One of the most recognized people in the world is that jolly, old elf, Santa Claus. Everything about him — his beard, hat, coat, belly, and even his distinctive laugh — immediately identifies him as everyone’s favorite dispenser of Christmas presents.
As popular as he is, you might think you know everything about him. He may know who has been naughty and who has been nice, who is sleeping and who is awake, but knowledge about him is not necessarily reciprocal. Test your Santa-ology by seeing how many of these fun facts you already know.
Santa Operates the Fastest Vehicle Known to Exist
There are over 2.1 billion children on the planet and an average of 2.5 children per household. To give presents to all of them, Santa must be not only very generous but mind-numbingly fast. He has 31 hours (thanks to time zone differences) to pull off the 842 million stops on Christmas Eve. To do this, his sleigh needs to move at 1,800 miles per second. Compare that to NASA’s Juno spacecraft, often considered the fastest man-made object, which only reaches speeds of 40 miles per second.
Santa is the First Corporate-Sponsored Celebrity
Santa has appeared as a celebrity spokesman for various commercial products since the 19th century. It was the world’s most popular soft drink company, however, that was responsible for giving him a complete makeover and influencing the way we all think of him.
Prior to 1931, Santa was seen sporting festive outfits of differing colors. He has worn brown, blue, green, and tan suits, presumably depending on his mood and what happened to be clean when it was time to go to work on Christmas Eve.
In 1931 he started appearing in advertisements for the Coca-Cola company, dressed in the brand’s trademark colors. He has dressed that way ever since, and he continues to be Coke’s celebrity spokesman during the Christmas season.
If Coke is paying Santa anything for this advertising, the amount is unknown. The arrangement predates many of the corporate-spending disclosure laws, so the sponsorship deal is grandfathered and protected by confidentiality.
Mrs. Claus is a Comparative Newcomer to the Tradition
Although reports of Santa’s Christmas generosity have been circulating for centuries, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that we learned an important detail about his personal life: he is happily married.
The existence of Mrs. Claus was first reported in the 1849 short story “A Christmas Legend,” written by a Philadelphia missionary named James Rees. Once she got a taste of the spotlight, she rather fancied the attention. In 1889, in a poem called “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride,” she asked her husband, “Why should you have all the glory of the joyous Christmas story?”
What Do Chimneys and the Headless Horseman Have in Common?
Washington Irving is best remembered for a character we associate with Halloween. He wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and gave the world the Headless Horseman. What he is less remembered for is his influence on Christmas.
It was Irving who broke the news about Santa’s ingenious way of getting into locked homes. In an 1812 short story called “Knickerbocker’s History of New York,” Irving first tells of Santa “rattl[ing] down the chimney” to “bring his yearly presents to children.”
“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” is Technically an Anonymous Work
“A Visit from St. Nicholas” — later known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” — was first printed in the New York newspaper The Troy Sentinel in 1823. It had been sent anonymously to the editors. It ran with this notation: “We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of children, Santa Claus… but, from whomsoever it may have come, we give thanks for it.”
It wasn’t until 1844 — 21 years after seeing print — that the poem was attributed to a bible college professor named Clement Clarke Moore. There were some who insisted it was stolen from the true author, Henry Livingston, Jr. Those who made the claim insisted there was an old manuscript to prove it. Unfortunately, before this claim could be verified, the evidence was lost in a fire. The mystery and controversy continue to surround the famous poem to this day.
Post Offices Around the World Assist With Santa’s Correspondence
We all know that Santa employs elves to assist in making toys. The record is surprisingly sparse concerning the North Pole’s administrative staff. Clearly, Santa needs help responding to all of the letters from the billions of the boys and girls who do not want to be overlooked.
Since around 1914, all letters in the United States addressed to Santa Claus go to the same place: a small post office in Santa Claus, Indiana. The postmaster and many volunteers respond to every letter that carries a return address.
Each country has its own system. Finland has assigned Santa the easy-to-remember postal code of 99999. Canada went one better, as previously discussed in this post, by assigning the postal code H0H 0H0.
Most of His Letters Come from France
Of the billions of letters sent to Santa each year, most of them come from France.
A whopping 1.7 million letters come from the boys and girls of France, compared to 1.35 million from Canada and just over a million letters from the United States.
Mexico and Latin America didn’t even make the list, but this may be because of the practice of kids putting their letters to Santa in helium balloons and releasing them into the air.
