On Christmas Eve, millions of children around the world will settle anxiously into bed, hardly able to contain themselves. What vision could possibly dance through their heads, turning them into twitchy, restless insomniacs for just one night? Is it the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Nutcracker" or the sugarplums from Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas"? Can sugarplums really do such a thing?
Chances are the children are thinking about toys, Santa Claus and his team of reindeer. If the children have been nice this year, jolly old St. Nick should be landing his sleigh on their roofs sometime late during the night.
Everyone has their own traditional image of Santa's sleigh, but there is almost certainly more to it than just a sled and a team of eight reindeer. 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.
Sure, demystifying Santa's modus operandi puts us at risk of getting nothing but coal in our stockings this year, but it's all for the noble pursuit of yuletide knowledge. After all, have you ever wondered how Santa's sleigh flies? What about the reindeer? How do they pull his sleigh across the globe in just one night? And how does Santa fit all of those presents into one bag? Keep reading to learn more about the technology that might drive Santa's sleigh, based on our best educated guesses.
Rustic on the outside and state-of-the-art on the inside, Santa's sleigh would have to be a marvel in engineering. Let's break down the main components of St. Nick's sleigh that we think he'd need to get across the world in one night.
The Sleigh's Interior
Based on films and illustrations, Santa's sleigh looks charming, though antiquated, but we suspect it's way more cutting-edge than he lets on. Think about it — doesn't it make sense that Santa's elves would have adopted an "autopilot" system that would give any Tesla a run for its money? The North Pole crew might call it something different, but rest assured that Santa's sleigh is almost certainly equipped with the most advanced autonomous, self-flying technology out there.
If we were the team in charge of Santa's safety, we'd equip the sleigh with a special blind spot monitoring system specifically designed to alert Santa and the reindeer to the presence of aircraft and large birds. (Santa has to remain hidden, obviously.) The sleigh's typical rearview camera would also get an upgrade, and it's likely designed to scan in every direction to ensure Santa's path is always clear for takeoff and landing. This system would most likely even be aided by thermal imaging cameras so the sleigh can automatically steer away from other airborne obstacles.
The sleigh's dashboard is likely be dominated by Santa's own GPS navigator so the elves could map out Santa's millions of stops well before Christmas Eve, just to make sure Santa doesn't miss anyone. The sleigh definitely has a built-in "Naughty-or-Nice" sensor that keeps Santa updated on children's activities, right down to the last minute. This is important, as even the most minor of naughty deeds committed within the final few hours of Dec. 24 can determine whether children get what's on their gift list or instead receive lumps of coal.
A speedometer on the sleigh's dashboard allows Santa to monitor his flying speeds, and a state-of-the-art radio keeps him in constant touch with Mrs. Claus and the team in the North Pole. They send him minute-to-minute updates on local weather reports and toy inventory.
Transdimensional Present Compartment (The Bag)
When it comes to Santa's toy bag, you're probably wondering how he fits all of those presents into one bag. Think of a transdimensional present compartment in the form of a traditional gift sack. As in Santa's toy bag as we know it really acts as a portal between the sleigh and the North Pole. However, we'd also like to think that Santa may have harnessed the power of nanotechnology and found a way to miniaturize millions of presents into one large bag. But this information remains unconfirmed.
The Stardust Antimatter Propulsion Unit
We suspect that Santa's sleigh incorporates a stardust antimatter propulsion unit for power, and that's still a very real possibility. Here's how it would work.
Antimatter is the opposite of regular matter — the mirror image of normal particles that make up everything we can see or touch. The big draw to antimatter is the amount of energy it helps create. When antimatter and matter come into contact, they annihilate each other — breaking apart into tons of smaller particles — and 100 percent of their masses convert into energy.
Although antimatter propulsion rockets are mainly used in science-fiction shows to allow spaceships to travel at warp speed, the possibility of designing one is very real — NASA is currently developing one that would get us to Mars within a matter of weeks [source: NASA].
Now, we have reason to believe Santa's clever elves would have figured out a way to combine this kind of stardust antimatter propulsion unit with an electric motor, for a high-tech, one-of-a-kind hybrid powertrain. Why, you might ask? It simply makes sense. If Santa knows who's naughty and nice, Santa certainly also knows that electric vehicles are the way of the future. He's just doing his part to try to prevent global warming from melting the North Pole.
Keep reading to learn how Santa stays comfortable during the busiest night of his year.
One Cozy Cockpit
We've already talked a little about how Santa stays in touch with his North Pole command center during his trip. His infotainment system with navigation and satellite radio is pretty basic, if not essential. But there are a few more features that help Santa make the most of his trip.
