Thursday, December 17, 2009


Usually our Christmas vacation takes us somewhere warm and sunny. This year we traded sun for snow and cold and headed up to Finland. We booked a 3-night adventure to Levi, Finland - 150 km north of the Arctic Circle. The northern Finnish economy is traditionally depressed, but tourism, in the form of "Father Christmas" adventures, has managed to infuse certain resort towns with some welcome Euros.
We landed in Kittila and were greeted by our personal elf, "Jingle Bells." They outfitted us in thermal gear from head to toe and we sang Christmas carols on the bus to the resort - The Crazy Reindeer - or "Hullo Poro" in Finnish.
December in Northern Finland is cold and dark - and did I mention, COLD! Temperatures dropped to -30 while we were there and we only had about 4 hours of "greylight," as they call it, as it never really gets very bright.

Mira was full of smiles at the sight of snow

We did a lot of sledding while we were up north. The girls loved tobogganing at the bottom of the ski slope. It was odd tobogganing in the dark and realizing it was only 3pm in the afternoon. My body was really upside down - unsure of when to sleep and when to get up. If I lived there, I think I'd just want to sleep all the time.

On our first full day we booked a snowmobile safari to find Santa's cabin in the forest. The scenery was amazing - we travelled across frozen lakes and through icing-sugar forests. It was spectacular. The girls were really cold though as it was -27 that day.
We hauled the girls behind our snowmobile in a covered trailer - They had a reindeer hide and blanket to snuggle in but as they were stationary, it didn't really keep them warm.

Finally we found Santa and a fire-warmed cabin.

One of Santa's helpers in traditional Lappish dress.

Santa gave us a personal reindeer ride.

This is my favourite picture of Father Christmas!

On our second full day, Jingle Bells took us to Santa's workshop. We enjoyed a second personal visit with Santa. This day was Mira's 5th birthday and Santa made her smile when he "magically" knew it was her birthday. I'm not sure what we're going to do next year? Mira always seems to experience her birthday in some magical spot - She turned 3 at Disney World, 4 on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, and 5 above the Arctic Circle. I'm hoping that 6 will be spent at home in Toronto - the best place of all!

Santa looked a bit perplexed when I requested a 5-carat diamond necklace!
Mira opens her "early" gift from Santa.

Santa's workshop was a lovely, scenic location - a photographic dream really. I wish I had brought a tripod as the "greylight" made it a bit difficult to get focused shots - I think I did okay though :-)

Hannah with Jingle Bells.

Mira and Hannah make gingerbread cookies at Santa's workshop.

Hannah spent an hour playing on the one pink sled she found among the sea of blue and red ones. She finally figured out that moving keeps you warm in the cold!

The sky in the direction of the sun was a lovely pink - almost like a perpetual sunset.

On our last night, we enjoyed a "Gala" Christmas dinner. The girls made a friend from Southampton and had an excellent time - especially at the mini-disco.

And thus we finished our journey to the Arctic Circle. Most of our final day was spent at the Kittila airport where our flight was delayed by a staggering 4-hours! The bright side was that the girls got to spend more time with their new friends and the airport had a very comfy leather sofa and lots of children's toys.
Now we're back in Oxford and actually getting a little snow here. It's a bit funny - the threat of a bit of snow and everyone is in a panic. Gatwick got about 2cm and apparently is only working at half capacity today. A friend who works in London was told to stay home due to "severe weather." But the school is open so I'm enjoying my last couple of hours of peace and quiet before the holiday begins. Mom and Dad arrive on Monday to spend Christmas with us here in the UK.
So Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you from all of us!

Monday, December 7, 2009

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like... well, not really

Here we are - December already! We'll have been here six months by the time the month closes. The Christmas shopping is done. Gifts have been shipped overseas. Our eight-pound Christmas tree is up. Carols and mince pies greet you at every corner (I have a theory about those mince pies - stay tuned) . The only thing missing is snow. Most days I'm heading out in just a sweater. The temperature drops at night and but during the day it's quite mild actually. Despite the lack of cold and white we're trying to get into the spirit.
Eating Crepes in Cheltenham
We drove to Cheltenham to sample the European tradition of the Christmas market. Originating in Germany, Christmas markets have creeped their way westward and several set up in city squares across England. Turns out the Cheltenham market is quite small - just 30 or so stalls selling crafts, mulled wine and yummy crepes - but it was a nice drive into the Cotswalds. It turns out Cheltenham is a bit of a shopping mecca so we got our retail fix in the mall there as well :-)

Hannah and Mira were a bit perplexed by this statue in the Cheltenham town square. It's called "The Rabbit and the Minotaur." Inter species dating at its finest.

This past weekend we popped over to Frilford to Millet's Farm where they have a popular Santa's Grotto. Here in the UK they have upped the Santa profit by creating whole "Father Christmas experiences" packaged as "Grotto's" Our "family" ticket cost an exorbitant fifteen pounds and consisted of a walk through a plastic forest with mechanized animals, story-telling elves, a visit with a very realistic Father Christmas, and, of course, the obligatory mince pie. The girls were quite excited to see Santa and have their photo taken and were pleased with paint-by-numbers toy he gave them - me? Not so much!

OK, the mince pie theory... Mince Pies are the quintessential British Christmas "treat." Little palm sized pastries, they are filled with raisins, sultanas and goo. They appear to be everywhere here at Christmas. Visit Santa and enjoy a complimentary mince pie. Do your grocery shop between 1 and 3pm and enjoy a complimentary mince pie. Fill your tank at this gas station and enjoy a complimentary mince pie... But, does anyone actually eat and enjoy these things? Hence my theory. I think mince pies are just a way to economically be festive. If you go to the hairdressers for instance, she offers you a mince pie and you feel all appreciated and valued as you politely decline - that plate of mince pies will last her the whole season!

Hannah and Mira have found Christianity! School here isn't anywhere near as politically correct as at home. Even though their school is officially non-denominational and has a multitude of Muslim and Hindu students, when it comes to the holiday season Christmas and Christianity rule. The girls have told us all about Baby Jesus and his birthday. They can name all of the nativity figures and regale us with very traditional and religious carols filled with hallelujahs and praise. It's quite an interesting experience for a traditionally agnostic family. It will be even more interesting when Poppa comes to visit in a couple of weeks.