(eTN) – “Christmas Star” can’t let grueling hours wipe away her smile as she escorts a group of about 45 tourists through the Lapland forest.
“Sometimes I work from 8 in the morning to 10 at night,” says the 21-year-old “elf,” whose real name is Riikka Niukkala. She’s an employee of Arctic Safaris Oy, a tour company in Rovaniemi, a town on the Arctic Circle.
Snow creaks under boots as the group from Bristol, England, strolls through the candle-lit woods. Christmas Star leads them to a Lappish log cabin to warm up by the fire, her red felt costume and pointy hat caked with snow.
Elves are working flat out in this northernmost region of Finland, as more and more tourists flock to the area locals claim is the true home of Santa Claus. The number of visitors to Lapland has tripled in less than a decade, with an estimated 110,000 people expected to brave the cold this holiday season, according to state-owned Finavia, which maintains Finland’s airports.
The shortage of tour guides has led tour companies to team up with the Rovaniemi-based Lapland Vocational College to start a one-year course in elfing, beginning in April.
The “Tonttuakatemia” (Elf Academy) syllabus includes learning Elf legends and making gingerbread cookies, as well as first-aid skills.
“Santa is busy at Christmas time and needs a lot of helpers,” says Sami Paeivike, a manager at Arctic Safaris.
A day trip to the region costs an average of 560 euros ($808) including flights and meals. Visitors can take reindeer sleigh rides, scoot along on snowmobiles and then enjoy the highlight of the tour: a visit to Santa’s Grotto for a meeting with the famous man himself. Longer-stay tourists can also cross the Arctic Circle and receive a certificate of the experience.
Nationwide, tourism revenue is expected to total 2.5 billion euros this year, or about 1.5 percent of Finland’s economic production, according to Statistics Finland.
Like Christmas Star, many of the elves are students in their early 20s and work only during the month before Christmas. Starting wages are about 7 euros an hour for organizing husky sledding, reindeer sleigh rides and snowmobile trips.
Christmas Star’s day starts with greeting visitors at the airport. From there, she whisks them off to be kitted out in arctic boots and overalls. Most Lapland tourists hail from Britain and Ireland, though more Spaniards, French and Russians are coming as well, according to a report by the Finnish Tourist Board.
A day in the life of an elf isn’t all smiles, twinkling lights and jingle bells. Cultural confusion can lead to some sticky situations.
“Frank Incense,” also known as Mikhail Ponomarev, 22, from Murmansk, Russia, was mortified when he inadvertently offended a group of British tourists. The elf held up two fingers in a backwards V to signal a colleague that there were two empty snow mobiles available for a safari, not realizing this is an obscene hand gesture in the U.K.
Christmas Star recalls how a busload of tourists burst out laughing when one elf pronounced “figgy pudding” as “dicky pudding” during a sing-along.
The biggest challenge for an elf is answering questions from children, particularly from those who may be starting to doubt Santa’s existence.
“Sometimes they ask how come I don’t have pointy ears,” Frank Incense says. “I tell them I’m 300 in elf years, and you have to be 400 to have pointy ears.”
The new elf course at the vocational school will include learning such skills as walking on snow without leaving footprints and talking to trees and animals in elf languages.
Maybe it should also include Christmas carol lyrics.