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Santa Sightings Around the World

Now that Santa Claus is safely ensconced in his throne at most Canadian shopping centres, it's time for that seasonal family sport-Santa sightings. Whether your kids love the jolly old elf or fear him as one of mine did (because he was sure that the weight of nine reindeer, a huge sleigh packed with toys and a very fat man would cause the roof to cave in on top of him), at this time of year, the mere glimpse of the man in the red flannel suit causes a stir of emotions.

If you're traveling afar this Christmas, you may not even encounter Santa. In Spain one Christmas, we saw kids lining up to talk to men in golden robes with pointed shoes. It was the three Wise Men who visited children on January 6. When we spent Christmas in Cancun one year, the focus for the kids was the local children acting out the nativity story in the town square. Santa never even made an appearance on Christmas day (although how many Santas have time for the beach after working all night?). In Holland, it's Sinterklaas who arrives by ship from Spain with his trusty servant Black Peter. But for those kids who are absolutely wriggling with Santa questions- where he lives, is the beard a fake, how does he find his elves and where does he go to the bathroom?- there are some places ideally orchestrated for Santa encounters. Even parents may come home convinced they've met the true harbinger of holiday spirit.

BANFF, ALBERTA: Probably the most unique Santa celebration on the globe is the parade of Santa Clauses from around the world at the century-old Banff Springs Canadian Pacific Hotel. The celebration starts this weekend with a Dickens-costumed character announcing, "Make way for the Santa Claus Parade." Every weekend evening until mid-December and then every evening at 7 p.m. up to Christmas Eve, Santas decked out in a Scottish kilt, Austrian-style embroidered breeches, and a French bishop's robes as well as the more recognizable Coca-Cola Santa march about the hotel dispensing cheer and goodies. They are accompanied by a cast of characters such as Frosty and the Sugar Plum Fairy, hotel employees in disguise. Then at 3 p.m. on Christmas Day, two Scottish pipers pipe the real Santa into the hotel where he holds court in a big chair by the fireplace in the lobby.

With 100,000 lights twinkling in the greenery outside, decorated Christmas trees, bedtime stories each night by the fireplace in the lobby and music from carollers, the hotel provides an ideal setting for international Santas and Canadian guests too. Call 1-800-441-1414 for holiday packages; kids up to 17 stay free.

ROVANIEMI, FINLAND: To search out the real Santa, why not travel to Santa's year-round home in Finnish Lapland? There, in Rovaniemi by the Arctic Circle, Santa lives with his elves in his own village. In the pale blue twilight of the north, kids can talk to Santa (he speaks many languages), meet his reindeer, cavort at an indoor play area supervised by elves, shop for slippers and Lapp-costume dolls and mail postcards stamped with an Arctic Circle postmark from the post office. Both naughty and nice can also contact him by mail. Last year, the Finnish Lapland Santa received some 670,000 letters (address: Arctic Circle, SF-96930, Rovaniemi, Finland) from over 140 countries.

About an hour away is Santa's Wildlife Park at Ranua, the world's northernmost zoo boasting 50 species such as reindeer, snowy owls and wolves as well as a rock park with geological specimens. At the neighboring Murr Murr Castle, where Santa's elves live in the tower, you can buy toys and replicas of the animals found in the zoo and watch Santa's helpers. It's no wonder that some 13 years ago the provincial government of Lapland officially designated the entire province as Santa Claus Land.

Finnair (416-222-0203) offers packages from Helsinki including hotels, meals, reindeer sleigh safaris, snowmobile trips to a husky farm, and of course, visits with Santa. For more information on Finnish Lapland, call the Finnish Tourist Board at 1-800-346-4636.

WHITBY, ONT: For a Santa visitation that's closer to home, try Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village in Whitby. This year, during the spectacular Festival of Lights which highlights animated displays, Santa receives visitors in his log cabin large enough to accommodate a group of animated elves. Outside, amid more than 100,000 sparkling lights, the miniature village includes a tiny Santa Claus parade. Make sure however to allow enough time to explore the pine valley where an outdoor Nativity scene features live sheep and a donkey. After all, that's the reason we are celebrating all of this Santa business in the first place. Call 905-668-6606 (Whitby), 905-686-1600 (Toronto) or 1-800-461-1821 (Ontario or Québec).





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