Christmas Image Gallery
Christmas Image Gallery

A sample of a letter received by the United States Postal Service is put on display at a news conference at the James A. Farley Post Office in New York. See more Christmas pictures.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

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Introduction to How Santa Claus Works

­When Virginia O'Hanlon, an 8-year-old girl from New York City, sent a letter addressed to the newspaper The Sun in 1897, she asked a very simple question: "Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?" In what must have been a surprise to her, the question was answered quite frankly. After calling out Virgin­ia's "little friends" for doubting the existence of Santa Claus and being clouded by an age of skepticism, the writer of the article, Francis Pharcellus Church, gave his straightforward reply, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

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­Today, children all over the world are still asking the same question as Virginia did. So who exactly is this Santa Claus guy, and why would he cause so much skepticism among boys and girls? Is he some kind of magical figure? How could one person cause so much excitement, doubt and even concern?

­This ­Santa Claus guy appears to be pretty secretive about his operations. Along with Mrs. Claus, elves and a certain reindeer with a glowing, red nose, Santa is reputed to live at the North Pole, an impressive feat since the temperature almost never rises above freezing.

Because the North Pole isn't the most hospitable place for people to visit, it would be difficult for most people to withstand the harsh weather and rough terrain in order to gain any serious intel on Santa. And although no one may ever know for sure just how Santa operates, we at HowStuffWorks have what we think are the most logical explanations for how the big guy accomplishes all that he does: science and technology.

To find out more about Santa, the gear he might use and his possible connection to mall Santas, read on.­

Santa waves as he water-skis on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

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Naughty or Nice?

Santa Claus is one of the most popular and recognizable figures on Earth. He's been depicted in dozens of holiday-themed shows, from the 1947 film "Miracle on 34th Street" to the 1964 television special "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" to more recent films like "Elf" in 2003. Many countries have different names for him -- although he's Santa Claus in North America, he goes by Father Christmas in the United Kingdom, Père Noël in France, Babbo Natale in Italy and Sinterklaas in Holland, where he's associated with the Dec. 6 St. Nicholas Day celebration.

Whether you call him St. Nicholas, St. Nick or Santa Claus, though, the man represents the same thing to nearly everyone who celebrates Christmas and the holiday season -- he's known as a benevolent soul, a giver of gifts and a spreader of Christmas cheer.

According to Christmas folklore, Santa's main concern is making toys and distributing them in a timely and orderly fashion to children all over the world. This has garnered him quite a following. After all, children like toys, and Santa gives toys away -- therefore, children like Santa Claus.

Santa not only gives toys away, but he does it in style, too. He rides in his very own sleigh led by a team of reindeer, but it isn't just any old sleigh -- this one flies and rumor has it that it can make it around the world in just one night. It's also thought by some that Santa doesn't simply pass by your house and leave a few presents on your doorstep -- he lands on top of your roof, climbs down your chimney and puts presents both in your stockings and around your Christmas tree.

But where does Santa get all of these toys? Certainly one couldn't make or buy all of that merchandise by himself. That's where Santa's elves come in. It's possible that these little workers possess a drive and energy even the smallest of nanorobots couldn't match, so Santa would never have to worry too much about being behind in production.

There's a catch to Santa's good will, however. According to the classic Christmas song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Santa's always watching: "He's making a list / he's checking it twice / he's gonna find out who's naughty or nice." A big part of his job is to keep an eye on your behavior over the course of the year -- if you've behaved well, there's a good chance you'll get what you want for Christmas. If your behavior was less than satisfactory, however, you risk getting nothing but a lump of coal in your stocking. How does he do this? Our best bet is that he's using something similar to Google Earth. Think of that, then fast-forward into the future a few hundred years.

In the next section, we'll explore what Santa might look like in person and we'll ponder some of the special gadgets and technologies he might use.

Santa Claus scales a building to deliver presents.

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Santa's Appearance and Santa Gear

If you've ever paid attention to the floats during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, you'll notice one constant from year to year -- Santa Claus is always the big finale, the last one to pass through the streets of New York City. We'd have to assume that this is his only major official public appearance during the year, since he would be incredibly busy organizing wish lists and keeping tabs on elf productivity.

