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When You Decide To Dispel The Santa Claus Myth, Make It A Teachable Moment

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Santa Claus, Christmas badass since 1895.

On a bitingly cold morning in 2011, I was sitting quietly in a repurposed Chicago bar listening to a physics teacher kill Santa Claus.

Apparently, physics teachers and educators do this all the time. Examinations of Kringle’s physics are posted (and rebutted) in web archives, physics news outlets, and numerous science blogs. And it’s hard not to look at the science. Santa Claus is a wonderful problem to explore. He has known conditions—namely that he must travel to a certain number of houses in a certain amount of time—that involve basic physical concepts like speed and mass, making him a perfect blackboard example. But no matter how you solve it, the bearded, jolly gift-bearer is completely implausible. Adults already knew this, of course, so just who are we doing the physics for?

With a small yellow notepad in hand, I was ready for the next speaker at the conference in the Chicago bar, a Skepticamp—a sort of un-conference for those interested in the intersection between science and contentious claims like Bigfoot, “alternative medicine,” and faith healing. The next speaker was high school teacher Matt Lowry, the “Skeptical Teacher,” who brought with him a short PowerPoint on the physics of Santa Claus. For the next few minutes he barely took a breath between sentences.

Lowry introduced his slides as something that he shows his teenage physics classes to introduce them to critical thinking. He gesticulated and panted while explaining that if Santa Claus were real, he would have to travel at a truly incredible speed. With millions of children to visit and only a day to visit them all, Kringle would have to move at hundreds of miles per second (depending on what estimations you use). Such speeds would generate huge G-forces and vaporizing compression-heating—like a shuttle re-entering our atmosphere, only much faster and with a beard. The combined forces would rip Santa Claus apart as he and his reindeer burst into spectacular flames and sonic booms above some bewildered child’s chimney. For Lowry, the take-home message for his students is that Santa cannot possibly be a real man, because physics. After he hit his last slide and took a moment to catch his breath, he concluded the presentation by stating that he encouraged students to extend this style of inquiry to other mythical and religious figures.

[The whole presentation, he explained later, has been floating around among physics teachers for years. In my research for this article, the presentation seems to have stemmed from this 1990 article in the now discontinued Spy Magazine, though that is also in contention.]

Lowry’s destruction of Santa Claus didn’t upset anyone in attendance that day. He was preaching to an already skeptical choir. Even his high school students, I imagine, wouldn’t be particularly shocked by the end of his slides. But how would a physical examination of Santa find children who have not yet let go of the myth? Could skepticism be extended so easily? I left the conference with those lingering questions.

I don’t have kids, but I suspect that dealing with the death of the Santa Claus myth isn’t easy. At its best, a child comes to the realization on his or her own (or with the help of friends), and by the time the parents feel that it’s time, there isn’t anything to say. At its worst, dispelling the myth hits hard. The reveal is a tangled ball of emotion and confusion crafted by a parent’s lies. And maybe many families never talk about it at all, expecting a child to eventually inform themselves, and for all parties involved to keep up the charade while secretly knowing the truth.

There’s something to learn from a physical examination like Matt Lowry’s of Santa that I think can help ease any pain brought on by the final reveal. A teachable moment, a self-empowerment, hides in the destruction of Santa Claus.

I think Santa can teach STEM. Exploring the physics of reindeer flight and cross-continent travel, for example, involves basic concepts that are much more fun to learn with a jolly gift giver at the center of them. Speed, a function of distance and time, could easily be taught to a child with Santa’s numbers provided for them. And fun analogies abound for what happens to Santa at those speeds. Like I said above, a sleigh would burst into flames if it had to make all the Christmas stops in one day, but why? Look to a shooting star. It burns up in our sky not because of friction, but because air can’t move out of its way fast enough and gets squeezed together. Santa’s sleigh would do the same. Both lessons involve making proper estimations, a valuable tool in any examination. How many children would Santa really have to visit? Are you accounting for religion? What about kids on the “naughty list”? How heavy would all the presents be? Where would you go to find those numbers?

