Santa looked a lot like daddy…

Christmas in the 60s

In the early 1960s, Santa Claus is wearing a gray coat. The world is black and white. In a small square-shaped photograph, the camera lens has captured the large man in the middle, who has a white beard.

A bow tie and stiff collar…

Santa’s clothes are beautifully layered in different shades of gray. Next to Santa stands a little boy in festive garb – with a bow tie and stiff collar – looking pleadingly towards the old Xmas guy, hoping that he would soon leave, so they can move on to the highlight of Christmas Eve’s program, the distribution of gifts.

Assembling a Lancaster bomber on Christmas Eve in 1964

A couple of Christmases later and Santa has become the familiar red-and-white, rotund figure. The tree is dark green, and the packages piled at its base shine in unnaturally bright colors conjured by the flash. The boy has changed too. His head now reaches the shoulder line of the hunched-over, white-bearded man. His attire is ”smart casual”; only the white dress shirt, with its top button casually undone, serves as a reminder of the festive moment. The boy’s expression is one of embarrassment. Must he still subject himself to this…

Christmas twang in 1971

As a teenager in the Garden City of Tapiola, Christmas provided me with my first job as a Xmas tree seller at the Tapion Honka swimming club. Instead of the Eve spent at home, the company of friends started to become more appealing. On Poutapolku, the Klitsu club room offered company of my own age as the evening turned into night. Often, someone had managed to procure a bottle of wine, either with the help of an older brother or in some other way. On one occasion, a large bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whiskey appeared to be shared. How the walk home went, I can’t say. At least on the way back, I managed to scratch my ear bloody on the side of a pine tree.

On my way to Klitsu in the early 70s

We even succumbed to stealing Christmas trees, lured by the fifty-mark note given to us for Cassu’s discretion. It was pointless to spend all that money on trees when the forests of Tapiola were densely filled with conifers. I fetched a saw from the garage, and on the day before Christmas Eve, the three of us boys felled two well-proportioned trees. Cassu’s mother loudly wondered about the muddy trunk of the specimen she received. We got the first one from the top of the trenches of Vallihaudat, but laziness struck on the second trip, and we settled for one growing right on the roadside. That tree, splattered with plenty of dirt, adorned Cassu’s family living room through Christmas holidays.

A decorated Christmas tree on Mäntyviita in the Garden City of Tapiola.
Photo: Olavi Ahonen, KAMU Espoon kaupunginmuseo, Asuntosäätiö

At the end of the decade, Santa no longer found us. My parents’ divorce first drove away Santa Claus. Then the Christmas tree ceased littering the parquet. Next, we stopped the unnecessary purchase of Christmas gifts. Eventually, Christmas holidays were just a series of numbers printed in red in the calendar. We went on like this for a few years. We no longer had a car, so visiting graves and relatives became too cumbersome with public transportation. Public transport during the Christmas holidays was already non-existent back then.

Sipping homemade wine at my uncle’s house in the late 70s

In the mid-70s, my mother’s brother must have experienced some kind of Christmas awakening, because on one Christmas Eve afternoon, a Volkswagen turned into the slush-gray driveway of Menninkäisentie. The car took us to Pakila. My uncle’s detached house was spacious and smelled of Christmas. Aunt Bigi was humming Swedish Christmas carols and bustling in the kitchen with an elf hat on her head, cooking the evening’s dishes. My uncle played Juice Leskinen’s ”Sika” (Pig), from a cassette player, a song he had recorded from the radio. He was a man with a sense of humor. However, by the fourth consecutive time it was played, Juice’s sharp-tongued Christmas satire started to become numbing. My uncle didn’t seem to get enough of the song. It was somewhat the same story with the ham and the other delicacies on the table. ”Dad’s belt is running out…”

Not only homemade wine but beer too… My mom disapproving on the left.

I did appreciate my uncle’s gesture, because deep down, I longed for my childhood Christmases, to that grayish time in the past. Christmas Eve in Pakila were a good substitute. Just like the wine served at dinner. My uncle was both generous and thrifty. One bottle of quality red wine was enough. When the red wine ran out, homemade apple wine appeared in a wine bottle. When served cold, it was refreshing and strong. It certainly captured the spirit of Christmas. The most memorable moments were spent in the glow of the fireplace, with my uncle reading aloud his wartime diaries. The return transportation was taken care of by my cousin who only had soda with the meal.

The Christmas angel on the right

During my years of studying, Christmas meant a long gloomy break in the middle of the gloomiest season. During those years, pubs and bars remained mostly closed during Christmas holidays, so we really got to celebrate with our group of friends only on the last days of December. Suffering Santas had changed to a few days of being elves. I started walking the same path of life with one Christmas angel.

Celebrating Christmas in Vääksy in the early 80s

Our shared path took us to a stately detached house on Hakakuja in Vääksy, situated by the lake of Päijänne. There, my common-law wife’s entire family gathered to celebrate Christmas, including the grandmother, Judit. The younger generation didn’t have children yet. However, Judit firmly believed that Christmas Eve without Santa Claus was not to be considered at all. Therefore, a Santa had to be found. There was no Santa gear available, so the red coat was out of the question.

