On the 17th December four band members left Edinburgh at 2:00am for a once in a lifetime opportunity – to accompany the ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ charity trip to Lapland. We were invited to join this trip for two reasons; to add a sense of occasion to the day and to also see what our modest contribution in providing a band for the past 6 years to play at the Santa Stroll in Princes Street Gardens had helped achieve.
Since 2007, we have played at the Santa Stroll, dressed in Santa outfits, to help raise money for the ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ charity. Based in the Midlands, this small charity’s primary aim is to grant the wishes of children suffering from life threatening illnesses. As well as granting over 14,500 wishes since 1990, the charity also organises annual flights to Lapland. Each flight takes up to 60 very sick children and their families on a magical day trip to visit Santa and on this occasion we were to accompany the group along with other entertainers on the Scottish flight from Prestwick.
After checking in at 4:00am we were escorted through to the executive lounge where our first piping duty took place. As the children and their families arrived they were entertained by a dancing penguin troupe from Ayr which we played on and off the stage. After a short break we were taken out onto the runway and at about 6:45am, in somewhat chilly conditions, we played the entire group onto the aircraft before boarding ourselves. The flight took off just after 7:00am and once breakfast had been served we settled in for the journey.
Joining the children on the flight were Ewan Cameron from Real Radio Scotland, Girls Aloud member Nadine Cole and comedy duo Bread & Butter who kept the excited children entertained for the 3 hour trip with Christmas songs, games and general tomfoolery. With about an hour to go before landing the cabin temperature was dropped to help us acclimatise to the local temperature of -10C so everyone donned their outdoor gear and got ready for landing. We touched down at Rovaniemi Airport 12:10pm local time and were met by a party of various furry forest creatures who directed us to five coaches. A quick 10 minute trip through the snow and we arrived at the Enchanted Forest.
As we all piled out into the crisp snowy forest all sorts of treats awaited the children; there were reindeer sleigh rides which led you through the trees, Husky dog team sled rides where the pack hurtled you round a forest track. You could drive snow skidoos and quadbikes through the forest, there were sledging hills, log cabins, and camp fires to toast marshmallows over with hot chocolate to drink and sausages to eat.
After a couple of hour’s non-stop playing in the snow we began to feel the cold and with only a few minutes of day-dusk left we got out the pipes, peeled out the fingers and played a selection of Carols as a spectacular firework display rounded off this part of the trip. The children all looked contentedly worn out from their fun as they boarded the coaches but we knew that what was in store for them next would get them fizzing with excitement again!
A 10 minute drive took us into the centre of Rovaniemi by which time it was dark at about 3:30pm local time. Rovaniemi is the capital of Lapland in Finland, located 5km south of the Arctic Circle and is known as the official home of Santa Claus in Lapland. We were dropped off at a hotel and taken into the main suite for a sit down dinner. With views over the frozen Kemijoki, we dined on Finnish fayre until we were thoroughly full and the weariest of children began to lay their heads down for a snooze.
But no time for rest here – our next task was to play in the main guest of honour, Santa Claus himself along with his helper elf and a very patient Rudolf the Reindeer! Once Santa was ensconced in his chair each and every child was able to meet him, talk with him and have their photo taken. Each child received a gift too and no matter what age they were they all had that same awestruck look on their faces as their turn came to meet Father Christmas. So after a very lengthy visit we bade farewell to Rovaniemi to begin the next and final stage of the trip.
A 5km drive north took us to Santa Claus village on the edge of the Arctic Circle – the official home of the Santa Claus Post Office where all letters to Santa are received and read! This crafted village of log cabins and shops features lofty timber towers, international signposts and a neon blue line representing the Arctic Circle sweeps through its centre. Here the children (and their parents!) were able to purchase some souvenirs to take back to Scotland.
And then before we knew it, we were back on the coaches and heading for the Airport. Our flight left at about 7pm and was filled with either snoozing youngsters and parents exhausted from the wonders of the trip or hyper children fizzing with excitement over the day they had just experienced. Once the plane had touched down at Prestwick we jumped off ahead of the passengers and then played them all off the plane and into Arrivals. We were the last to go through Arrivals by which time most folk had headed off, so after a few quick goodbyes, we were on the road home. And 22 hours after departing Edinburgh we were back, sleepily wondering whether this surreal experience had actually happened!
A huge thank you to Margaret Rowarth, the Scottish Regional Fundraising Manager, who has organised the ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ Santa Stroll in Princes St Gardens each Christmas and who invited us on this amazing trip. Excitement and wonder aside, it is very humbling to see serious ill children having such an amazing time and the work that Margaret and her colleagues do to grant wishes to these children really does help them forget about hospital routines, doctor’s appointments and gruelling treatments so that the they can smile, laugh and enjoy a little of life!
You can find out more information about the charity here: http://www.whenyouwishuponastar.org.uk/