The Great Santa Smackdown - A Places & Spaces Feature

SUCCESSFUL MEETINGS December 2007 It's that time again, when Santa Claus is suddenly everywhere. Each year, this merry icon manages to inspire even the grinchiest among us with some holiday cheer. So it came as a surprise when Successful Meetings discovered that this jolliest of fellows-with his red suit, flowing white beard, and merry features-could inspire a contentiousness worthy of a pro wrestling smackdown.

In fact, Santa is at the center of an international crisis; various nations want to be known as the home of Santa, with Finland and Greenland, at least, ready to go to the mat in order to claim him as their ho-ho-homeboy. According to Ritva Muller, spokesperson for the Finnish Tourist Board, "Santa lives in Korvatunturi, in northeastern Finland. Since there is no road to visit him there, he nowadays has a base on the Arctic Circle near Rovaniemi"-also in Finland. This base, which opened to the public in 1992 as the Santa Claus Office, recently underwent an expansion that quadrupled its size and reopened last month to allow eager visitors their chance to meet Mr. Claus.

When confronted with Finland's claim, Greenland Travel representative Jesper Kunuk Eged scoffs: "It is true that we may not have been entirely successful in communicating the real origins of Santa-at least not in the same way that Finland has been exploiting their ludicrous claim. Every day of the year you can meet 'Santa' in the commercialized town of Rovaniemi. I mean, every day? Everybody knows that Santa loves his cold on the real North Pole, so this imposter that they've dragged into Finland is clearly some cheap knockoff pulled in to capitalize on the above-mentioned bluff that Santa is actually living in Finland. In Finland? Give me a break. I must laugh. Ha ha." Eged proffers a letter from Santa, which affirms, "[I live] on the North Pole, which is still a part of Greenland, despite humans' nowadays fight over who it belongs to."

Greenland's claim is bolstered by Denmark, of which it has been an autonomous part since 1953. This year, Copenhagen played host to the 50th World Santa Congress, attended by 200 international Santas-with the exception of the Finnish Santa, who boycotts the conference (since his one-time appearance resulted in a
fracas). "All kinds of copies of Santa go there," says Muller. "The real Santa from Finland never goes. Why should he?"

When seeking to establish their respective claims, Finland and Greenland offer the evidence-made famous by the film, Miracle on 34th Street-of a delivery address. "He receives about 800,000 letters in a year from all over the world," claims Finland's Muller. "What other proof does one need?" But Greenland's Eged derides this, pointing to Nuuk, Greenland's capital city and the site of the world's largest mailbox-a big, tall, bright-red receptacle just around the corner from Santa's Post Office. It is here, the Greenlanders say, that Santa and his elves come on December 24 to collect all the children's wishes before embarking on their grand errand.

This is where the United States Postal Service jumps in and stakes its own claim. According to Sue Brennan, spokesperson for USPS, "We have a North Pole Post Office in Alaska, and they get inundated beginning this time of year until the end of December." We also have a remailing program, in which you put your holiday greeting cards (complete with addresses and postage) into a larger envelope and send the whole package to the station and they postmark your stamps from the North Pole."

Prior to emptying the Nuuk mailbox, Santa spends the month in New York City, at Macy's (which was also his mail drop in Miracle). In fact, the Big Apple may also lay claim to Santa Claus, at least as he is known today. "I suppose it could be said that Clement Clark Moore and Thomas Nast, both New Yorkers, created the current popular vision of Santa Claus with 'The Night Before Christmas,' " says Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator for the Museum of the City of New York. According to "Santa Tim" Connaghan, founder of the North Pole, CA-based Kringle Group LLC, "In 1809, Washington Irving wrote the Knickerbocker's History of New York. In this book he helped to meld the many international images and customs of St. Nicholas [also know as Sint Nicklaus to the New Amsterdamers] into one person."

Santa Tim, who is affiliated with but not a member of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (AORBS)-which is holding the Discover Santa '08 Conference in Overland Park, KS, this coming summer-operates the International University of Santa Claus (IUSC, also known as School4Santa), a special training program that offers one- and two-day workshops for Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and those interested in the work and business of Santa. "Over 1,200 have attended our regional workshops in the past five years," says Santa Tim. These have been held in destinations like Pigeon Forge, Branson, San Diego, San Francisco, and New York City. A six-day, five-night workshop in Hawaii is scheduled to take place next September. "An Alaskan cruise is also being planned for early May 2009," he adds.

Perhaps on the Alaskan cruise Santa will reveal the exact whereabouts of his home; after all, between "true north" and "magnetic north," the North Pole as interpreted is a pretty big place. (Around the holidays, Greenland Travel offers two-day Santa-seeking trips to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, where interested parties can search for Kris Kringle on and around the inland ice cap.)

That, however, would hardly quell the "Santa's home" controversy, since practically every nation with a northern exposure vies for the honor. But maybe nationality is not the answer. Certainly Karal Ann Marling, Ph.D., a well-known popular culture expert currently at the University of Minnesota, thinks not. Dismissing the claims of Greenland, Finland, Alaska, and even Canada, Marling states, "Santa lives at the North Pole, which is a spot at the top of the world where he can see who has been naughty or nice. It may move round a little, but it's in none of those other places. You could say that the North Pole is a state of mind."