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.