Santa the stranger and demanding kids: academic research at Christmas

Glen Wright reveals what Yuletide has to do with amphetamines and OCD

December 23, 2015
Santa and rudolph christmas
How does Rudolph, with his infected respiratory system, manage to pull the obese Santa?

I am a not a huge fan of Christmas.

I am a holiday sceptic of the Santa Claus as Deity, Consumption as Religion school.

Yet as the year draws to a close and we breathe a collective sigh of relief, I do hope that we might all leave behind thoughts of papers and grading for a few days and get into the Christmas spirit.

In the hope of spreading a little bit of holiday cheer, here is a round-up of some wacky winter research.

For me, Christmas means food, and there is nothing quite like the smell of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves filling your house. As well as invoking fond memories of Christmases past, Alexander Shulgin postulated that these spices produce chemicals similar to amphetamines when baked, potentially acting as a natural mood enhancer.

While this may stave off the Grinch within, kids these days are only content with ever more gifts. A fascinating analysis of 344 letters to Santa suggests that they ask for an average of seven gifts per letter, with Barbie, Ninja Turtles, Nintendo and New Kids on the Block being popular demands (the study was conducted in 1994, and it shows).

A similar study conducted in 1975 found that kids on average asked for just 3.8 gifts. A recent study puts this rise down to increased television advertising.

While they may love his gift-giving prowess, a study of the facial expressions of children queuing to see a shopping centre Santa shows that they are unenthused about meeting the big man in person.

In a stroke of methodological genius, kids’ expressions were compared with a scale used to measure pain. Of 300 children assessed, 247 were deemed “indifferent” to the prospect of meeting Santa, while 47 were “hesitant”.

By contrast, most of the accompanying adults wore “exhilarated” expressions. While no explanation is offered, I think they either don’t get out enough, or they are trying too hard to engage their kids in the spectacle.

The author proffers that Santa “may not be an important hero figure and might even be considered a stranger” to the children, yet a survey conducted in Denmark suggests that the general public perceive Santa as being as trustworthy as a doctor. And more friendly.

Friendly he may be, but healthy he most certainly is not. In a spoof doctor’s referral for Mr Claus, the Canadian Medical Association identifies heightened risks for:

  • Obesity and hypertension (all those mince pies and sherry);
  • Respiratory problems caused by repeated exposure to ash in chimneys; and
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (he’s always making lists and checking them twice).

Rudolph may also have some health problems, with one academic arguing that his iconic red nose is caused by an undiagnosed parasitic infection of his respiratory system.

Finally, an excellent paper entitled Christmas economics – a sleigh ride provides a comprehensive review of Christmas trends and misconceptions, finding that:

  • The US stock market surges in the pre-holiday period, although this effect is decreasing over time (in New Zealand the effect is on the increase);
  • Alcohol consumption and related accidents and deaths spike during the holidays;
  • Suicides actually decrease;
  • The number of people dying of cardiovascular diseases increases markedly, although the exact reasons for this are unclear; and
  • Women do most of the Christmas shopping; men are happier; and more kids are conceived. No causal link has been established between these three observations.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Glen Wright blogs at Academia Obscura and tweets at @AcademiaObscura. His book is crowdfunding now.

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