The Arctic Circle, 66°30′ N. The line on the map marking the area in which each year there is at least one nightless night and one sunless day. Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt was fascinated by the Arctic Circle, or at least she was slightly interested. In summer 1950 she wanted to visit the area in Finland where the sun didn’t set in the summer. And now that place is a busy tourist destination. But not many realise how much her visit contributed to the birth of Santa Claus Village in the Arctic Circle.
Helping the Finns
Eleanor Roosevelt is better known as the wife of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt but she had her own projects as well. She was rather compassionate towards the northern people in Finland when they fought against Russia in 1939-1940. So much so that she was one of the sponsors of a campaign For Finland Inc funding the rehabilitation of Finland.
“After the Finnish-Russian War, a great many of us wanted to help Finland in any way that we could,” Mrs Roosevelt writes in her My Day column in August 1941.
At the time of the publication, Finland was fighting alongside Germany though so For Finland Inc was no longer supporting the northern country – U.S. could not and would not help a Nazi allay. But soon enough the war was over and Germans burned the vast amounts of Finnish Lapland as they retreated (I am not going to go to details here so you’ll have to do your own research if you are interested in the wars Finland fought).
Mrs Roosevelt to Arctic Circle
After WWII, Mrs Roosevelt, whose husband was had already passed away, was involved in the operation of the predecessor of UNICEF (UNRRA) which provided post-war aid also to, surprise surprise, Rovaniemi and greater Lapland in Finland. I wonder how much Mrs Roosevelt had to do with this aid. Nevertheless, she wanted to visit Finland on her trip to Scandinavia. One of the destinations was the Arctic Circle.
“I had not visualized what the Arctic Circle would look like, but I was surprised to see so many farms. They are widely scattered but there seems to be a good deal of arable land and vast areas of woodland,” she wrote in her column in June 1950.
I wonder if she knew that the Arctic Circle was not really a common place to visit. There was nothing to visit. Not until Mrs Roosevelt announced that she wanted to do so.
You see, if the wife of the President of the United States wants to visit a place in Finland, it must be arranged.
Super speedy cottage creation
The people in Rovaniemi were informed of her wish merely a fortnight before her arrival, and immediately they got cracking. The land had to be secured, materials prepared and transported, and the cabin designed and built. Somehow they managed to do all that: the door was installed just in time for Mrs Roosevelt’s visit.
“We went at once to a post office on the Arctic Circle. A small log building which had been put up in a week. It contained one room for the office, a little kitchen and one bedroom. It had been opened for our coming so that I might mail the first letter home from the Arctic Circle. This I addressed to the President of the United States”, Mrs Roosevelt writes.
The president of the United States at the time was Harry S. Truman. Seems like he was the first person to receive a postcard with the special Arctic Circle stamp.
This strange visit started a trend of some sort. Stopping at the Roosevelt Cottage became a thing. And during the past 70 years, the simple log cottage has grown into a red painted Santa Claus Village which, in a normal year, sees up to 500 000 visitors. The Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi is no longer an empty space.
- What: Roosevelt Cottage
- Where: Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi, Finland
- E. Roosevelt. (2017). “My Day, August 23, 1941”. The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Digital Edition. Available at: https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1941&_f=md055972
- E. Roosevelt. (2017). “My Day, June 14, 1950”. The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Digital Edition. Available at: https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1950&_f=md001618
- Santa Claus Village. (n.d). ”Pajakylän ensimmäinen rakennus Rooseveltin Maja täyttää 70 vuotta”. Santa Claus Village. Available from: https://santaclausvillage.info/fi/rooseveltin-maja/
- Visit Rovaniemi. (n.d). Facts, figures, highlights. Visit Rovaniemi. Available at: https://www.visitrovaniemi.fi/media/facts-figures-highlights/