Santa scholarship: what is the most cited research on Christmas?

A trawl of published research shows that Santa Claus has an enduring fascination for academics

December 21, 2017
Santa checking list with reindeer

For academics, the festive season has long presented an opportunity for some more light-hearted research into a variety of topics.

This year has been no exception: George Knee, a theoretical physicist at the University of Warwick, described earlier this month how quantum physics could explain why Santa doesn’t actually get stuck up the chimney.

Scholars sometimes also find more serious reasons to perform Christmas-related research, such as analysing increased visits to accident and emergency departments or the commercial impact of the festival.

But of all these different publications, which ones have had the biggest scholarly impact? One way of exploring this is through citations, based on one of the main sources of published research, Elsevier’s Scopus database. This reveals that, while a diverse mix of articles have had the most impact, a wry sense of humour is never far from the surface even when the subject matter is more profound.

Santa’s scholarly footprint

A simple search of Scopus on the topic of “Christmas” brings up almost 8,000 articles, but a quick glance reveals that this more often than not represents papers that merely feature the word in the title or abstract for incidental reasons.

Searching the subject alongside central religious themes such as “Christianity” and “Jesus” immediately narrows down the field.

However, it seems that the huge impact of Santa Claus (or Father Christmas, if you prefer) on modern celebrations has had one of the biggest influences on the academic literature: in total there are almost 300 pieces of research that mention either Santa or Father Christmas.

The top cited of these – with almost 120 citations – is an article published in 2006 by researchers working at IBM’s Watson Research Center in the US who considered the best algorithm for solving the “Santa Claus problem” of how to “distribute presents in such a way that the least lucky kid is as happy as possible”.

Second in the list, notching up just under 100 citations, is a 1995 article by a researcher at the University of Calgary who used the growth of Lapland as a tourist destination to discuss how the tendency for Santa to be “increasingly commodified” was “allowing tourists to consume intangible concepts such as Christmas”.

Meanwhile, belief in Santa is put to good use in another piece of research with dozens of citations, published in 2005 and conducted by academics in the US, the Netherlands and Sweden. In the paper, the scholars examine how children use the testimony of adults to establish the existence of things that they cannot see, including Santa but also scientific concepts such as germs and oxygen, and how they see them differently from what they see as “impossible entities” such as flying pigs.

Rudolph the red-hot scholarly subject

Some more amusing examples of Christmas-themed research emerge when looking at subsets of the scholarship on Santa Claus. For instance, including reindeer in the search reveals that the colour of Rudolph’s nose seems to be a topic that has warranted a fair amount of attention.

Research published in the journal Parasitology Today in 1986 by Odd Halvorsen of what is now UiT The Arctic University of Norway has gathered the most citations in this genre. In the article, the scholar questions popular ideas about how the reindeer got his red nose.

“The general consensus is that Rudolf [sic] has caught a cold, but as far as I know no proper diagnosis has been made of his abnormal condition. I think that, rather than having a cold, Rudolf is suffering from a parasitic infection of his respiratory system,” he states in the abstract introducing his paper.

The mystery surrounding the reindeer’s nose is explored in another article with multiple citations published in The BMJ in 2012 by another researcher at UiT and academics in the Netherlands.

“Why Rudolph’s nose is red: observational study” considers whether the colour is “due to the presence of a highly dense and rich nasal microcirculation”. To test their hypothesis, they compared six humans and two reindeer and found that the “nasal microcirculation” of reindeer had a vascular density 25 per cent higher than in humans.

“These results highlight the intrinsic physiological properties of Rudolph’s legendary luminous red nose, which help to protect it from freezing during sleigh rides and to regulate the temperature of the reindeer’s brain, factors essential for flying reindeer pulling Santa Claus’s sleigh under extreme temperatures,” they state.

Meanwhile, a more serious concern about the future of Rudolph’s natural habitat is also considered in a couple of other articles that have gained citations.

“Will climate change kill Santa Claus?”, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism in 2014, is the fairly direct title of one of these papers, which examines whether climate change could have a major impact on the “place brand value” of Lapland as a tourist destination given its promotion as “Santa’s winter home replete with snow, pine trees and reindeer”.

The science of Santa

This last paper also enters the top 10 for the most cited pieces of research on Santa since 2012, although a similar-themed paper on Lapland tourists’ perceptions of climate change, published in 2013 in Tourism Geographies, has three times as many citations and reaches fourth place in this list.

The top three most-cited publications in recent years all feature Santa as a useful experimental tool in a wide range of research, from life science to computing.

In first place is a computing paper in 2012 that again mentions the “Santa Claus problem”, second is a 2012 examination of the mind’s processing of information about supernatural beings and the third, from 2013, looks at a family of proteins and whether they act as cells’ “own personal ‘Santa Claus’ that serves to ‘gift’ various signaling complexes with precise proteins that they ‘wish for’”.

Also in this list of recently cited research is the seemingly unfestive article, “Engaging geographies of public art: indwellers, the ‘Butt Plug Gnome’ and their locale”, a piece by an academic in the Netherlands looking at the perception of public art. It takes as a case study an artwork by sculptor Paul McCarthy called Santa Claus in Rotterdam that caused controversy and received an unaffectionate nickname from locals.

Meanwhile, among those attracting citations despite being published only last year is “Dispelling the nice or naughty myth: retrospective observational study of Santa Claus”, published in The BMJ.

This research, based on statistics from the UK, took a close look at “which factors influence whether Santa Claus will visit children in hospital on Christmas Day”, including a child’s “absenteeism from primary school” and “distance from hospital to North Pole”.

It said that the results “dispel the traditional belief that Santa Claus rewards children based on how nice or naughty they have been in the previous year” but that he is “less likely to visit children in hospitals in the most deprived areas”. It adds that “potential solutions include a review of Santa’s contract or employment of local Santas in poorly represented regions”.

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