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Dublin: 14 °C Tuesday 17 July, 2018
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Column: Naughty or nice? The science of Santa Claus

There is now a small but burgeoning school of literature discussing Santa Claus and his impact on our lives, writes Keith Gaynor.

Image: Kiselev Andrey Valerevich via Shutterstock

DESPITE BEING A universally adored symbol, Santa Claus is relatively understudied in the area of psychology and mental health. Although neglected by some Scrooge-like scientific journals, there is now a small but burgeoning school of literature discussing Santa Claus and his impact on our lives.

In Ireland, we thankfully have an international expert. Brendan Kelly, Professor of Psychiatry in the Mater Hospital, has recently published one of the definitive papers on the “Santa Claus Effect”.

He examined what makes us jolly and its relationship to Lapland. Prof Kelly analysed data from 38,000 participants from across 21 countries in Europe, making this undeniably the largest study in the area.

Maybe surprisingly, the jolliest European was not from Scandinavia (the home of Santa Claus) or an older rotund gentleman, but was likely to be young, Swiss and male. Jollity was strongly associated with health and to a lesser extent income, suggesting that our practical situation as well as our well being might be important factors.

It did not matter whether you were naughty or nice

Not all children are at home at Christmas. Parks and his team in 2016 looked at which factors influenced whether Santa Claus visited children in paediatric wards at Christmas in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Thankfully Santa visited 90% of hospitals.

However, non-visits were significantly higher for paediatric wards in areas of higher deprivation. In contrast, there was no correlation with school absenteeism, conviction rates, or distance from the North Pole, showing that it did not matter whether you were naughty or nice, or far away.

The British Medical Journal this year helped us in clarifying what does not make us jolly: the staff Christmas party. Combs and colleagues assessed team cohesion before and after the staff Christmas party and found a disappointing Grinch-y-ness. Whether this is due to working in the health service at Christmas was not discussed.

Attendance at departmental Christmas parties did not improve team cohesion, neither were the people who went to the Christmas parties more team oriented. I have written to the Combs team to ask that they use a Christmas jumper control group in next years’ research but they have not written back.

The challenges of physics

Linda Harden, astrophysicist from the University of California, calculated that Santa’s trip would involve:

353,000 tons [of toys] travelling at 650 miles per second creat[ing] enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecrafts reentering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake.

However after overcoming the challenges of physics, one of the biggest tests comes from the philosophy of Santa Claus but in reality could be asked by any four-year-old: “how come everyone doesn’t get the same?”

Not everyone is jolly at Christmas. In fact, we know that many people are the very opposite. It helps to be rich, healthy and from Switzerland, but we cannot always achieve that, no matter how much Toblerone we eat. We can have parties with colleagues and still not be happy. We can have dinner with family and feel stressed.

We know that Santa is less likely to visit children from deprived areas in hospital, even though they might seem like they needed the visit the most.

Our world is not even-handed

All of which tells us something important about our world. Our world in its natural state is not even-handed. We cannot just hope that it will be equitable. Santa needs his helpers. This is the scientific reality, of course. Linda Harden is incorrect. Three hundred thousand tons of toys do get delivered.

Santa does manage to give presents to billions of children around the world. This happens because of his helpers’ collective will to do something benevolent and enchanting. Santa’s helpers struggle save, queue and wrap, and it works. Santa always comes through. He goes around the whole world in twenty four hours and delivers presents to apartments, houses, houseboats and hostels.

What Santa teaches us is that inequity which is present in every research paper and every government report can be ameliorated by collective will. Age, health, wealth and gender are not immutable if we choose to address them. This is the same message of mass protest, civil rights and collective action.

We have the power to do something magical and compassionate in any direction, if we believe.

Keith Gaynor is a senior clinical psychologist in the outpatient Department of St John of God Hospital and he absolutely believes in Santa Claus.

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About the author:

Keith Gaynor  / Clinical psychologist

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