In Search of Santa Around the World

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Elusive used to be F. Christmas’s middle name.

He was conjured by children, with the help of the obligatory glass of sherry, mince pies and carrots–at least in the U.K.–and the understanding that they had been good enough to deserve the latest Xbox.

Despite the countless hours conspirators spent configuring booby traps, the man was rarely caught mid-action as he zipped around the world. So rarely, in fact, that tracking Santa Claus and tweeting his GPS coordinates became an official obligation of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

For those who are keen to meet the man in person, however, there is no place more magical to do so than in the enchanted snowscapes of Lapland. Here, instead of tracking Father Christmas with Google tools and satellite imaging, you can hire a team of huskies to sniff him out, sizzle sausages with him over a smoking fire, or race him on snowmobiles. If this doesn’t sound atmospheric enough, throw in a few nights spent in igloos under the cinematic production of the aurora borealis, and think again.

To be sure, a tour of Lapland offers the most up-close-and-personal way of getting to know Father Christmas. Obviously you must pay for the privilege, so, if you have children, it’s worth waiting until they are old enough to:

A.) Remember the experience, and

B.) Be eternally grateful to you.

Plus, it gets pretty chilly in the Arctic, and nobody wants to spend Christmas day defrosting toddlers in a hospital ward.

Of course, Lapland isn’t the only place that lays claim to a world-class Father Christmas tradition: In Spencer County, Indiana, Santa Claus spends every single day of the year extolling Christmas kitsch. Visitors can tour Santa’s Candy Castle, wander about the museum and village, and, for those who want to start getting into the spirit early–say, in the height of summer–there’s always Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari.

The U.S. Postal Service even directs all letters addressed to Santa to the town’s local post office. And, since 1914, teams of tireless volunteer elves have made sure that no missive goes unanswered.

If you’re not prepared to travel, grotto culture can transport you to the magic of the chilly north wherever you happen to be in the world.

In London, Father Christmania reaches hysteria point, with a face-off among department stores. This year, the Santa-Claus-in-Residence at Harrods, brought out the big-guns to commemorate over a century of grotto fabulousness. The main attraction typically arrives in style: Early. Last year he turned up in August, but this year made fans wait until November before parading through rush hour with an entourage that included live reindeer, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the Teenage Mutant Hero (Ninja, in the rest of the world) Turtles.

One of this year’s most magical grottos invokes the ghost of Christmas past, taking visitors back in time through a warren of Dickensian alleyways at the Museum of London Docklands. Here, Santa Claus has a thick, regionally appropriate, Cockney accent, and handles small, hysterical children with panache.

By contrast, Santa is done in a futuristic five dimensions at Westfield Shopping Centre. Animated photographs of visiting children are incorporated into a 3-D film and wind and snow machines blast away to add a frisson of Arctic excitement. All this whets the appetite for Father Christmas himself–an utterly compelling (if upper-class) act.

For those who want to get involved with the tradition on their own terms however, SantaCon takes the art of becoming Santa to a whole new level, coordinating Father Christmas flash mobs in 44 countries. It’s open to anyone willing to don a polyester beard, and an attitude of flashy-yet-porky benevolence.

In London this year, Twitter feeds directing the movements of hordes of tipsy santa clauses sent out panicked instructions to avoid Trafalgar Square, where a memorial service for Nelson Mandela was taking place, at all costs.

As the countdown to Christmas begins, the most cherished santa traditions are those of the don’t-wake-the-children-and-ruin-Christmas variety.

They take place in silence, after the clocks strike midnight.

National Geographic Young Explorer and photographer extraordinaire Emily Ainsworth was born and raised in Oxford, England. Follow her on Twitter @emily_ainsworth.

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