Getting presents to all the good little boys and girls every Christmas is a monumental task for Santa Claus — and it's led some children to question how he does it.
In The Truth About Santa: Wormholes, Robots and What Really Happens on Christmas Eve, author Gregory Mone explains the elaborate systems that make it all possible.
"I think part of the reason people look at Santa and say it's all magic, is that his job does seem impossible, this notion of getting around the world and visiting all these homes in a single night," Mone, an editor at Popular Science magazine, tells NPR's Renee Montagne.
But Santa's secret, Mone says, is that he uses tools that are hundreds of years beyond what we have at our disposal.
"As a result, it does seem like magic," he says. "But it's really all science and technology."
For instance, Santa's red suit: It's designed for the extreme conditions he encounters while traveling at warp speed and bending space and time. And, Mone says, "Santa's suit is laden with what are called metamaterials, which have the effect of bending light around a person so that they turn invisible" — which can come in handy if there are curious children peeking during his Christmas deliveries.
Santa's reading glasses, which contribute to his quaint image, are actually equipped with what's called a "heads-up display." When Santa looks through the lenses, he sees a range of information about the residents of the house he's visiting, the presents to leave, directions to the next house and more.
He also has a special device to ensure he doesn't double up on presents under the tree.
"Santa knows what we want, but he doesn't really know what presents to leave for a given kid until he gets to the house and looks under the tree," Mone says.
But Santa doesn't have time to unwrap and rewrap all the presents. So he uses a terahertz wave radiation scanner to see through the wrapping and make out the shape inside, indicating which toys are already under the tree. That way, he can leave a different one.
The latest research in the social sciences has also had an effect on Santa's operations. Mrs. Claus, who's particularly fond of the works of Harvard University child psychiatrist Robert Coles, convinced Santa that positive reinforcement would be more powerful in altering the behavior of "naughty" children.
Because of this, Santa no longer leaves coal in their stockings.
Excerpt: 'The Truth About Santa'
Why Santa Can't Use Fedex
Outsourcing, carbon-emission-canceling saplings, and other costly complexities of doing Christmas the corporate way.
The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke used to say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This is particularly relevant in the case of Santa Claus. For years people have attributed the successful completion of his annual rounds to magical tricks. Yet every one of Santa's amazing abilities comes from real technology. And he needs these fabulous gadgets, vehicles, and devices because it would be too hard for one man, or even millions of people, to accomplish his annual mission without them. It would be ridiculously expensive, too. How costly? A. T. Kearney consultant Mike Moriarty and his team recently looked at what it would take if Santa couldn’t slow time or fl y behind a set of reindeer but was instead powered by a bottomless bank account.
First, they decided that Santa would probably rely on the Internet. Using a mail room to collect wish lists, or even staffing a call center to speak with kids directly, would be too slow, costly, and complex. Moriarty suggested that instead of writing letters, kids would register for gifts on sites like Facebook, Club Penguin or MySpace. There would be limitations, of course. Santa couldn’t allow them to request a Ferrari or a window seat on the first space tourism plane. Parents and
guardians would need to be involved. They would have to be able to check to make sure that little Robby wasn’t asking for the Mature-rated game they already said he couldn’t have. They could assist with the naughty- or- nice question, too, and help Santa determine whether a given child actually deserves a gift. Kids can’t be trusted to assess their own behavior.
Moriarty concluded that Santa would probably want to steer a percentage of kids to virtual presents, such as gift cards, that could be fulfilled online. This way, he would have fewer presents to deliver and, as a result, lower costs and environmental impact.
What about those friendly little elves? Keeping them on the payroll all year wouldn't really make sense, from a business standpoint. No, Santa would outsource his toy manufacturing operations. This would save him serious money, but it would add another level of complexity. Santa has a reputation to uphold, a brand to manage, so he would have to ensure that all of these factories adhered to the best standards possible, in terms of working conditions, wages, quality of the goods. If you think Mattel looked bad after that lead paint was found in their toys, imagine what kind of public relations damage this would have done to Santa Claus. People would be cementing their chimneys shut.
The manufacturing facilities would have to be green. Given the risk that climate change poses to the North Pole — a topic to be discussed at length in Chapter 13 — Santa would want guarantees that every factory be as environmentally friendly as possible. He'd insist that they take advantage of recycled materials, reusable building materials, and alternative energy whenever possible.
Still, it's really the next step, moving all those toys from factories to homes, that would do the bulk of the damage to the atmosphere. Moriarty and his team concluded that Santa would have to avoid air freight whenever possible, though it’s the fastest option, and move the goods via container ships, rail lines, and, eventually, old- fashioned delivery trucks. To offset all the fuel burned along the way, he suggested planting Christmas tree saplings along the tree line in Russia and Canada.
The budget for this entire endeavor would be absurd, especially if you add in delivery: not just getting these gifts to kids' doorsteps, but slipping them under the tree in the middle of the night. Completing this final step in the U.S. alone would call for millions of highly trained employees, probably former military operatives, breaking and entering repeatedly without being seen or heard. The domestic tally for an operation of this scale would cost in the range of $30 billion per year. "There is good reason why Santa employs cost-free and happy elves in workshops that do not actually exist in physical reality and delivers gifts using relatively greenhouse-gas-neutral reindeer power," Moriarty concluded. "In addition to being nice, it saves Santa a bundle."