Santa is not checking his list about whether you’re naughty or nice

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Bruno, the wannabe reindeer, was upset to discover he’d been “nice” for no reason

A new study, published in The BMJ, indicates that for centuries, children have been lied to about Santa/St Nick/Father Christmas—he does not actually care if they have been naughty or nice as he will give them presents regardless. More concerning, considering his original aim was to give presents to poor children, he is less likely to visit children who live in deprived areas.

John J Park (Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston, USA) and others report that although “it has long been thought” that Santa visited children on the basis on whether they had been “naughty or nice” in the previous year, there is actually “no empirical evidence” for this view. Therefore, to determine the importance of children’s behaviour in obtaining a visit from Santa, the authors telephoned every UK hospital with a paediatric ward to interview healthcare workers who worked on Christmas Day 2015 about Santa visits (oddly, hospitals do not hold any records about Papa Crimbo coming to town). Given the authors’ anecdotal evidence that children “rarely voluntarily admit to being naughty” (they do not specify if this evidence comes from their own childhoods), they used two potential indicators of child naughtiness: regional primary school absenteeism and conviction rates in young people.

Of 186 paediatric hospitals with healthcare professionals willing to be interviewed, 90% received a visit from the red-suited one. Of these, Northern Ireland received the most visits (100% of all wards), followed by Scotland (93%), Wales (92%), and England (89%). However, there were no significant differences between countries.

Park et al did not find any correlation between naughty behaviour and Santa visits. According to the authors, this raises an “important ethical question”—should children be told that they may still get a stocking filled with presents, rather than lumps of coal, even if they are naughty? They comment dispelling this “naughty or nice” myth could lead to “a possible increase in outbursts of bad behaviour by children over Christmas”. We at Cardiovascular News suspect the answer to this moral dilemma depends on how many (if any) children you will be surrounded by during the Christmas period—ie. the more children there are, the greater the incentive to lie. Park seems to agree with this view, as he comments: “Normally we would hope our research reaches the widest possible audience. But on this occasion, we call for caution in discussing the results, especially in front of children, for the sake of parents worldwide.”

Furthermore, in a subanalysis of Santa visits to English hospital wards, the odds ratio of a one unit change in the index of multiple deprivation decile from least deprived to most deprived was associated with a 1.31 times increase in the odds of not being visited by Santa (p=0.03). Park et al report: “A generally decreasing pattern of visits was observed with increasing deprivation across the top five deciles of deprivation, with only 79% of paediatric wards in the fifth decile reporting visits.” As to why Santa seems to be going against his original mission of giving to those who do not have much, they state: “One possible theory is that Santa Claus is forced to sustain existing inequality, as he is contractually not allowed to change anyone’s socioeconomic status.” They add that if Santa gave children presents that were beyond their economic means, he might gain “political power and thereby cause widespread discontent” and this “would run directly contrary to the primary mission statement of the North Pole: the deliverance of cheer”.

Concluding their report, Park et al note that Santa has “an incredibly tough job” to ensure that all of the nice children receive presents. “Undoubtedly, deeper social economic factors are at play, even impacting Santa Claus’s abilities to reach out to every child. Whether his contract needs to be reviewed or local Santas employed in the ‘hard to reach’ areas, all we want is for every child to be happy this Christmas,” they observe.

Senior author Jarvis Chen (Department of Behaviour Sciences, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston, USA) notes: “Santa’s commitment to bringing presents to children across the world in a 24-hour period is legendary. But our study shows that socioeconomic deprivation presents structural barriers to cheer that challenge even Santa’s preternatural abilities. This speaks to the continued need for policies and interventions to address socioeconomic deprivation and inequities in the UK and worldwide.”