We set out early on the 29th: north, to Rovaniemi, home of the "real" Santa Claus. It was dark until around 11 but the No. 4 motorway was relatively clear of snow until Kemi, a few miles short of the Swedish border at the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia, where we turned inland. Here, in the swirling snow amid the endless birch forests, we ate burgers and nuggets in a vast supermarket, kids playing on a indoor climbing frame, old folk waiting for their bus in the warm.
As we neared Rovaniemi the snow thickened and for miles we were stuck behind a slow tractor; soon a snake of traffic curled behind us, headlights barely visible through the blizzard. The town was larger than expected, with a grand central bridge and the usual monstrous neon edifices, but there were signs for the Arctic Circle and our goal: Santa Claus Village.
I shall save the delights of that place for another time, but suffice to say it was quite pretty, rather tacky, and fairly expensive. After a few hours, clutching our "gifts" (kiitos, Santa) we took the 78 road down through the dark hills to Ranua, where we stayed the night in a smartish hotel - or rather, a chalet behind it, almost submerged in the deep drifts. I went out for food and drink and at a nearby shopping unit the local kids had their cars lined up beside all the snow-buried snowmobiles, playing rap, revving their engines in a manner that seemed rather poignant.
Next morning we went to Ranua Zoo and saw owls, eagles, lynx and our first polar bears; as huge and magnificent as you could imagine. The zoo was full of loud, laughing Russians who shook the trees to send snow cascading down on their kids and a party of Spaniards who seemed to find the snow new and exciting - though maybe they are from the mountains, who knows...
We sledged all afternoon and then drove back to Oulu via yet more quiet, snow-packed roads, the snow hynotic in the headlights, every few miles a warning sign for elk, those 500-kg beasts that like nothing more than crashing through your windscreen. If we should skid off the road into a tree there are few passing cars, and there are wolves and bears in the woods if the cold doesn't get you first... Suffice to say we made it home.
Today, to take the edge off the traditional new year head, I was sent off through the woods to forage for food. Finally found a supermarket and then went round in circles in the snow, disorientated by the endless trees (and suburbs) but happy, loving Finland and looking forward to an exciting 2012.