‘Chloe’s face beamed with absolute joy as they spoke in hushed tones about what she had written.’
Furthermore 96 per cent of people who had been on the trip rated it either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. Would I be one of those, I wondered, or would I be one of the miserable so-and-sos in the other four per cent.
Only time would tell and suddenly here we were. The night before we stayed in a hotel by Gatwick Airport and Carys was poorly.
”I just want to go home,” she wailed, having been in the car up from Cornwall for over six hours.
It was at this point we decided to tell them our big surprise, having led them to believe we were going to see family in Northumberland.
The wife had rehearsed this moment for some weeks now and huddled Carys and Jem either side of her and softly told them: ‘Santa Claus thinks you and Jem have been so good this year that he has invited you to go in a plane up to Lapland to see him.’
Jem’s eyes widened, more excited, I think, about the prospect of going on a plane. Carys was quiet for a moment, then burst into tears.
”I just want to go home,” she wailed even louder.
Oh dear. It wasn’t the sort of reaction we’d been expecting.
Still early the next morning we arrived at the airport and set off. Slowly Carys felt better and by the time we stepped off the plane in Lapland amid thick snow, she was well up for a snowball fight and posing for a picture with one of Santa’s reindeer outside the airport where a naughty elf – i.e one of the female travel reps in costume – poked me on the bottom as I was bending down, fumbling to put one of Jem’s mittens on him. As it turned out, this was one of the highlights of the trip for the children, even though neither of them actually saw her do it.
We were driven through the snowy forest to our hotel and kitted out with Michelin men style body suits en route. Plenty was on offer – trips to see the Northern Lights, snowmobile rides, tobogganing – but there was just one thing the kids wanted to do: go for a swim in the hotel pool. Again, frustratingly, something we needn’t have left our home county to do, although it was a fantastic pool.
Besides it was our second day in Lapland, our only full day there, that promised the most. We were driven out to a Lapland activity centre where we could do tobogganing, go for a reindeer ride, go for a husky ride and above all take that magical sleigh ride to meet Santa.
We got off the coach and very soon Carys was showing me up on the toboggan slope, whizzing all the way to the bottom while Jem and I crashed into the side not even halfway down. Then Jem got a go on a mini-skidoo that is tied to a tree and goes round and round. Well, he managed half a circle before he asked to come off.
But it was freezing – in spite of the snow suits and layers we had put on the kids, in spite of frequent stops in the warming room and for delicious berry juice by open fires dotted around the resort, Carys especially became increasingly cold. By midday she was pleading to go back to the hotel (to the pool, of course.)
But our private meeting with Santa was at least a couple of hours away – we had to stay.
With some resilience we persevered with the activities. Carys and I loved the husky ride, little knowing that the driver (my wife) was, at one point, clinging to the sleigh with one hand as the dogs whizzed us along. Then they came to a sudden stop so one could do their business. Another highlight of the trip for Jem. Boys, eh?
But then a reindeer ride proved an activity too many. Carys was howling the snow off the rooves. Sure other kids were getting upset while their dads, like me, were I daresay thinking ‘and I’ve paid a fortune for this’ but it was just that Carys was getting upset the loudest that made it worse. She was freezing and extra layers didn’t seem to help.
Finally we boarded our magical sleigh ride to Santa’s cabin. Carys cried throughout, even when the driver stopped to show us a pile of abandoned presents in the forest. Even when he stopped so we could hear the sniggers of elves in the distance. Oh, it was so magical, so clever, and yet Carys was so sad.
We came to a stop outside the cabin. The cheeky elves won over Jem in an instant but they could do nothing to stop Carys’ tears. Only when we were led into see Santa did she begin to calm down and even then Santa had to stand her nearest his woodburner to stop her whimpering completely.
Then he showed them the letters that they had sent him and we waited for – now how did that reviewer put it – oh yeah, their jaws to drop and their faces to beam with absolute joy.
Hmm, writers eh?
It is a little difficult to remember exactly the reality of this moment for us as the last few hours had been somewhat stressful. The best way, I guess, to judge what they made of it is to look at the three pictures that my wife took of the kids with the Santa.
The first two show Santa talking to Carys about the letter she had sent to him. She is smiling while Jem is looking on. It looks like he might even be yawning in the second shot. This doesn’t mean indifference or boredom. It has been a very tiring, full-on day and often when they don’t react very much, it means they are really taking in the sense of wonder of it all.
In the third shot Santa has got both of them in a hug to pose for the camera. Carys is smiling even more – no-one would guess she had been crying her eyes out moments before, such is the power of Santa. Meanwhile Jem genuinely looks like he can’t quite believe where he is.
After that we were led out by the elves into the cold where Carys wailing resumed until we reached the warmth of the coach home.
Later they spoke of the visit to Santa’s actual house being the best bit of the day, though out of the whole trip the naughty elf poking me in the bottom still trumped it for Jem.
Overall the jury is out on whether the whole experience has made the kids believe in Santa even more. At one point Carys said: ‘I think it was someone dressed up.’ She sounded unsure, then added more confidently: ‘The elves were definitely people dressed up.’ Well that one was a no-brainer really, most being particularly tall.
Jem, however, knows that the elves and Santa were both the real deal.
This aside, I guess what I am trying to say to anyone going on a trip to Lapland is it’s not all going to be the fairytale the travel writers describe. These writers have no doubt got a freebie press trip out of it and are bound to be overly complimentary, as well as having been well looked after by all manner of PRs in the extreme cold.
Travelling anywhere with two young children can be a struggle and a practically non-stop chore at the best of times. In a place where the average temperature is minus 15 degrees, it is only going to be all the more testing.
Don’t get me wrong – Lapland is a magical place with beautifully picturesque thick snow everywhere that no Hollywood film has ever come close to replicating. Yes there were times when I yearned for a week in Cyprus instead and thought the whole thing was turning out to be a complete waste of money but there were also moments of magic which were priceless. And for that reason, I guess I would have to admit, still with some reluctance, that, yes, it was worth it.