Working with children in this way could be immensely rewarding for them, giving them at least some ability to discover the world for themselves without having to rely on myth or a parent’s say-so. That rejection of authoritative answers is the essence of science. Will this tactic work? I can’t say. I’d bet that a child is more interested in presents than particle interactions. But for the budding science-enthusiast, I have to believe that guiding him or her through the process of discovery is a gift in and of itself.

Are you a parent who has dealt with the destruction of the Santa Claus myth? How did you do it? Any advice?

Image Credit: Man portraying Santa Claus. Published circa 1895. Photographer unknown. Put into the creative commons by Chuck Coker.

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. PhsyicsFiend 12:32 pm 12/19/2013

    While this is far outside my area of study (particle physics), neuroscientist Sam Harris recently put out a short book entitled “Lying” in which he lays out the Santa conundrum fairly well. It was orginally released as an e-book so this physical copy takes on “reader’s criticisms” in a great answer/question style section at the end. Well worth the read if you have ever thought of the Santa lie, or any other “white” lies.

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  2. 2. Johnny Chimpo 3:42 pm 12/19/2013

    How about the amount of lift and thrust that the (flying) reindeer must produce in order to combat the weight and drag of the sleigh?

    Interesting context for a discussion of science, though I have to admit that it seems a bit difficult to ignore the flying reindeer aspect of it all in order to form it into a critical thinking problem.

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  3. 3. Devonshire 5:22 pm 12/19/2013

    In the “good-old-days”, BEFORE credit cards and buying STUFF became an obsession, children used to receive:

    “Triple crotch, double seat underwear” from Santa each year. (OR, they had none, especially in cold climates. So, when they found out HE doesn’t exist, they could have cared less.

    Food for thought……..

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  4. 4. vapur 7:26 am 12/20/2013

    Why not study the sociological implications of lying to your children and the resulting betrayal of trust affecting future interaction? The scientific lesson doesn’t necessarily need to cover how to make the lie believable or potentially possible via physics, but relative to a real philosophical science.

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  5. 5. WarmNeutron 10:20 am 12/20/2013

    Seems like we also need to explore the physics of lying to our children along with the physics of Santa’s flight.

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  6. 6. David Cummings 2:49 pm 12/20/2013

    My five year old likes the Green Ninja, Luke Skywalker and Bobba Fett. I’ve told him these are all just stories, and not in real life, and he accepts that as true then goes on talking about them as if they are real. Fine. He’s 5 years old. I don’t make an issue of it.

    But when it comes to Santa (who he only has a passing interest in, and I have casually mentioned is a story character similar to Bobba Fett) I do make it a teachable moment.

    How is it that Santa is able to visit all those children all at midnight?

    I ask the question for him, since most kids don’t think to ask this, not at 5 years old. I remember when I was a little older talking about it with my younger brothers and we thought of the number of homes in our town and the number of towns on the map and came to the conclusion that there is no Santa.

    But I don’t want to tell my kid there’s no Santa, though I did already mention that in passing back in August. Now it’s December, and the question of whether or not there is a Santa doesn’t come up. Instead the question is, how does he do it? (And I’m the one who brings that up.)

    So I make it a teachable moment. I tell him that according to string theory there are actually 11 dimensions and that 7 of those dimensions are curled up so we can’t see them. I also tell him that Santa isn’t a person, he’s a quantum wave function. What happens is, the Santa Wave Function collapses into a solid Santa at each child’s house, but he does so in one of the other dimensions, which is an extra time dimension, which allows him to seemingly appear at all houses at midnight.

    I’m no physicist and this makes no sense, but my 5 year old now has a passing familiarity with these phrases:
    String Theory
    Extra dimensions
    Quantum wave functions
    Wave function collapse

    Does he understand any of it? Do I? (Do you? Not according to Richard Feynman you don’t.) But that’s not the point. The point is he’s growing up with those words rolling lightly off his tongue.

