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Santa Claus struggles in snowless Lapland

Rovaniemi (Finland), Dec. 9 (Reuters): The sleigh’s runners hit gravel as Rudolph the reindeer strains, struggling to pull his white-bearded master and precious load through the Lapland forest. Huff! This year, getting presents to children is tough.

There is hardly any snow these days around Santa's village in the town of Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle in Finland, where by tradition Santa descends from his mountain home to greet the children.

The locals are worried.

Massive snowstorms have blanketed the northeastern United States, but with only days left until Christmas the townsfolk in Rovaniemi are talking about a repeat of what they call the snowless Black Christmas of 1986.

A Christmas without snow here would be disastrous, hitting a multi-million-dollar industry and disappointing around 70,000 people who come to Lapland to see Santa during his busy pre-Christmas weeks.

What began in the 1950s as a shack on the Arctic Circle outside Rovaniemi to mark a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt now lures tourists with Santa’s office, a postal centre, reindeer and dog-sledding, and a Santa shopping centre.

“If I went to Hawaii and it rained I would be disappointed too but we are doing the best we can,” said Rami Korhonen, whose company Lapland Safari takes people on husky and reindeer rides.

This winter his firm has been taking tourists for sleigh rides 300 km north of Rovaniemi, where there is at least a little snow cover, and has tried making snow with snow machines to keep visitors happy.

Even that has been problematic, because it hasn’t been cold enough for the artificial snow to stick.

“Of course it is disappointing. We came here to see snow, but it’s nature and there’s nothing we can do about it,“ said Janeth Hanna, a tourist from Northern Ireland, as she sat in a wooden sleigh with her eight-year-old son Timothy.

Lapland saw one of its hottest summers this year with temperatures as high as 30 degrees Celsius.

Its weather has become increasingly unpredictable, with 1999 the coldest winter in the last century when the mercury plummeted to -51 degrees Celsius.

This autumn, the first snow fell in Rovaniemi in October but later started to melt, and the meltdown continued through December.

“We can offer tourists other things like chilly winds, Northern Lights and a beautiful sunset at midday,” said Leena Neitiniemi-Upola of the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

“Snow will surely come before Christmas and Santa should not panic,” she added.

In the meantime Santa, who lives in the wilderness of Korvatunturi mountain in eastern Lapland, still commutes daily with his reindeer to Santa Claus Village where hundreds of children queue to sit on his expansive lap.

“I’m sure there will be a good one-and-a-half metres of snow just in time for Christmas and no problem for me to get around,” Santa told Reuters in his office, rocking in his old chair.

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