They say that it is in Lapland, deep in the North, in the shadow of a blue Arctic fell, where no road leads and no man dwells . . . they say that it is there, beyond a thousand fells, that Santa Claus lives. No one has counted the fells, not even Santa himself. In his language a thousand simply means "many." And so, if Santa is asked his age, as a rule he answers: "A thousand and six hundred years old. . . . "

No one really knows how or why - after wandering far and wide, he settled in the far-off wilds of Lapland. He now dresses against the cold in reindeer skins, felt boots and a fur-lined hat.And there beyond the thousand fells, Santa lives peacefully - in stories, like all fairytale creatures. But perhaps he also lives somewhat in truth . . . just enough so that people can believe in goodness, generosity, love . . . "

- from "The Land of Santa Claus" by Heli Karjalainen

He was taking a nap when we arrived. It was March, and his helpers explained this was the time of year he likes to take it easy - things get progressively busier as the year goes on, culminating in that one glorious, action-packed, exhausting night in December.

The elves were busy answering letters. A trunk full of them had just arrived from Italy - delayed terribly by the whims and fortunes of international mails. No matter. Each child that had written would get an answer from Santa - late for one year, perhaps, but nice and early for the next.

"Ho, ho, ho," he said as he opened one eye, stretched and sat up. "Have you been good boys and girls?"

We assured him that we had . . . reporters are always good.

He was dressed in red, with a long white beard and little round glasses. He was, in fact, just what you might expect and hope for.

"You must come and see the reindeer," he told us and led the way out back. He did not call the reindeer by name, but they came trotting over to nibble on bread crumbs. The reindeer are smaller than the deer in our forests, with shaggy coats and large feet - and such big, soft brown eyes. It is easy to tell they share a special rapport with the man in red.

This is a magical place - the cosy workroom, the cheerful elves dressed in red, the deep white snow outside, the prancing reindeer. It is a place where the holiday spirit exists year-round.

This is Rovaneimi, Finland, where Santa Claus has an Arctic Circle home.

Rovaniemi, the modern capital of Lapland, was virtually destroyed by the Germans in World War II. It has been rebuilt, designed and laid out by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in the shape of reindeer antlers. The city, with a population of about 19,000, sits almost directly on the Arctic Circle. Today it is a bustling commercial center.

Well-connected to the rest of Finland by road, rail and air, it is also an increasingly popular tourist and travel center. The main draws are two: Santa Claus and winter sports.

All of Lapland is Santa's magic kingdom, point out the Finns. The Santa Claus Village at Rovaneimi, with workshops featuring handicrafts and shops, playgrounds, a North Pole Gallery with exhibits on the conquest of the polar regions, and, of course, Santa's place, is a popular attraction. More than 300,000 visitors came last year. And Santa's helpers sent close to that many replies to letters that came from more than 120 different countries. (If you want to write, the mailing address is: Santa Claus SF-99999 Korvatunturi, Finland.

But the village is just one of the Santa Claus attractions in the area. Nearby, you can visit Santa's Wildlife Park, the world's northernmost zoo, with a collection of arctic and other animals; Santa Claus' Toy Animal Workshop, where Santa's helpers make cloth and wooden toy models of the animals in the Wildlife Park; the Green Stop, where the Green Elf shows off more than 2,000 green plants, a dried flower exhibit and a ceramics workshop.

Lapin Pohtimo, a hotel complex just outside Rovaniemi, bills itself as another Santa Claus home, and is developing a theme park of sorts with help from the folks at Disney. The park will feature homes for elves and other bits of Lapp tradition and culture.

When it comes to winter sports, the options are plentiful. In the northern parts of Lapland, the ski season - both alpine and nordic - can last seven months. It is probably at its best around February because of good snow and more light and lasts well on into the spring. Ski resorts and trails abound.

There are also snowmobile safaris. And for the more adventurous, reindeer safaris, where you sit in little wooden sleighs and zip across the fells (or hills) as fast as your little reindeer wants to go.

Where many parts of the world dread the coming of winter, the Finns are comfortable with their snow and have come up with ways to make it more enjoyable - the winter sports, the sauna, and an appreciation for the fun it affords that reaches back centuries. You thought the snowball fight was a modern invention? Consider this bit from Olaus Magnus Gothus' "History of the Northern Peoples," published in 1555:

In the Winter, when the earth is covered in snow, the young People pile up great quantities of snow from which they build up Fortifications in the form of Castle walls. When all is in order they divide themselves into two Camps, one to defend the Fort and the other on the outside attempting to capture it with no other weapon than snowballs which they throw with their Hands.

And winter, of course, is the season of Santa Claus.

In Finland, he answers to the name of "Joulupukki." And here, as other places, Santa is an important part of the holidays. The Finnish celebration has a few traditions all its own, however.

At the Arctic Circle, whre the sun hardly shines at all during these late December days, the holiday is all the more warm and festive inside. The celebration begins at midday on Dec. 24, with the proclamation, or messages, of Christmas peace, which are read out in different languages. The proclamation is accompanied by hot fruit punch and Christmas pies. There is the customary Finnish sauna in the afternoon, followed by the Christmas feast -- it can take all evening to enjoy the spread of salmon ahd herring, ham, pork, reindeer, salads, vegatable casseroles and more Christmas pies. (The smorgasbord is a Scandinavian invention,after all.)

Christmas Eve is traditionally a family night, filled with the same joys and anticipations found worldwide.

And after everyone is tucked in bed...Santa comes, with Christmas toys and Christmas joys he brings everywhere.

To all Finns -- and to all people everywhere -- he brings the message of "Hauskaa Joulua" -- Merry Christmas!