I read in the local newspaper that one thousand eight hundred people from England are flying to a town 185 kilometres south east of Kiruna this month to visit Father Christmas. I hope their expectations are not set too high or disappointments are in store. Flying reindeer are hard to see, even this far north.
Generally visitors to this part of the world know what they want to experience. They want the husky dog experience (jingling sleds gliding through the snow, bright-eyed dogs yapping in the misty air); the snow mobile experience (roaring across the ice-covered lakes and screaming to a stop in a cloud of petrol fumes); the northern lights experience (lying on their backs in a dark landscape watching technicolour showers of light moving rapidly across a starry sky). They want it just like they’ve seen on TV, and nothing else will really do. Funny that, because you’d think that having a new experience, something surprising – something you hadn’t been able to imagine before you went there – would be more valuable. But no, nothing is left to chance, the experience is pre-planned, pre-booked, and paid for in advance.
I was asked this week, by someone enquiring on the internet, whether, if she came to see the northern lights, she might think when she got here that it was an anti-climax and be disappointed. I didn’t know what to say. It depends, of course, on your expectations. If you book a tour you might be disappointed if the tour company don’t deliver on their promises, but how, I wondered, could the natural world ‘disappoint’? Because the northern lights aren’t colourful enough? Or don’t flash across the sky like you’ve seen in films? You put all your hopes into an expectation of something fake, an invention of photographers and the media, and then want me to tell you if you’ll be disappointed? The aurora aren’t a theme park light display.
I don’t always manage to convince visitors that this is the case. When the lights suddenly appear – as they do, when you’re least expecting them – I rush upstairs to inform guests that now is their chance to see them. But some people linger, have a shower, wonder which trousers to put on for the evening, and by the time they get out into the garden the lights are gone. Not to worry, they think – they’ve booked (and paid for) a ‘Northern Lights Tour’ the next day. So that’s alright then.
We walked into town today, hoping to get some of the feeling of Christmas at the local market. I looked forward to a cup of mulled wine, a sight of Father Christmas, and the opportunity to buy some pointless handcrafted items and a few pairs of woollen socks. When we got there the street stalls were empty and Santa wasn’t in his grotto. I don’t know whether we missed the market because we were too late, or because it didn’t happen at all, but it was a disappointment.
The church wasn’t providing anything seasonal either. The only Christmas event was some music in the local crematorium. Nothing very jolly there then, but at least – a friend commented – it would be warm.
With nothing else available to pander to our Christmas expectations, we decided to do a bit of shopping. Maybe mingling with happy shoppers would make us feel it was the season of good cheer. I hoped for a bit of hustle and bustle, but there was only piped music pouring out into Kiruna’s near-deserted shopping streets.
We went into one of Kiruna’s outdoor activities shops. We seemed to be the only customers, but then round the corner of the fly fishing apparatus, just past the guns display, I spotted Father Christmas. He was in the camping section, in full regalia – long beard, red coat, fur-lined hood – and carrying a small Christmas paper carrier bag. The staff were advising him on the merits of different makes of rucksack. It made my day.