To Asia in Santa’s sleigh


Professional Santa Claus Timo Pakkanen and the Finnish Santa Claus Foundation have brought Mr. Claus from Europe to Asia. Finnair serves as his sleigh between the two continents.

“Honmono Santa!” (“A real Santa!”), a boy in a school uniform calls out as Timo Pakkanen gets out of his car in the centre of Tokyo. Dressed in a full Santa Claus costume, Pakkanen approaches the boy and takes out a Finnish Fazer chocolate in blue wrapper out of his pocket.

“Merrii kurisumasu!” he says, wishing him “Merry Christmas” in Japanese.

As he walks into the travel agency, Pakkanen as Santa Claus causes a commotion; with people jumping up and down in excitement, the mood resembles that of a Justin Bieber concert. Spectators form a long queue for an opportunity to be photographed with the bearded visitor.

This is Pakkanen’s 12th Christmas in Japan; each year he spends five weeks travelling the country. He is one of few year-round professional Santas in the world, and since 2000 he has been Finnair’s official Santa Claus. He performs at various events around Japan and informs his audiences of Santa’s home country being in Finland. In 2011, for example, he was a special guest at a rugby match and made an appearance with a Christmas tree man at an office in Tokyo.

Finland-based Santa Claus Foundation was formed in 2000 with an aim to promote the Finnish icon abroad. The focus of its operations is in China. Foundation representative Heidi Koski says that in addition to cultural exchange, Santa Claus also opens doors for commerce.

“His sleigh is a platform on which companies can present their products. Commerce in its different forms travels conveniently on a road paved by Santa,” she says.

Santa Claus is a magical character in Japan and China, and enjoys a fan culture of his own.

“In Finland, Santa Claus is part of the conversation only around Christmas, but in Japan he is present year-round. He’s a mythological creature, like a Japanese forefather,” Pakkanen says.

Heidi Koski adds that approaching companies in China is easy and fun with Santa in tow; in the country he’s perceived as a trustworthy and respectable man.

Annually around Christmas, the Santa Claus Foundation organises a series of events promoting Finland and the Finnish Santa Claus in China. In 2010, these events were held in 11 cities and attracted 15 million
attendees. In 2011, the event increased its scope twofold; now 20 cities are part of the event, as well as Nokia China and Wanda, Asia’s largest real estate company.

A flying sleigh

Leo Yang of the Santa Claus Foundation says that this year roughly 200 million Chinese will hear through various medias that Santa Claus comes from Finland; and this is the conservative estimate.

“This encourages more and more Chinese tourists to fly Finnair to Finland as well,” Yang says with an enthusiastic smile.

Finnair has a history of operating as the sleigh between Europe and Asia. Koski is confident that Mr. Claus also helps open the door for Finnish businesses in China. Finnair plays an important role in this exchange; it doesn’t just bring Asian tourists to the land of Santa Claus but also transports cargo between Europe and Asia.

According to Jari Merilahti, air freight director at transport and forwarding company Varova, Finnair Cargo easily has Finland’s best connections to Asia; internationally, too, the company has strong qualifications for operating as a major link between Europe and Asia.

Merilahti says that around Christmas, large amounts of electronics and other products from e.g. China are transported onwards through Finland. Finnair Cargo’s freighter services, operated with MD-11 cargo plane, have enabled wholly different kind of transportation, particularly to Shanghai and Hong Kong. Now gifts from Santa, no matter what their size, travel reliably and quickly in both directions.

Text and photos by Touko Hujanen

Published December 14, 2011

Category: Collaboration, Local features