The calculations in the Santa Claus problem are impressive but one of the key underlying assumptions is clearly false. As any child would be able to tell you, every shopping mall at this time of year has at least two or three Santa Clauses and many department stores seem to have retained their own Santa for the Christmas season. Add to this the obvious fact that each primary school also has at least one Santa Claus and that there also appear to be a fair contingent of unattached Santa Claus personnel who might be described as 'street Santas', as well as some Santas who inexplicable turn up at adult gatherings such as office parties, works functions, hospitals and old peoples homes. It is probably reasonable to assume that each suburb is fairly crawling with Santas who come out of the woodwork at this time of year. They are not all the same person because, as any child over the age of four would tell you, they look slightly different from each other; they do not speak the same; and different children in the same class at school have seen Santa at different locations simultaneously.
The single Santa 'myth' is clearly not sustainable. We might ask how the single Santa belief persisted in the face of so much contrary evidence. It is easy to see how people isolated local communities believed that their Santa was the only one and the real one, before the age of mass communications. In the age of mass communications however, it is surprising to see how many people still cling to old ways of thinking. This is a bit of a side issue that should be referred to a multi-disciplinary team of social psychologists, anthropologists and experts in cultural studies for explanation.
To return to the main theme, once we dismiss the single Santa myth, the ratio of (good) children per Santa Claus does not seem too large and the prospects of Santas and reindeer teams surviving take off seems to be improving considerably. There has been no credible research on this topic, but it does not seem unreasonable to assume a good 'child to Santa' ratio of 10:1 in well serviced areas, rising to 50:1 in more deprived areas, (that is fifty children per Santa not fifty Santas per child).
If we assume a localised Santa network, this places the Santa industry on a more ecologically sound footing. It reduces at lot of unnecessary travel, is more humane to reindeer and provides better working conditions for Santas. On these ratios each Santa only has to visit between ten and fifty children per night. He loses the benefit of additional working hours due to different time zones, and if we are traditionalists can not set to work before about 8pm and must finish work before about 6 in the morning assuming he plans his deliveries to distributes to the late Christmas risers last. This only gives him 10 working hours. However on these calculations each Santa has to deliver to between one and five children per hour, and his sleigh has a maximum payload of between 20Kg and 100Kg. All these figures seem much more reasonable. It is plausible therefore to assume that 6 reindeer will be adequate without over working the beasts and that there will be no need for undue haste or breaking speed limits except perhaps in extremely remote locations where I believe ignoring speed limits is in any case customary.
Claims that there may, in some places, be more Santas than children are, I believe generally exaggerated at the present time. This is a trend we may see emerging in the future. It is possible that, in a minority of aging communities, parity has already been reached (one Santa for each child). With changing demographics and lower fertility rates, this phenomenon may be expected to emerge in some communities in developed nations in the near future. On the basis of demographic change, expect to see this pattern emerge first in countries such as Italy. Santa researchers, especially ethnographers should already be making active plans to study the cultural effects of such a profound shift. It is clear that the repercussions are multi-faceted.
A decreasing ‘child to Santa ratio’ might be expected to have a number of important implications. Firstly, to keep all the would-be Santas employed, there will be pressure to distribute gifts to all children and not just the good ones. Some would see this as a dilution of standards whilst others would see this arrangement as more equitable and in line with research on child development and behaviour management.
Secondly, the availability of differing types of ‘present-delivery patch’ will offer a range of challenges to suit Santas seeking different kinds of job satisfaction. Those who gain satisfaction from high speed sleigh driving can apply for sparsely populated regions, while those who like to be kept busy can seek placement in an area where the child to Santa ratio is high. The availability of variable size ‘patches’ will provide a range of career progression opportunities. Areas where the workload is relatively light will provide an ideal training ground for beginning Santas who can build their skills in a less pressured environment. The same areas will provide ideal job opportunities for Santas at the other end of their careers who are slowing down a bit.
Thirdly, changing ‘child to Santa’ ratios also have occupational health implications. The requirement to provide a safe workplace has been overlooked for too long in the Christmas industry. One particular concern is about the long-term effects of pressure to indulge in unsafe alcohol consumption. Recent health warnings about the dangers of binge drinking can no longer be ignored. Santas who are teetotal or recovering alcoholics or sensitive to the effects of alcohol, who might otherwise have been relieved of their duties, will be able to request allocation to communities where there are a high proportion of teetotallers, for example communities where there is a strong Methodist or Baptist presence.
Fourthly, the issue of air traffic safety however will become a more serious problem. Rising numbers of reindeer teams leaving the North Pole within a short period of time means that congestion will be an increasing problem, especially when wind conditions restrict the use of some flight trajectory paths. The only long-term solution to this problem is to build chains of local service depots that can be provisioned in advance and from which Santas exit on Christmas Eve to their local area. There is some anecdotal evidence that this strategy has, in fact, been adopted.
Fifthly, there are fodder supply and pollution issues that arise from any increase in reindeer teams, but dispersal of teams to local depots means that local solutions can be sought to these problems. In countries where cow dung is valued as a cooking fuel, reindeer dung can viewed as a useful resource to be traded in the local market. In countries such as Australia, where sheep manure is sold as garden fertiliser, it would be appropriate to investigate disposal in of reindeer dung through the garden centre market. In Holland, where animal manure is a pollutant, methods would have to be found of collecting reindeer droppings for disposal elsewhere. The traditional solution of the bucket on the back of the sleigh would be appropriate, provided that the bucket is modified to have a close fitting lid, in line with modern hygiene standards.
Finally, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Santa Research has plans to develop a comprehensive model of the relationship between these factors so that the social impact of changing ‘child to Santa’ ratios can be anticipated. This will enable plans to be put in place to mitigate any negative consequences and to support any positive outcomes of changing ‘child to Santa’ ratios. We will be seeking applicants to join this team who have a good understanding of social sciences, the physical sciences, a knowledge of modelling techniques and a good practical understanding of a variety of systems methodologies. For more details, please watch this space.