With his rosy red cheeks and flowing white beard, Santa Claus is one of the most endearing Christmas characters in holiday celebrations around the world. He is often shown carrying a sackful of gifts for children and riding a sled drawn by reindeer. But this depiction can vary significantly from culture to culture. 
In Finland’s Christmas traditions, Santa rides a goat instead of a reindeer. The character of Santa Claus himself is thought to be derived from the earlier pagan figure of the “Yule Goat,” known as the Olkipukki in Finland. However, modern portrayals increasingly show Santa with reindeer.
For a more detailed explanation of the evolving representations of Santa, read on.
Where Does the Tradition of Ukko Come From?
The tradition of Ukko comes from Finnish mythology. Here, Ukko is a pagan sky god of the pre-Christian Finno-Ugric tradition. The primary textual source for stories about Ukko is the major Finnish epic poem, Kalevala.
The name Ukko means “old man” or “thunder.”  He was the god of thunder and lightning of the pagan Finno-Ugric people who lived in areas surrounding the Baltic Sea, including Finland, over 3,000 years ago. 
Although culturally distinct, Ukko’s character has much in common with Indo-European sky gods such as Zeus, Jupiter, and Indra. Crucially, like Thor, Ukko is thought to have ridden a chariot in the sky. Later, these earlier pagan myths started getting conflated with Christian practices in Finland and across Scandinavia.
The depiction of Santa riding a goat derives from the pan-Scandinavian figure of the “Yule Goat.” Known as the Olkipukki in Finland, Julbock in Sweden, and Julebukk in Norway, the Yule Goat is a symbol associated with the pagan Scandinavian festival of Yule, which, like Christmas, was celebrated in the late winter months.
One common explanation for this mysterious figure suggests that it takes its inspiration from the goats that draw the chariot of the Norse god Thor across the sky. Santa himself, down to his flowing white beard, is said to be inspired by the Yule Goat. 
It is also interesting to note that Santa started out as a much rougher character than he is today depicted to be, where men dressed in horned costumes would go door-to-door demanding gifts, not bestowing them. Later, in a practice reminiscent of modern American Halloween customs, bands of rowdy men would go pranking to extort gifts. 
Ironically, a Finnish-American played a significant role in providing the most iconic contemporary images of Santa when he depicted Father Christmas in a series of famous illustrations for Coca-Cola in the 1930s. 
Santa has also been depicted riding various other animals in different cultures for practical purposes of availability or in the service of tongue-in-cheek pop culture representations, including:
- A donkey in Italy
- A camel in Jerusalem
- Kangaroos in Australia 
Despite this checkered history, representations of Santa in Finland are increasingly converging on the iconic global image that many people around the world are today familiar with. Moreover, Finland is, after all, reindeer territory.
What Do Finns Do on Christmas Eve and Christmas?
On Christmas Eve and Christmas, Finns celebrate with their families, either at home or in a holiday cottage in the countryside. They enjoy special foods, attend mass, and open gifts on the night before Christmas. In typical Finnish fashion, the night concludes with a visit to the sauna.
Like in most other parts of the world, Christmas is a major occasion for families to get together and celebrate each other and the year that has gone by. Finnish homes are usually decorated with Christmas trees and lights to stave off dark winter nights.
Ham is the centerpiece of the traditional Christmas Eve feast. It is enjoyed along with casseroles, fish, and salads. After dinner, Finns like to sing melancholic carols and open their gifts. Although they are not very religious, many Finns also attend midnight mass.  
A long day of celebrations can be tiring. So, Finns like to wrap up their Christmas with a relaxing outing to the sauna.
All season long, Finns enjoy drinking Glögi, a mulled wine seasoned with spices like cardamom and cinnamon, and eating gingerbread cookies. On Christmas morning, they enjoy a special rice pudding with a single almond in it. It is believed that whoever gets the almond will have a lucky year ahead of them.
What Other Christmas Traditions Does Finland Have?
Finns often begin Christmas morning by watching Santa talk to a select few lucky kids over his hotline, an event broadcast on television. On Christmas Eve, they watch the proclamation of the Christmas Peace from Turku, their former capital. They also attend festive markets and office parties.
Christmas is a family occasion, but even so, Finns don’t want to miss out on socializing with their friends and colleagues. Over the years, their office Christmas parties have developed a raucous reputation. They are occasions for the usually staid Finns to let their hair down and have some fun.
Christmas markets are another old tradition. They are places where people can gather to buy festive foods and other seasonal artifacts, contributing significantly to the sense of communal cheer throughout Finnish towns and cities.
The Finns also enjoy a few special programs on television on Christmas day and Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve, they watch the declaration of a Christmas peace broadcast from their oldest city and former capital, Turku. While this might seem like a dated ceremony to outsiders, their tumultuous history gives it a special place in the hearts of many Finnish people.
Another curious bit of holiday programming that many Finns tune into without fail is the broadcast of Santa’s chat with a few lucky children that is shown on Finnish TV every Christmas morning.
But they’re not there for just another Santa impersonator. The Santa that excited Finnish children get to talk to is the official Santa Claus, who has his offices at Rovaniemi in Finland. Note that the official Santa Claus website banner image depicts him riding a sled drawn by reindeer. 
Santa rides a goat instead of a reindeer in some traditional Finnish depictions, although this is changing, and he is now often depicted riding reindeer.