Auvo-Santa making entrance

During our first Christmas in Vääksy, a Santa Claus named Auvo arrived at the house. The inspiration had been taken from one of the many characters played by Vesku Loiri, the beloved Finnish comedian. Green is, of course, as much a Christmas color as red. So, Auvo-Santa was dressed in a mixed-colored ensemble topped off with the master of the house’s dark green hunting hat with its feathers. An important detail was the unzipped fly, from which the hem of a green shirt protruded.

Judit doesn’t want to be photographed..

Auvo clambered up the stairs with a conspicuous lean forward and, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, wished everyone a Happy Midsummer and regards from all the hairy dwarves from Earbudstereo Mountain. Santa’s journey south had been comfortably made by hydrocopter. Some of the Christmas guests were visibly bewildered, but grandmother Judit laughed with tears in her eyes and clapped her hands while her wig, or she called it, ”höppänä”, askew.

Leprechaun whiskey, the guarantee of Xmas spirit
Photo: Malcolm Brown Distilleries

The following childless Christmas season was spent on Hakakuja. Of course, the same joke could not be repeated. No one just seemed to have a viable idea. Uncle Nasse’s, another Vesku Loiri character’s, Christmas version felt somehow worn out. The evening was already turning into night when Santa finally made his entrance. The host of the house, after having consumed enough Irish whiskey shots, started, despite his wife Inkeri’s protests, to play the role of the Green Santa. The inspiration could be traced back to the label on the bottle, which depicted an Irish fairy figure, the leprechaun. This time the props were a green wool blanket, a miscellaneous selection of Christmas tree decorations, and a forlorn-looking poinsettia.

The Green Santa

– What do you mean it’s not appropriate? Don’t you know what a leprechaun is? It is an Irish fairy that dresses in green. When caught, it grants the captor three wishes. What do you wish for?

– I wish you would put that poinsettia back on the windowsill, that you stop splashing around with that whiskey, and that you go to bed right now.

A rental Santa handing out presents

In Kinnarinkatu in Järvenpää, we had our own home, and our first child had been born. For a couple of Christmases, we still managed to travel to Vääksy. As we didn’t have a car, we felt we were a burden to others since we needed rides to go there and back. Besides, it would be a change to spend Christmas in our own home, with our own family.

Christmas on Kinnarinkatu in Järvenpää

My mother was happy to come to us as a Christmas guest, even though the journey by bus and train was difficult. For variety’s sake, Santa was the traditional, jovial host of Korvatunturi – that is, the father of the family in cheap Santa attire. After all, one couldn’t scare a two-year-old daughter.

Santa looks a lot like daddy…

During our second Christmas at home, we came up with the idea of a Swap-Santa. Markku, from a family we knew, would come to our house to play Santa, and I, in turn, would fulfill the same duties at Markku’s home. The idea of swapping Santas seemed excellent. However, Markku was by nature reserved and somewhat bureaucratic-minded. Our three-year-old daughter may not have been traumatized, but the nearly mute, robotically stiff-moving frostbeard was hysterical for us parents to watch. Markku was apparently also quite nervous about being Santa, because when I got dressed for my own performance, I noticed the Santa suit was moist with sweat. The cardboard mask was soggy. On the way back, I nearly drove into a ditch when the mask, which I had lifted to my forehead and was made slippery by sweat, slid down over my eyes.

The Christmas tree guarded by a security fence

Our second daughter was born, and we ended up buying a car out of necessity. Now there was no obstacle to getting around. The belongings of a family of four, along with Christmas presents, fit well in the snow-white Toyota Corolla. For a few years, we followed the routine of home Christmas, Vääksy Christmas, home Christmas, Vääksy Christmas.

Another Kinnarinkatu Christmas

Santa had become invisible. However, he had still managed to leave the gifts by the base of the Christmas tree. In 1993, there were five of us. Traveling with a baby was difficult, so the Vääksy pattern with overnight stays was put on hold for the time being. On Christmas holidays, we of course went out for dinner and to visit my wife’s family. And at home, during those years, the invisible Santa delivered the presents.

The last Christmas on Kinnarinkatu

When the cramped apartment on Kinnarinkatu was exchanged for a large rental apartment at the Järvenpään Maaseutuopisto, the local rural institute, in 1994, the tradition of Santa was revived. The principal’s residence we rented was a massive three-story stone castle.

The principal’s residence we rented in Järvenpää was our home from 1994 to 2009.

In winter, the large apartment and its peaceful, park-like surroundings were perfect for celebrating Christmas. We had managed to get decent Santa gear from a flea market at a bargain, so the credibility was in place. The cardboard mask had been replaced with a flowing beard and a white wig. My wife’s father had handed over his staff for me to use, and the red coat was spacious enough for ample padding.

Watching Disney’s Christmas greetings in Maaseutuopisto, Järvenpää

The new tradition also included my mother’s visit every Christmas. There was plenty of space for overnight guests in the house. After not having a car for about twenty years, my mother had bought an Opel with automatic transmission, so getting from Tapiola to Järvenpää was quite effortless. Of course, the Christmas Eve agenda included sauna, and there were plenty to choose from. There were at least four wood-heated saunas in the area, if not more.

