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Competing theories on the relation between Santa and the elves.

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


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For many, this time of year is the height of hectic, whether due to holiday preparations or grade-filing deadlines at the end of the semester (or, for some of us, both of those together). Amidst the buzz and bustle, sometimes it’s a gift to slow down enough to find a quiet moment and listen to the people in your life. What you might hear in those moments can be a gift, too.

During a pause in my grading, my eldest child (age 13) related this conversation to me, which I am sharing with her permission.*

On a recent drive to a trumpet lesson, my father and I were speculating the social role of Santa Claus as compared to his elves. We managed to come up with two different possible theories that took account of the many different factors that were present in Santa’s supposed habits.

My dad’s theory was that Santa was a zombie. Not one of those brain-munching decomposing corpses that constitute the modern definition of zombies, but a zombie in the voodoo sense. Basically, a flesh puppet; a person under mind control that was being used to perform a task. He came to the conclusion that the elves brought Santa back every year to play a leadership role. According to my dad, resurrecting Santa was all the elves could do autonomously.

You can read more about how to make an old-school zombie in this excellent post from the archives of Cocktail Party Physics. Kids, be sure to get a parent’s permission first!

My theory was a bit more complex, and seemed more feasible to me. I hypothesized that Santa and his elves were like an ant or bee colony, with Santa as the “queen” and the elves as the workers. I proposed that milk and cookies were like the royal jelly. If an elf was given milk and/or cookies, it would metamorphose into another Santa and would challenge the existing Santa’s dominance. What would follow would be an intense and potentially disastrous Santa-on-Santa battle.

So my kids haven’t exactly outgrown speculating about Santa, but that speculation seems to have gone in an interesting direction. One wonders how many scientific careers can be traced back to childhood conversations where a grown-up was willing to spin theories with a kid.

_____
*Not only did she give her permission for me to share it, but she typed it up herself.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

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





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  1. 1. goddessjoy 1:14 pm 12/24/2012

    Elves are the last surviving population of Homo floresiensis. A genetic bottleneck makes them very susceptible to human diseases. Santa is a human hired for the job, who has to go through rigorous vaccinations and quarantine after Christmas. Because of global warming, the elves are considering leasing the North Pole to BP and setting up the workshop on a deepwater rig – however they are facing significant political interference from the Russians.

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  2. 2. Paul_in_Germany 12:47 am 12/25/2012

    Very well done, Janet. Especially gratifying with the inclusion of the zombie/jewel wasp sidebar. A hearty ‘Bravo’ to your oldest and a wish for all the joys of the season to you and yours.

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  3. 3. RickR 10:41 am 12/25/2012

    There is evidence that Santa is himself an elf. In “The Night Before Christmas” there is the line “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,”, which perhaps adds support for the second theory above.

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  4. 4. Xopher425 11:45 am 12/25/2012

    I’ve always thought that Santa was, in ages long past, a man who began to kidnap and torture children. the High Council at the time put him on trial, and he was found guilty of countless atrocities against kids. His punishment is eternal life, delivering presents and gifts to kids.

    The elves are simply his prison guards, there to ensure he carries out his sentence.

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  5. 5. tharriss 8:49 pm 12/25/2012

    Santa, the elves, the whole North Pole workshop, are all hallucination dreams of a bunch of telepathy gifted Walrus (Walri? Walrusses?) that accidentally swallowed some bad seaweed infected with a narcotic mold.

    Deep in their crazed Walrus dreams, they telepathically project their group visions to the world at large, leading to the global development of the Santa story.

    Sadly, due to climate change, they’ll all be extinct soon, and Santa will go the way of the many crazy things mankind believes then discards (gods, virgin births, the dead rising as holy zombie figures to be worshiped by millions, etc).

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  6. 6. Acoyauh2 5:47 pm 12/26/2012

    Santa and the elves are actually of the Fairy Folk, able to cross into our world only briefly after the winter solstice, when they come to manipulate our dreams and feed from our delusions.

    They don’t actually deliver ANY presents, we all know that, yet their pernicious subliminal influence persists even in these illuminated times.

    Get rid of the mistletoe, it actually gives them power over you! Use lots of garlic in your decorations instead, and avoid shiny accesories – the pests love shiny thingies. Most important of all, avoid Coca-Cola like the plague; they own it and that’s how they keep us drugged year-round!

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