    Christmas Time Teachable Moment

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  7. 7. jgrosay 3:48 pm 12/20/2013

    The sad event in telling kids about the ‘truth of Santa’ is that after discovering it was just a sweet, but faked tale, the child’s mind perceives in an unavoidable way that all the teachings received along with the ‘Santa’ myth may be, or are, equally false, this will destroy not only the confidence in parents, but also the strenght of all normative and social teachings and restrictions received in the times before ‘knowing the truth about Santa’, and makes suspicious or a lie any info received from the same source that told the kids about ‘Santa gifts’ being an actual event. Better refrain from saying lies about the origin of the Xmas season gifts.

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  8. 8. denke42 4:11 am 12/21/2013

    We never told our son that there was a Santa Claus. When he asked, we explained that some children believed in Santa and that it would be kinder not to contradict their belief unless they asked. We took the same approach when he asked about God: we don’t think there is a God, but many people do – including some beloved grandparents. So our teaching had to do not with physics but with respecting others’ beliefs, even when we think they’re wrong. Our son did on his own realize how impossible it would be for someone to do all the things commonly attributed to Santa. He also voiced some ideas that to his mind disconfirmed the existence of God, based on his limited 4-year-old understanding of physics and of others’ theology.
    I felt pretty strongly about not foisting the adult-fabricated Santa myth on our son. Many friends and relative were aghast. Some even averred that we were somehow forbidding him fantasy and stunting his imagination. This turned out to be laughably untrue.
    I’m glad to know that I never lied to my son – not even about Santa Clause. I don’t know how much difference it made – whether other children’s confidence or trust suffers lasting damage from being tricked into believing in Santa. I do know that our now-adult son seems rather more reasonable and rational than most people. Did not being manipulated into believing in the Santa myth contribute to this? Maybe.

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  9. 9. flynf 1:47 pm 12/24/2013

    When I was a kid, by the time I found out for sure that Santa wasn’t real, I already kind of knew. I was more upset that my parents didn’t feel the need to play along with the game anymore than anything else. So the betrayal for me, wasn’t being lied to, but for an abandoned tradition and loss of excitement. Oh we still had “Santa” for the younger siblings, but then I had to help out so it really wasn’t the same for me.

    I think most kids are smart enough to figure it out and consider it as a game of playing pretend. But then again, it depends on how the parents treat it. If they’re always really insistant that Santa’s real, then I can see how some kids are shocked by finding out he isn’t. Especially if the parents aren’t big on teaching critical thinking.

    With my kids, they play Santa, but when one of them asked me if Santa’s real, I just asked him what he thought and we discussed the facts he brought up. He loves critical thinking, so it was never a big deal… though on the other hand, he also loves playing pretend, so Santa is still a game for him this year.

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  10. 10. Monica Metzler 3:10 pm 12/24/2013

    You know, teachable moments with science don’t ALWAYS have to be about dispelling the Santa myth…. At Illinois Science Council we take the opportunity every year on Christmas eve to re-post a great piece done by some physicists at Fermi National Lab that uses science to explain how Santa COULD accomplish his trip.
    We’re always looking for ways apply science to anything in a fun way.

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  11. 11. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 3:33 pm 12/24/2013

    I totally agree Monica! “Re-bunking” a topic, as I call it, is a fun (and more creative) way to handle myths, legends, and especially science fiction. However, I’d guess that the target audience for the articles aren’t children who have no idea Santa doesn’t exist. My point is that for children who haven’t crossed that bridge, at least use the opportunity to teach some science.

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  12. 12. Monica Metzler 12:49 pm 12/31/2013

    I looove the term “re-bunking” Kyle! (I hope you don’t mind if I use it.) You’re right; our efforts are aimed primarily at adults. We try to bring out (or reawaken) in adults the childlike sense of curiosity through science.

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