The decorators of the tree

At first, the Santa Claus at Maaseutuopisto was a well-mannered, old gray-haired man. As the children grew up, I wanted to add a bit of edge to the traditional Santa Claus routine. The idea of a mischievous Christmas character gradually emerged. It was actually the flip side of the traditional Santa Claus image, a cranky old man who doesn’t have much patience for sweet talk with children – like a grumpy Xmas man with a beard.

Christmas cheer in the stone castle

Once I had embarked on that path, I could no longer rely solely on improvisation. I began to think of a suitable theme in advance. At first, the script was just in my head, but later I ended up putting the main points on paper, including some of the lines. In the end, it was easy to turn the Santa Claus clichés upside down. The result was deemed entertaining by my daughters. The presence of a five-year-old boy was also a consideration. The whole performance is a kind of mixture of Monty Python, Absolutely Fabulous, and All in the Family.

The Grumpy Santa greets mischievous rascals

After sauna, the host of the house leaves for some excuse. Grumpy Santa changes into his outfit in the garage, where the Santa gear has been taken. Also, one of the gift sacks, a thin, linen sack, has been brought to the garage in advance. I sling it over my shoulder and start striding towards the castle. It’s a good way to make it clear that the irritated old man with a beard is on the move by walking around the house and knocking on the windows with the stick. Wet snow can easily be made into balls even with thick mittens, and these can be thrown at the windows. But one must be careful, as some of the panes are fragile, handmade glass. Of course, ringing the doorbell loudly is par for the course. In the hallway, Grumpy Santa first doubts if he is even at the right address. Next, the old man is amazed by the unusual ceiling height.

The nine-foot tree stands tall

“Well, well, good evening to this lowly abode as well. Is this where the naughty children reside? Santa only has this thin sack for the mischievous rascals.”

“But how does Santa explain that mountain of gifts under the tree?”

“What! They’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake, those incompetent elves. Those were meant for the Swedish royal family. Well, so be it. Now Santa needs to get a chair to sit his bottom on. Not that one! That soft one will do. And where is the mulled wine! Why are you grinning like that? Hurry and fetch a ham sandwich for Santa, I’m hungry. And I won’t tolerate any silly Christmas carols.”

The pile of royal presents under the tree

”How was Santa’s journey from Korvatunturi?”

”Poorly. Rudolph’s nose light went out halfway there. We got lost, darn it, and ended up in Russian airspace. MIG fighters were hot on our tail all the way to the center of Kerava.”

”Oh, dear! What happened then?”

”Thankfully, there was a red-nosed individual at the market square who knew the right route. We even had the fellow come along to show the way in the Christmas darkness. So, you see, Santa’s journey isn’t easy. Just pour more of that mulled wine! And a liter of windshield washer fluid for Rudolph. The nose must shine on the way back.”

The aviator shades are necessary for the flight of Santa

And so on. My daughters grin and whisper to each other, the youngest watches the events unfold with wide eyes, my wife retreats to the kitchen to chuckle. My mother also takes part in the Christmas pageant, albeit more subdued. With the same fanfare he arrived, Grumpy Claus exits.

Christmas dinner awaits

Soon, the sweaty father rushes in and says he ran into a grumpy Father Xmas who forced him to watch over the reindeer. Near the reindeer, there was a bewildered-looking person who was asking for a ride to Kerava. After that, Christmas Eve continues with the first round of gift opening. Once the worst of the gift frenzy has passed, everyone sits down at the Christmas table, where even the children manage to linger surprisingly long. Then, it’s time to gather around the tree again. Round two can begin. As a new tradition, keeping a Christmas journal begins, covering the week leading up to Christmas with all its festivities.

The big sister laughs, while Santa talks with the little sister

The children grew up. Some were finishing school, while others were beginning their studies. The apartment on Kinnarinkatu was sold in 2000. In 2009, the costly rented stone castle was given up. Only three remained at home. Santa’s gear made its way into the moving load to Vääksy. When my oldest daughter had twin girls, we gained a new family member. My daughter’s dog Rolf was adopted into our family at Christmas in 2016 – of course.

Watching Snowman and updating the Xmas journal in Vääksy.

The Santa tradition was revived with the arrival of my eldest daughter’s family to Vääksy for Christmas every other year. On the first Christmas in Vääksy for my grandkids, Onerva and Vieno, gifts were distributed by a sporty Santa wearing Tiger running shoes with the assistance of Rutolf, that is, Rolf.

Rolf, Santa’s little helper

A couple of years later, we were visited by a real, singing Elvis, who lived in Denmark as a pastry chef, but occasionally did some gigs as Santa Claus. Grumpy Santa may make a comeback in 2023. Even though my granddaughters have outright stated that they don’t believe in Santa, I intend to put all my acting skills into it. I’m sure at least a little shard of Christmas magic will shake their disbelief…

Onerva defies Santa in 2023


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