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Santa-ology: The Science of Christmas Present Delivery


It’s that most wonderful time of the year when the big bearded man in the red suit drops down our chimneys and leaves a stack of presents for all the good boys and girls of the world. But, where did he come from and how does he manage his deliveries in a single night?

A very brief history of Santa
Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century Greek bishop who was known for giving gifts to the poor and, up until the 16th Century, children were given gifts in his honour on the evening of the 6th December. After the Reformation, the date for giving gifts was moved to the 25th December. However, the origins of Father Christmas date back further than Christianity, especially in the Germanic countries of Europe. One of the figures attributed to Father Christmas is the Norse god Odin who is associated with the festival of Yule. Clad in his blue hooded cloak, long white beard flowing, Odin would ride his eight-legged horse Sleipnir through the midwinter sky delivering gifts to his people. Even Santa’s laugh of ‘Ho-Ho-Ho’ is thought to have been the hunting cry of Odin. Although the original bishop robes were red and white, it was in 1862 that the American illustrator Thomas Nast who drew the Santa we know today- a portly fellow dressed in a red suit with white fur trim and large belt 1.

Lots of kids
So how many children does Santa visit these days?

  • According to UNICEF, there are an estimated 2.2 billion children in the world.
  • Although not everyone in the world recognises Christmas, a recent research poll suggested that around 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, regardless of their religion 1.
  • Tentatively extrapolating this data would mean that Santa Claus visits1.98 billion children.
  • Assuming there are 2.5 children per household, this would mean Mr Claus would have to squeeze down 792 million chimneys.

In order to carry out such a feat of mass delivery, Santa flies with the sun, from east to west, in order to maximise the hours of darkness. This gives the Christmas courier 32 hours to do his work, but means he only has 145 microseconds to visit each house. This obviously goes some way to explaining why we don’t always see Father Christmas, or the fact that he doesn’t always have time to consume the mince pies and sherry which we leave out for him.

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen
Let’s wildly assume that everyone wants a Thunderbirds Interactive Tracy Island for Christmas (and who doesn’t?!), each one weighing three kilograms. The total payload for his sleigh will weigh in at around six billion metric tons.

Of course, the power to pull such a weight falls to Santa’s reindeer. The average reindeer can pull twice its weight and males can weigh up to 120 Kg 2. So, Santa would need 25 million reindeer to pull all of those Tracy Islands.

Well, that’s your normal Cervidae species, but traditionally (according to the 1823 poem ‘The Night Before Christmas’) there are eight flying reindeer. If the sleigh squad hasn’t recruited extra numbers, each of these colossal beasts would need to weigh in at 375 million tons each. Those are big deer.

Santa on the radar
With such large beasts pulling a huge sleigh through the skies at speeds of up to 1800 miles per second, it’s no wonder that this object can be tracked using radar. From the 1950’s until 1996, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Santa Tracker has used its radar equipment to track the yearly voyage of Father Christmas, broadcasting his progress via radio, television and running a phone line.

Since 1997, the NORDA Santa Tracker has been available online 3. Using the tracker, people can view Santa’s progress across the globe with videos posted from famous landmarks around the world.

The NORAD Santa Tracker actually came about by accident. In 1955, a department store in Colorado Springs posted an advertisement in a local newspaper inviting children to phone Santa Claus on his direct line. Except the phone number was misprinted and was actually for the Colorado Springs’ Continental Air Defence Command Centre!

Colonel Harry Shoup was on duty on Christmas Eve, 1955. Instead of hanging up the phone on all the children who were calling, he instructed each of the air defence staff to find and report the location of Santa and his sleigh to the callers. Harry later became known as the ‘Santa Colonel’.


  1. http://cartoons.osu.edu/digital_albums/thomasnast/santa_camp.htm
  2. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/18/celebrating-christmas-and-the-holidays-then-and-now/#religious-observance-of-christmas
  3. http://nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI/AnimalCare/News/25daysreindeer.cfm
  4. http://www.noradsanta.org/
  5. http://web.archive.org/web/20091224050527/
  6. http://www.norad.mil/about/Santa.html

AUTHOR: Martin Wilson

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