In Rare Exports, Santa Claus’s darker, pagan origins are explored to create a uniquely horrific Christmas classic.
PROVO, Utah (December 2, 2014)—Not all Christmas movies are heartwarming stories of magic and family bonding. Some can be dark and horrific. Case in point: Rare Exports, the award-winning Finnish film and the International Cinema’s last film of the Fall semester.
Aino Larsen, an instructor in the Scandinavian Studies Program, presented the film as a blend of old and new Christmas traditions, a happy marriage in Finnish culture. “Our Nordic Santa Claus tradition has its roots in early paganism,” she said. “In Northern Europe, as in many other cultures, our festivities were linked to the seasons.”
During the winter solstice, goats appeared as a reoccurring theme, and the animal is still a common feature of modern Christmas decorations and practices. “For some time it included having goat-mask wearing figures going door to door, asking for Christmas leftovers and, at some point, also giving gifts,” Larsen said, explaining a now-defunct tradition. “This was not always a joyous encounter, but one which awakened some fear. Sometimes an element of discipline was included, with the goat-like characters carrying a broom as part of their ensemble, meant for whipping naughty children.”
Larsen said, “The tradition of St. Nicholas did not reach Finland until the 1800s, and we see some of these pagan beliefs and traditions existing until the late 1800s and in some remote northern areas even until the early 1900s.”
The old customs still hold a place alongside the new in Finland. Though the tradition of discipline has passed away, Santa Claus is still referred to as Joulupukki, which literally means “Yule Goat.” And while Santa Claus Village – a theme park located in Rovaniemi – is advertised as the official home of Santa Claus, the Finnish people all maintain that Santa Claus’s real home is in Korvatunturi, a no-man’s land situated between Finland and Russia. Inaccessible and desolate, Korvatunturi also serves as Rare Export’s setting.
Rare Exports, which Roger Ebert praised as a “superior horror film,” presents Santa Claus’s pagan roots in a darkly, comical way. Modern-day reindeer hunters are forced to confront a demonic Santa Claus and his elves, dark creatures attempting to free their master from his prison in Korvatunturi.
Critics have lauded the film; Ebert awarded it three-and-a-half stars, and it has won multiple awards at home and abroad. Larsen praised it as an example of how cultural influence works back and forth across societies: “It begins with our own pagan roots for Santa, takes a little bit from Turkey and America, and then exports that Scandinavian image of him abroad.”
—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)
Illustration by Elsa Beskow