Christmas cheer came early to Sweden’s Arctic mining town of Gaellivare this past weekend, where Santas from around the world gathered to compete in one of the world’s most important, but least known, sporting events: the Santa Winter Games.
“We’re getting into shape before delivering all the Christmas presents and we want to make all the children happy today,” said the only Mother Christmas taking part in the competition, who traveled from France and donned a red suit to compete for the second year in a row.
The nine competitors and their elves paraded on Saturday through the Lapland town of Gaellivare, 100km inside the Arctic Circle, to the site of the competition in the town’s center.
Japan’s Santa Claus was accompanied by three human reindeer, who, in a gracious display of Christmas spirit, agreed to pull the sleigh of the local Santa also competing in the event.
Along the route, curious onlookers joined the procession.
Agnes, a toddler bundled up in a warm purple snowsuit, was fascinated.
“A Santa! Oh! Another one! I have to kiss them! All of them! I’ve never seen so many,” she said.
Raissa, a 53-year-old Russian, came to watch the games for the fifth year in a row.
“I like all these Santa Clauses. It’s fun and nice. It’s an event that makes me happy,” she said with a wide grin.
As spectators watched from the sidelines, elves and reindeer handed out flags, whistles and candy to supporters.
The Father Christmas from Spain had a three-year-old helper named Marco who conscientiously completed his duties before diving face-first into the snow, as he experienced white fluffy snowflakes for the first time.
The competition included a reindeer riding event, porridge eating, karaoke and sack races, before the jury crowned a winner.
“Our local Laplander has to win. He rocks!” said Siri, aged 11, who watched the competition with her friends atop a snowy hill.
“I promised the Dutch participant that I’d root for him. He’s so nice,” said Ina-Britt, 76, who has watched every Santa Winter Games since they started in 2003.
France’s Mother Christmas said she was having fun, even though there is a lot of effort involved.
“It’s not that easy,” she said between two events.
“Ho ho ho, I’m happy, Merry Christmas!” said the Chinese Father Christmas, who came from Hong Kong.
In the end, the Santa from the Netherlands was declared the winner of this year’s competition.
“I’m thrilled: I’m the first to win two years in a row. I’m going to come back next year to defend my title,” he said.
About 400 people braved the cold to watch this year’s competition, a record, organizers said.
“Next year, we’ll do things bigger,” main organizer Mathias Svalenstroem said.