Reindeer-Power is Clearly Superior to Horsepower
If he is going to deliver all of his presents in one trip, without needing to return to the North Pole to resupply his inventory, Santa needs to carry around at least 400,000 tons of toys in his sleigh. If his nine reindeer were your typical, ordinary reindeer, they would need an additional 360,000 reindeer to be able to pull that weight.
What Should Santa’s Salary Be?
Santa is clearly a generous guy, but is it really fair to expect him to do all that work for free? The writers at Insure.com attempted to calculate a reasonable salary for Santa, using the wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They concluded that he ought to be pulling in about $140,000 a year.
If left up to non-governmental decision-makers, the results would be remarkably different. Insure.com surveyed the public and found that 29 percent of people thought Santa should earn around $1.8 billion annually. Another 29 percent thought he should do the job for free. We assume a significant portion of these folks got coal in their stockings at one Christmas or another. About 17 percent thought an appropriate wage should be a little less than $100,000 a year. About 16 percent thought his salary should be somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000.
His actual earnings have not been disclosed, nor have any of his tax returns.
Two Different Towns Claim to be the “True” Home of Santa
Tradition tells us that Santa lives at the North Pole. It makes sense that the town of North Pole, Alaska, claims Santa as its favorite son. Don’t say that if you are in the vicinity of Rovaniemi, located in the northernmost province of Finland. Its folks also claim they are “the only Official Hometown of Santa Claus,” according to a communications officer for Rovaniemi tourism.
Santa has yet to resolve the matter with any kind of public statement. It is possible that he divides his time between the two places, treating one as his vacation home.
Santa is the Most Powerful Mutant in History
We knew that Santa had magical powers, but did you know those powers are attributable to mutant abilities? Marvel Comics revealed this previously-unknown aspect of Santa’s mystique in a special 1991 Christmas edition of X-Men. Santa’s powers are quite impressive and include immortality, telepathy, teleportation, weather manipulation, molecular manipulation, immunity to cold and heat, and gravity manipulation.
For more details about this aspect of Santa’s existence, check out this post.
Santa Has a Canadian Passport and a Pilot’s License
The man who famously opposes those who have been naughty probably has a vested interest in complying with the law. Since he spends most of Christmas Eve occupying Class A airspace, he needs a pilot’s license. Fortunately, he was issued one in 1927 by the U.S. government.
Santa also crosses every national boundary, so a passport would be necessary and useful. Santa and Mrs. Claus received their very own ePassports in 2013 from Canada. During a special ceremony in Toronto, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said of the holiday pair, “Like so many Canadian citizens who enjoy extensive travel around the world, the Claus’ were thrilled to receive their ePassports—which are among the world’s most accepted and secure travel documents… whether you are traveling by car, by boat, or with a team of flying reindeer.”
Even with his pilot’s license and passport, it can be expected that Santa occasionally runs afoul of attempts to maintain the integrity of national airspace. This video shows one possible problem he might face when crossing into Russian territory:
At One Time, Santa Was Persona Non-Grata in America
When the Puritans settled in New England, they brought notions of Christmas that would be hard to reconcile with the celebratory nature of today’s observances of the holiday. They continued the tradition of their British forefathers, declaring December 25 as a day of “fasting and humiliation.” The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law in 1659 that warned “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” could be fined up to five shillings for the offense.
The author of The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum, explained that “Puritans believed Christmas was basically just a pagan custom that the Catholics took over without any biblical basis for it.” Santa had no place in a Puritan Christmas observance, and he — and anyone inviting him — would have to be prepared to pay empty their wallets.
Santa’s Generosity Is Founded in Helping People
The character we now identify as Santa Claus first made his appearance as Nicholas. He was the bishop of Patara, which is modern-day Turkey. Nicholas ministered to the poor of his parish and was particularly concerned about the plight of young girls who were sold into slavery by parents who were unable to make ends meet. Nicholas secretly delivered bags of gold to families, hoping to spare the daughters the trauma of being victims of human trafficking. He was also known to have saved children from being slaughtered by butchers and being sliced up and sold as ham.
Nicholas had yet to adopt the practice of entering homes through the chimney, so he delivered the gold by throwing the bags through open windows.
According to tradition, the newborn Nicholas was said to have stood up immediately after birth to praise God. He was also known to refuse his mother’s milk on sacred days of fasting.
