Is It So Hard To Believe In Santa?
The impetus for this essay came from a December 1990 essay, a “Spy Jr. Investigation”, in Spy Magazine entitled “No, Virginia, There Isn’t A Santa Claus”. It was authored by Bruce Handy and Joel Potischman ( A Spy intern at the time) (See: http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2011/12/i-solved-the-santa-theorem-your-move-nobel-committee). I chose to expand and update some of the material and give it a positive conclusion instead of a negative one.
It’s a curious situation. Once each year during the dark of night we encourage a man we have never met to secretly enter through the chimney and freely wander around our homes while we are sleeping. And if that weren’t enough, many of us even encourage our children to write letters soliciting the visit of this stranger into our homes. We do so, of course, because it is Santa Claus we are inviting in, and we believe in him and his goodness.
The extent of our belief in Santa Claus is actually pretty extraordinary. We accept that he is a descendent of the European St. Nicholas, famed for being a protector of children and even providing gifts, in one instance, down the chimney some 1,700 years ago. As the legend of Nicholas spread, so did the stories about gift giving. (stnicholascenter.org). But it is not until the early 1800’s in the United States that Santa Claus’s primary role becomes Christmas gift giver to all children.
If we acknowledge the traditional story started by Clement Moore in 1822, Santa Claus visits all the world’s Christian children on one night. In the 1800’s which night was not completely certain. December 6 was the traditional celebration of St. Nicholas’s feast day, December 25 was the celebration of Christmas and January 1 was the more popular celebration of the beginning of the new year. At one time, Moore’s poem actually had two separate opening lines: “T’was the night before Christmas” and “T’was the night before New Year’s. Pintard, a contemporary of Moore’s, fluctuated between the eves before December 6th, January 1st and December 25th for the date of Nicholas’s arrival (stnicholascenter.org - footnote 14). And Paulding, another Moore contemporary, set the date of the visit as New Year’s Eve. Given the magnitude of Santa’s workload, perhaps we should accept that his annual trip is spread across those three nights.
THE SCIENTIFIC APPROACH.
Science would have you believe that Santa Claus cannot perform his duties in the manner historically described. For example: In 2012 the Pew Research Center estimated that there are 760 million Christian children in the world. These children are spread throughout 217 million homes (at an average census rate of 3.5 children per household). Allowing for his visit to be on any one of three nights, he must visit 72 million different homes on each of those three nights. That’s pretty unbelievable.
It hasn’t always been that way. According to historical data from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, since 1910 the number of Christians around the world has more than tripled from 600 million in 1910 to more than 2 billion today. And in 1910 two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, while today only about a quarter of all Christians (26 percent) live in Europe (26 percent). A plurality — more than a third (37 percent) — now reside in the Americas. About one in every four Christians (24 percent) lives in sub-Saharan Africa and about one-in-eight (13 percent) is found in Asia and the Pacific. (huffingtonpost.com). So, in the last 100+ years the number of children Santa visits has increased 300 percent and the major continental areas he must visit have grown from one to four. Job security does have its downside.
There is, of course, even more to stretch our imaginations. Traditionally, Santa Claus works under the cloak of darkness, which would suggest that he only has about 12 hours in which to do his work, assuming he starts at dusk and ends at dawn. But, if he travels from east to west, he actually has 31 hours to work with on each of the three traditional gift-giving nights, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth (Handy & Potischman). Still, that means he has to make over 774 thousand stops every hour in order to accomplish his task. That’s 12,900 stops every minute or a little over 215 stops every second, on each of the three nights. That might leave him a little out of breath at the end of the evening.
Now, as you might expect, the homes that Santa Claus visits each year are not evenly distributed. But, for the moment, assume for the sake of argument that all his visits are to areas where there are approximately 10 houses to a city block and 12 city blocks to a mile. So, on each of the three nights Santa would be traveling a minimum of 300,833 miles and, not counting stops, moving at 2.69 miles per second. This creates a particularly unique problem, of course, because conventional reindeer can move, tops, at about 60 miles per hour.
Conventional reindeer (rangifer tarandus) are four-footed land-based deer- or horse-like mammals with a running speed of 50-60 mph (chacha.com) and capable of pulling perhaps 300 pounds. Occasional reported sightings aside, no known species of reindeer have been documented as capable of flying. That’s not to say they don’t exist. There are more than 30,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and micro-organisms it does not completely rule out the possibility of flying reindeer (Handy & Potischman).
There is a further difficulty. We’ve already noted that the ground running speed of an average reindeer is perhaps 50 mph. While no flight records exist, we could posit that flying reindeer might achieve 75 mph. In order to cover the 300,833 miles on each of three gift-giving eves this means that Santa’s team needs 167 days or 5.5 months lead time (not counting sleeping and eating time, and certainly with no pause for afternoon breaks) to make all the visits. In other words, they would have to start delivery in June each year in order to make the December 25th deadline.