That brief glimpse, however, is enough to let us know that all those songs, poems, stories and movies about Santa Claus could be fairly accurate in their visual representations. Whether Santa is portrayed on film in live-action or in stop-motion animation, Hollywood has his image down pretty well -- he's a large, rather plump older man with white hair and a long, white beard, and most of the time he's wearing his trademark red suit and red stocking cap. His cheeks are almost always a rose-colored hue, and it may not be because he's been drinking too much eggnog. As we mentioned earlier, the weather is very cold in the North Pole, so his skin could become easily chapped.

Our best estimations are that Santa must use some serious gear to deliver presents:

  • The Sleigh - In addition to being outfitted with flying reindeer, Santa's sleigh must be a highly advanced flying machine that performs faster and more efficiently than any spaceship currently used by NASA. The vehicle would have to be equipped with a special Antimatter Propulsion Unit that allows Santa to skip from one roof to the next in less than 24 hours and make it home to the North Pole in time for a nap and Christmas dinner. The sleigh would probably be outfitted with an iPod player and a hot cocoa maker, allowing maximum comfort during Santa's trip around the Earth.
  • The Suit - The traditional red suit Santa wears would have to be a bit more complex than it looks. First, it would be made out of a protective, lead-free material that blocks any radiation from Santa's engine -- antimatter rockets produce dangerous gamma radiation, so it's important for Santa to keep safe up in the sky. Second, the suit would also be threaded with carbon nanotubes, allowing the suit to shrink with Santa if he ever changes his size.
  • The Belt - For climbing up and down chimneys, Santa would need a little support. We assume he's taken some rock climbing lessons, and his belt comes with all the necessary hooks, grapples, bells and whistles to get him in and out of your living room before you even have a chance to spot him.

In the next section, we'll examine whether there's any connection to Santa and the mall Santas you might spy while you do your holiday shopping.

Professional Father Christmas performers gather for an annual Santa School in London.

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Mall Santas and Letters to Santa

If you're ever strolling through your local mall after Thanksgiving, you might notice Santa Claus in the middle of the mall. There's probably an unbearably long line of children waiting for the chance to talk to Santa and tell him what they really want this year for Christmas presents. Perhaps you smile and wave, and Santa will smile and wave right back, laughing his deep, trademark "Ho, ho, ho!" and you'll move on.

Shortly thereafter, you might mosey on over to the other local mall, the one that's across the street. Wandering around from store to store, you might notice yet another Santa Claus, slightly different from the one you just saw at the other mall. How could this be? Is the mall some kind of portal between parallel universes? Is one the real Santa and the other a fake? Or are they both impostors?

Letters addressed to Santa Claus at the post office in Lapland, Finland.

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

First things first: These Santas probably don't consider themselves to be "fake," and they may not appreciate the word "impostor." If anything, you might call them "messengers." Like Santa's elves, we believe that the most logical explanation is that they're an extension of the Santa's Helpers Alliance, aka, mall Santas.

Mall Santas are people just like you and me, but they must pass a few specifications in order to carry out their seasonal duties. They must be of similar build to Santa Claus. They must be in the appropriate age range of 50 to 60 years old, and they must sport an acceptable beard. Mall Santas must also graduate from a special Santa School, where they'll learn to laugh like Santa, eat like Santa and keep a snow-white beard like Santa [source: LA Times]. Could it be that Santa drew up the curriculum himself?

A mall Santa's job is simple -- he must ask children want they want for Christmas, make sure they've behaved this year, and then send detailed e-mail reports back to Santa Claus. A mall Santa's work accounts for about 33 percent of all gift requests, making them an important part of Santa's team -- the other 67 percent of Christmas wishes are sent directly to the North Pole by mail, of course. Nearly 100,000 letters make it out every holiday season to Santa's address at the North Pole.

Why would Santa need an alliance of Mall Santas? Even though he might make it around the world in one night, he couldn't be in lots of different places all at the same time. We'll have to assume that he's not quite there yet with the technology. For the moment, he has to settle with a complex but efficient way of collecting Christmas wish information.

For more information about Santa, Christmas and the holiday, visit the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Handwerk, Brian. "Beyond 'Polar Express': Fast Facts on the North Pole." National Geographic News. Nov. 8 2006. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/11/1108_041108_north_pole_2.html
  • Merl, Jean. "Santa Claus school teaches how to Ho-Ho-Ho." The Los Angeles Times. Sept. 27, 2006. http://www.azcentral.com/ent/pop/articles/0927santa0927.html