The remains of the original Nicholas are in Italy. Well, some of them, anyway. Looters stole half of his skeleton as well as other relics, thereby earning irrevocable places on the Naughty List.
When scientists reconstructed Nicholas’ face, they discovered that he had a badly broken nose, received during the persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian.
He Has a Good Reason for Having a Belly that Shakes Like a Bowl Full of Jelly
Over the years, it has become a tradition for children to set out cookies and milk before going to bed on Christmas Eve. These treats can be thought of as a way to express thanks for Santa’s generosity, to give him a little sugar rush to help him with his Herculean task, or as a bribe to encourage him to leave a toy, instead of a lump of coal.
Regardless of the motivation behind the treats, they are rarely low calories food items. If every household he visits leaves an average of two cookies for Santa, that means in a single evening, he consumes 374 billion calories, 33,000 tons of sugar, and 151,000 tons of fat. To burn off all of those empty calories, Santa would need to run for approximately 109,000 years.
A Newspaper Vouched for Santa’s Authenticity
In 1897, an 8-year-old girl by the name of Virginia O’Hanlon asked her father whether Santa was real. Her father suggested she write to the New York newspaper The Sun and ask the question. He told her, “If you see it in The Sun, then it is so.”
Virginia’s question was answered by the newspaper’s editors on September 21, 1897, who unreservedly assured the girl, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He lives as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist….” The article concluded with, “No Santa Claus? Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of the childhood.”
Santa’s Icelandic Competition is Rather Terrifying
The children of Iceland don’t spend a lot of time anticipating Santa’s arrival. Instead, they have to contend with thirteen “Yule Lads,” who are like mischievous mini-versions of Santa, with names like Bowl Licker, Sausage Swiper, Pot Scraper, and Spoon Licker. One of them visits Icelandic children every day between December 11th and January 6th. The Yule Lads may leave gifts in the shoes of good children, or they may torment the entire family by doing the very things that earned them their names.
Icelandic children also have to contend with the giantess Grýla, who spends the holidays cooking children alive if they haven’t been listening to their parents, and a frightening black cat called the Yule Cat who eats kids who aren’t wearing at least one pair of new clothing.
You can read more about Iceland’s horrifying Christmas traditions here.
St. Nicholas is the Most Popular Non-Biblical Saint
If there is a Hollywood Boulevard for saints, St. Nicholas is would rank as a superstar, filling the sidewalks with multiple stars. Overall, only St. Mary has been depicted more often by artists. When you restrict the list to non-biblical saints, St. Nicholas has no rival.
In addition to his close association with Christmas, St. Nicholas has the distinction of being the patron saint of banking, pawnbroking, scholarship, pirating, butchery, sailing, thievery, haberdashery, orphans, royalty, and New York City.
A Cartoonist Helped Him Move from Turkey to the North Pole
While Coca-Cola can take credit for the color of Santa’s holiday uniform, it was artist Thomas Nast who best popularized the rest of the way Santa appears. His drawings for Harper’s Weekly captured the imagination of those who saw them, cementing in our minds the image of Santa as a jolly, old elf.
Nast, in a series of drawings for Harper’s Weekly, also spilled the secret that Santa had, at some point in the past 1,400 years, moved from Turkey to the North Pole. Many suggest that he chose the North Pole because, at the time, there were several scientific explorations to the North Pole, a region that was seen as a type of fantasy land, mysterious and just out of reach.
The Origin of His Ninth — and Most Famous — Reindeer
In 1938, Bob May, a copywriter Montgomery Ward, was looking for a way to lift the spirits of his struggling family. His wife was ill, and his four-year-old daughter felt outcast from her peers.
Remembering his own experiences, being bullied as a young boy, he looked for someone who would be an example and encouragement for his little girls and other children in similar situations. He began to write about a little reindeer by the name of Rudolph.
It wasn’t until May’s wife passed away that he managed to finish writing the story. He showed it to some of his co-workers, and they encouraged him to share it at a company party. When he finished reading the last line, his co-workers gave him a standing ovation. Montgomery Ward bought the right to the book and gave away more than 6 million copies to shoppers over the next six years.
May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, put the story to music. When Gene Autry recorded “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” it became an immediate hit and rocketed to the top of the charts during the Christmas season of 1949. The song sold 2.5 million copies the first year, eventually selling a total of 25 million. It remained the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s.