“Joulupukki” by Lauri Rantala from Espoo, Finland – Santaclaus at Helsinki Cathedral.

Consider this my holiday blog post. I could talk about Hanukkah (the holiday I celebrate), or Christmas markets (delightful all around the world), or any number of things. But why would I when scary monsters and mythology are on the menu?


It is September, and I am walking through the the Finnish tunturi (mountains in Lapland, way North), the setting sun to my right. Low bushes, a few turned to orange, carpet the ground. The trail is wide and mostly flat, and it carries me and my hiking partner past Pyhäkero (Sacred Mountain), herds of reindeer silent as dusk and rocca (unique shards formed by the freezing of water in crevices of rock and their subsequent explosion).

As the colors in the sky deepen and a nighttime chill settles over this landscape, I learn the real story of Santa Claus and his Nordic predecessor, Joulupukki (Yule Goat).

A terrifying creature with a goat’s skull for a head and flaming eyes, Joulupukki—so it is said—appears at homes during the Christmas season, demanding food, occasionally taking away those who have not been good. He dresses in gray furs and sows fear wherever he walks.

Jolly Saint Nick, is it?

Eventually, this Joulupukki became more or less synonymous with the Christian Santa we all know today. Funny how we always seem to do that to the less cuddly figures of mythology.

As I listen to this alternate (and, I must admit, much more interesting) Yuletide legend, I consider the gray, shifting light of this place and conclude it is much better suited to such a dark and mystical creation than a rotund, white-bearded figure in red.

Near Rovaniemi, where the train from Helsinki leaves us and we begin our journey, there is a place called The North Pole, where tourists seeking a merrier experience can visit Santa Claus’ Village.

I opt out. Biting wind, icy mountain lakes and ever-so-slightly magical mountains do so much more justice to this fascinating culture.

As for Joulupukki, the “real” Santa Claus? No, I didn’t run into him. But, it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had…


{Update: Family matters brought me back to the U.S. sooner than my planned visit, and I have been quietly and busily staying under the radar in Michigan these past few weeks. I’ll be in the Northeast a few weeks longer, then it’s on to the next adventure. Where is that, you ask? …I’ll let you know when I do!}