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Science, Maths & Technology

Santa: An OpenLearn reading list

Updated Friday, 23rd December 2016

He's making a reading list; he's checking it twice. Here's a collection of academic takes on Santa and related gift-bringers to round off our week of Christmas-themed research and insight.

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A Santa figurine

Santa's route

Santa has a lot of deliveries to make in a single night. How

Napier University offer you a hands-on chance to add yourself to the sleigh route and see how that affects Santa's plans

Every year Santa must visit thousands of boys and girls across the world to deliver presents. It is important that he visits them in an order that will keep his sleigh ride as short as possible. This webpage is designed to help work out the shortest route for Santa to take. As the software works on the problem the route will change and improve over time.

To add your house to Santa's list, find your house on the map and right click.

Route Santa at

Get a closer look at algorithims with our Jewels of Huero game

Keeping awake

Is Santa putting his health at risk, working right through the night? Warwick University's Medical School are concerned:

Surely Santa will feel jet-lagged at the end of his trip! To deliver presents at exactly mid-night all around the world he will have to spend 24h in trans-meridian travel with rapid changes in time zones and little time for his body clock to adapt. He will travel in darkness all the time, so he will be more likely to fall asleep. Catch-up sleep helps to recover from the short-term tiredness and fatigue, but will not help avoid the long-term consequences of sleep deprivation. If he were to do this all year round, he would definitely run the risk of dying prematurely. However, children be reassured: he only does it once a year for us all, and by following my instructions he will remain fresh and zippy!

Read more at Warwick: Sleep experts warn Santa Claus of health risks of flying all night

The science of sleep

Does Santa get too high?

If the staying awake doesn't get him, sitting in an open sleigh high above the planet might harm old Saint Nick's health. Thomas Smith, of the University of Oxford’s Aerospace Medicine Research Group, outlines the risks:

Well, the scientific consensus is that the cruising altitude of Santa’s sleigh is at FL600 (~60,000 feet). A normal person would suffer hypoxia even at much lower altitudes. Our work suggests that in older people, the risks may be increased. For a duomillennarian such as Santa, the risks should be astronomical. So clearly, he undertakes a serious regime of acclimatisation during his off season. We imagine that Mrs Claus also administers a ‘fitness-to-fly’ test to her husband.

Read more at Oxford: The physiological effects of high altitude open cockpit sleigh travel

Read more at The Kitchin Sink: Should Santa diet?

And if you've got something sweet in your stocking, better check out the science of chocolate

Do you believe in Santa?

Some people - mostly adults - seem to think that Santa is all made-up. Obviously that isn't true, but how is it that as people grow up their faith in Father Christmas starts to drop away? Occidental College professor of psychology Andrew Shtulman has carried out some research into how children start to doubt:

Researchers asked children to help write a letter to Santa. Although children were free to include whatever they wanted, they were specifically encouraged to ask Santa some questions.

“What we found is that the better children were able to differentiate possible events from impossible events, the more often they asked Santa pointed questions about his extraordinary activities in their letters, such as ‘How do you fit inside a chimney?’ and ‘How do you make your sled fly?’” Shtulman says. “Children who were not yet able to differentiate possible events from impossible events tended to ask more mundane questions, like ‘What are your elves' names?’ and ‘What do your reindeer do during the summer?’”

In other words, according to Shtulman, the better that children were able to differentiate possible events from impossible events, the more likely they were to begin questioning the mythology surrounding Santa, even though all still believed (at the time of testing) that Santa exists.

Read more at OXY: Do You Believe in Santa Claus?

Try our podcast on how children develop

But it's not just Santa…

Perhaps some of the challenges believing in Santa presents can be solved by remembering that different cultures have other people doing the carting about of gifts. In Iceland, for example:

During a period of just over three weeks, not one Father Christmas but a succession of thirteen Jólasveinar or Yule/Christmas Lads arrive in, and leave, town one-by-one.

In origin the Lads are somewhat sinister figures, who have only recently been recast to resemble Father Christmas/Santa Claus, swapping farmer’s dress for bright red clothes and white beards. According to old legends, they were sent to town in the winter to search for fresh meat for their mother, Grýla, a troll who feasts on raw human flesh. The family cat, Jólaköttur, also likes to eat poor children.

Read more: Icelandic Christmas





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