As we all know, Santa’s mission is to deliver gifts to children each year at Christmas. So back at the North Pole one of Santa’s jobs is to keep a list of all good little boys and girls. Of course, we’re talking about a list of 760 million names. If he wrote four names to an inch and all the names in a single column it would be a list about 143,138 miles long. My guess is that Santa prefers keeping his records in a book. But, at 44 names to a column and three columns to a page, this still means a book of 5,757,574 pages, and a probable weight for the book of approximately 2,878 pounds. No doubt Santa has probably entered the electronic age with computerized records. Hopefully it all fits in a laptop, but he would still have to keyboard 24 names per second in order to have the list completed by December 25th.
While Santa is keeping his list (there’s no time to check it twice) the elves are making toys. On the assumption that roughly half of the children receiving gifts are girls and that they all receive one Barbie doll each, the elves in Santa’s workshop would have to produce 380 million dolls. Even taking into account automation, this means the elves would make about 14 Barbie dolls every second. Added to that, of course, are the toys for the boys.
With appropriate doll accessories, packaging and gift wrap, the Barbie doll probably weighs close to two pounds. If each child receives no more than the one gift “From Santa”, which in American homes would represent a Christmas not even worth talking about, Santa would be delivering seven pounds to the children of each household for a total of 239,400,000 pounds of gifts each of the three gift-giving nights. That’s about 120,000 tons a night, or more than the tonnage of the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship. (cruisecritic.com) Not exactly something you would load into “a miniature sleigh” pulled by “eight tiny reindeer.”
Perhaps each child receives a small to medium stuffed teddy bear instead of a Barbie doll with accessories. The teddy bear could easily be wrapped in a cube box measuring no more than 1 foot on each side. But that means Santa would be hauling a little over 17 million cubic feet of gifts each of the three nights, stuffed into a bag measuring 260 feet long by 260 feet wide by 260 feet high. In other words, almost as long as an NFL football field (sportsknowhow.com). Try hoisting that over your shoulder and climbing down a chimney.
Okay, so it’s a little larger than we thought. We’ll just have to re-evaluate how many reindeer it takes to pull the sleigh. Remember, the average reindeer can probably pull a payload of about 300 pounds, and there’s no evidence to suggest that flying reindeer can handle a payload any larger. With a nightly payload in excess of 119,000,000 pounds (not counting the weight of the sleigh), Santa would have to use 396,666 reindeer to pull his load of gifts each of the nights of his Christmas visit. No wonder he only named the first eight!
Not that there aren’t other factors affecting the weight. You see, no visit from Santa Claus would be complete without the traditional cookies and milk left by the children for him to consume. Assuming that only half the households left a snack and that on the average it was two cookies and an 8oz glass of milk, it still means that each year Santa consumes 216 million cookies and 864 million ounces of milk. Even in a diet conscious world, we’re talking in excess of 8 billion grams of fat. A “little round belly” might be a slight understatement.
Legend has it that the reindeer are harnessed in pairs, and with approximately ten feet of harness per reindeer, Santa’s sleigh and the reindeer take up about 1,983,550 feet of horizontal air space. In other words, together they are about 375 miles long. Remember, we’re talking about almost 400,000 reindeer. Not exactly the kind of transportation you’re going to maneuver into a tight parking spot on someone’s rooftop.
I think you begin to see the problem. We have a football-field-sized bag weighing 60 tons and traveling at 2.69 miles per second. It creates enormous air resistance, heating up the reindeer in much the same way as a spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. In short, they will create deafening sonic booms in their wake and burst into flame almost instantaneously. Meanwhile, a far-more-than-250-pound Santa will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500 times greater than gravity and pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4 million pounds of force (Handy & Potischman).
It would seem an impossible task. Make more than seven toys every second, load 60 tons of gifts into a bag larger than a football field, hitch up 396,666 reindeer and deliver everything to each household worldwide by making 324 stops a second. And do it every year for seventeen centuries. All the while, of course, avoiding vaporized reindeer, the debilitating effects of massive centrifugal force and deafening sonic booms. It would make even the jolliest of men think twice about saying “Ho, Ho, Ho.”
Several theories have been posited to explain how Santa Claus manages to carry out his mission each year. One theory suggests that somehow Santa slows time down so that while we think his visit occurs in the blink of an eye he really has all the time he needs. (Relativity Clouds) Another theory suggests that he uses an antimatter propulsion system (howstuffworks.com) Another theory suggests that there is not just one Santa Claus, but hundreds, even thousands of identical “twins”, duplicates or clones of Santa, and they all start out at the same time on Christmas eve to carry out the mission.
PERHAPS SCIENCE IS NOT THE ANSWER
The simple truth is, there is another explanation. One that goes something like this. The first gift was given by Santa (Saint Nicholas) some seventeen centuries ago. If that original Santa had children, each succeeding generation had let’s say at least two children, and there were approximately three unbroken generations of “Santa” families every one hundred years, then by about the 12th or 13th century A.D. all people in the world would be direct descendants of Santa Claus. Thereafter, all people have continued to be direct descendants of Santa Claus right up until today. In other words, there is no need for “Santa” to visit any house at Christmas except his/her own, as long as a belief in the “spirit” of Christmas remains alive in each one of us.
By Craig Hosterman