(Investigator 45, 1995 November)

The notion of Father Xmas on a sleigh being pulled through the sky by reindeer is incredible. Yet many of us, especially the younger ones, believe it. Let's examine this.

Reindeer live in Scandinavia, north Russia, Alaska (there called "caribou") and Greenland. Their hooves are broad and flat which is an adaptation to walking on snow. The hooves, however, are not broad and flat enough for flying or gliding in the sky.

Reindeer fur is light-weight and insulates efficiently. The outer hair is long and hollow. The effective insulation leads to rapid overheating and death if long distance running of more than one or two kilometres is attempted. In summer reindeer leave the plains despite the better grazing there and go up mountains to keep cool. Being forced to gallop to numerous houses and land on chimneys, especially in warmer lands, would soon cause their death from heat exhaustion!

Reindeer are ruminants and graze on mosses, lichens and bushes. These are not high energy foods like peanuts, potato chips and butter. Therefore, although reindeer herds migrate they would lack the fat and energy reserves to do the distances and speeds Father Xmas would require.

With luck reindeer may live 20 years. Yet Father Xmas has apparently been using the same reindeer with the same names much, much longer. This suggests we're being hoodwinked. Also his reindeer are males with antlers. "Rudolf" is a male name. Yet in winter the females but not the males have antlers. When the summer ritual battles for females are over the antler bone in males is reabsorbed and the antlers then fall off. Females retain their antlers until spring. The ritual trials of strength also leave the males skinny and weak in winter. The females spend their time eating and so are much fatter when winter comes and so could probably pull a sleigh further!

Worldwide there are about 400 million Christmas-celebrating households requiring delivery of gifts on Christmas Night. Now, the "shortest network problem" is the problem of finding the shortest set of lines or distances interconnecting all points or locations of a set of points or locations. In 1992 an optimal solution for 3,038 cities was calculated. (New Scientist June 27) If this is the best that mathematicians using the fastest computers can do, then it is doubtful that Father Xmas has calculated the optimal distance-saving pathway linking 400 million stops.

However, let's for argument sake, assume that the average distance Father Xmas must cover between houses is 50 metres. This means he'd need to travel 20 million kilometres in about 12 hours which comes to over 460 kilometres per second! The technology to achieve such speed does not exist. Reindeer might do 50 kilometres an hour for a short distance. The blistering pace required by Father Xmas would fry the reindeer, the sleigh and the old man to ashes from air friction! And this still does not allow for time required to climb down and up chimneys!

Assume that each of 400 million households require only 10 kilograms in weight of gifts. This comes to 4 million metric tons – probably more weight than the world's fifty largest ships! A sleigh just would not be big enough!

In 1822 Professor C C Moore of Troy (300 km north west of New York) used Teutonic and Norse legend as a basis for a poem "A Visit from St Nicholas". In rhyming couplets Moore described Santa Claus pulled on a sleigh by reindeer. This is how the notion started. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was invented by Robert May in a 1939 short story and popularised by Johnny Marks in a 1949 song.

Santa Claus or Father Xmas is derived from St Nicholas who was the bishop in Myra, Turkey, after 300 A.D. He did good works and became the patron saint of children and sailors about 500 A.D.

I hope the facts supplied above will suffice next time you debate the existence of Father Xmas and his reindeer.


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