What happens when an Australian family exchanges homes with a Finnish family for the Christmas holiday? It’s a swap of sand and surf for snow and ice, and vice versa, and insight into very different ways of life.
On the Gold Coast in the tropical north of Australia, we usually celebrate Christmas casually by the pool with salads and a barbecue. We often go to the beach afterward for a walk and game of cricket with the family. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate, but I was yearning to experience a fairytale White Christmas, and where better to enjoy its full magic than the North Pole! Our sons were 5 and 7 years old, so the perfect age to appreciate the enchantment of meeting the real Santa Claus and riding in a reindeer-pulled sleigh in the Arctic Circle!
Helsinki, Finland, was the perfect base for our holiday, with side trips to Lapland, Russia and Estonia. We connected online with a young family in Helsinki and made arrangements over the course of a year to exchange for a month. We swapped sand and surf for snow and ice, and we gained insight into a very different way of life.
It was wonderful to meet our exchange partners, Darina and Anton, when they arrived on the Gold Coast, and to share an evening together before our departure. I invited my parents over for a barbecue, so Darina and Anton would have a local contact. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between our families. They gifted us with an array of Finnish chocolate and liquorice, which we tasted while sharing a celebratory glass of champagne; I left presents of Australian children’s books under our Christmas tree for their children, and a Gold Coast calendar for the parents to remember us during the year ahead.
My sister has children the same age as our Finnish friends, so I also suggested they share Christmas together in Brisbane. From far away in Finland, we saw photos on Facebook of the special day they shared, including exchanging small gifts and swapping Christmas recipes. This led to more family excursions, with my sister guiding the family around ‘local secrets’ that they wouldn’t have seen as tourists.
Meanwhile, we traveled 33 hours to Finland and it was with relief that we collected our ice-covered car and drove ‘home’ for a nap. We had discussed in advance that we would decorate our homes for our partners to enjoy, so we discovered our apartment with a beautiful white Christmas tree and lights in each room.
Under the tree was a gift box for us containing a voucher to an indoor water park – there was a large area for family entertainment with water slides and wave pools, and an ‘adults only’ spa for quiet relaxation. Our day there was a highlight of our time in Helsinki and a thoughtful gift. ‘Moomin’ chocolate advent calendars were also left for the children in their bedrooms.
During our visit, we traveled to Saariselka for eight days, including Christmas, and were thoroughly entranced by the days of almost complete darkness, deep snow and even glimmers of the Northern Lights. A trip to meet Santa at his home will be a treasured memory of our children’s childhood and brought out the child in all of us. We spent Christmas with an Australian family we had met on an online forum – frolicking in the snow and tobogganing the world’s longest toboggan run in a blizzard. They are memories we’ll never forget.
As our first home exchange, the whole experience – not just for us but for our extended family – was so much more than we could ever have expected. It really exemplifies how home exchange can bring people together in trust, sharing and friendship.