10 December 2010 | This 'n' that

In the olden days: Father Christmas dressed in grey. A Christmas magazine illustration, 1926. Picture: Helsinki City Museum

St Nicholas, Father Christmas, Santa Claus? According to Finns, the benevolent, bearded, reindeer-driving, present-giving figure lives on Korvatunturi fell in Lapland (not at the North Pole, not anywhere else!).

In Finnish his name is Joulupukki, ‘Yule goat’ (or ‘buck’, Old English, bucca). Joulupukki developed from pagan traditions where his predecessor was a creature called Nuuttipukki, ‘Knut’s goat’, which referred to St Knut’s day, originally on 7 January.

The end of Christmas was celebrated by itinerant groups of people visiting houses playing for food and, in particular, booze. Leading them was the scary ‘Knut’s goat’ disguised in horns, a face mask and lambskins, frightening children. If he wasn’t given beer, he could steal the spigot from the beer barrel or beat people with a bunch of twigs.

This tradition was popular until the beginning of the 20th century, when the  good Joulupukki replaced his old bad post-Christmas counterpart, shedding his horns and mask. However, when he came to people’s homes on Christmas Eve to bring presents, he still wore a fur coat, was heavily bearded and might still carry both twigs and gifts – so children had indeed better watch out how they behaved all year.

Naughty or nice? A new full-length Finnish film directed by Jalmari Helander entitled Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale was released internationally in early December.

In this Yuletide film the central figure of the mundane Christmas celebrations is not the red-dressed, jolly Santa we know, but ‘a sinister old codger who chews off ears and whose demon minion kidnaps innocent children. Ho ho no!’, as Jeannette Catsoulis reported in the New York Times.

Rare Exports is an enormously entertaining and unpredictable Yuletide romp packed with sly wit, solid scares and naked geriatrics,’ said Tom Huddleston of Time Out London.

Frank Lovece, in Film Journal International, wrote:  ‘Some human and reindeer gore make this inappropriate for young children, as much as the movie’s boy-hero denouement may suggest otherwise. But for anyone who needs an inoculation of humbug to counter artificial sentiment, or who simply likes to smoke their Christmas cheer or put it in brownies, this off-kilter return to roots is a welcome gift.’

The plot involves a mysterious block of ice that has been unearthed in Lapland, sprouting a pair of horns. Children begin to disappear, reindeer are found killed. A ten-year-old boy finds out what’s happening, and he and his dad take up fighting back. ‘Wicked fun in the manner of a 21st century Grimm’s fairy-tale,’ said Chris Barsanti of filmcritic.com. ‘Exuberantly pagan images,’ wrote Jeannette Catsoulis.

Santa's place: 360° panorama from Korvatunturi, Lapland. Photo: Wikimedia/Panoramio

Well,  Rare Exports was in fact filmed in Norway: Finnish fells are low and unimpressive in comparison to the higher Norwegian fells and mountains. Joulupukki’s home on Korvatunturi is particularly difficult to access, as the Russian border cuts through this formation of fells, which is also a part of a nature conservation area.

Santa’s red, fur-lined outfit is a comparatively recent invention, by the way: it became popular in the United States in an advertising campaign for Coca-Cola in 1931. By a trick of fate, though, the image was designed by one Haddon Sundblom who was of Finnish (Åland) origin.

So, what’s the truth about Joulupukki ? Could it be that an incarnation of the ancient horned shaman-like creature might still dwell in the depths of that faraway Lapland fell, and that the Coca-Cola man on whose lap your kid is sitting, listing his or her wishes, is just some commercial impostor?

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