We bet, for example, that the elves have borrowed a trick from mainstream automakers and installed Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration — we won't speculate whether Santa's a Google guy or an Apple aficionado, but his sleigh is probably equipped for either scenario. Santa can use voice recognition to text Mrs. Claus, catch up on his favorite podcasts, or listen to what we're guessing is an epic Christmas playlist.
Anyone who lives in a northern climate will tell you that a massive overcoat, woolly hat, and abundance of facial hair aren't enough to keep you warm on the coldest days ... never mind at night. Throw an open-air sleigh and some elevation into the mix and you're looking at a pretty uncomfortable ride. Rest assured, the elves have Santa's back. Literally. There's almost no way that Santa hasn't taken advantage of one of the greatest innovations of our time — heated seats and steering wheel. Santa would probably need a custom design to comfortably accommodate his size, but this would be a pretty easy project for the handiest of his elves.
Have you ever seen someone driving a convertible with the top down on a chilly day and wondered what they were thinking? If the car in question was a Mercedes, the driver might have been enjoying the unique Airscarf, a feature that uses special vents to buffet the driver's neck in a warm breeze, keeping chills at bay. Mercedes-Benz has been known to customize vehicles for the pope, so it's not too much of a stretch to think they might lend a hand to Santa, too.
Rest assured, we aren't overlooking the most well-known members of Santa's crew. Keep reading to learn more about Santa's reindeer and how they manage to fly.
Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!
Santa's recent upgrades to autonomous technology and an electric powertrain have made the reindeers' job a little easier, but the herd is still responsible for a lot of the heavy lifting. Sleighs are large sleds or carriages used for transportation in colder climates — they have two runners on the bottom instead of wheels, making it easier to barrel across snow and ice.
With the aid of kinetic energy, a sleigh can easily travel downhill. But once it plateaus, it needs momentum to keep moving and navigate any steep terrain — or in Santa's case, take flight. But what if the stardust antimatter propulsion unit hybrid system malfunctions? Enter plan B: reindeer, the engines behind the sleigh.
What we know about these majestic creatures — aside from their steady diet of carrots — is that these particular reindeer would need wings to properly fly. Paolo Viscardi, a flight physiologist from the University of Leeds, suggests that Santa's reindeer would need a 33-foot-long (10-meter) wingspan in order take flight, and a sizeable team of reindeer would be required to lift Santa's sleigh [source: The Guardian]. An extra source of heat from the hot cocoa maker in the dashboard would send out hot air, acting like a thermal unit in a hot air balloon, giving the reindeer an extra lift that Viscardi recommends for optimal flying conditions.
According to the famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore — and the disgruntled elf — a team of reindeer drives Santa's sleigh. These are the reindeer we know of: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner/Donder, Blitzen and Rudolph.
Of course, the most widely recognized reindeer is Rudolph. Folklore has it that during a particularly foggy Christmas Eve one year, Santa was unable to fly his sleigh due to poor visibility. We've posited that Rudolph helped guide Santa's sleigh through the bad weather with his bioluminescent nose radiating a red light. (Learn more about why Rudolph's nose is red.)
In the next section, we'll look at the possibility of a secret training facility in the North Pole, where reindeer get ready for the big day.
Reindeer, found mainly in Scandinavia, the Arctic tundra and some parts of Russia and China, are closely related to the North American caribou. In many of these areas, reindeer still factor into economy and transportation — a pretty impressive feat since people began taming them more than 2,000 years ago. Strong and energetic, they're ideal for pulling sleighs in cold seasons [source: Galloway].
North Pole Hideaway: Reindeer Training
Based on what we know about reindeer and science, we think that Santa would have to have a state-of-art training facility in order to get reindeer ready for the rigors of flight. A simple, idyllic barn in the middle of the Arctic would be ideal for such activities.
A comfortably large stable would have enough room to provide fatigued reindeer with a place to sleep as well as contain equipment such as flight simulators, treadmills and steering practice platforms. Specially trained elves would be on site to take care of the reindeer and guide them through their training exercises.
This is also where the elves would make any repairs or additions to Santa's sleigh when he needs a little something extra. The runners on the bottom of the sleigh, for example, would need to be examined thoroughly before Santa takes off on Christmas Eve. The runners are rumored to use an adaptive suspension system similar to those found in high-end off-road SUVs, which enable the sleigh to adjust to different types of terrain. Not only would that help Santa's sleigh land on different types of roofs all over the world, in all types of weather, the self-adjusting suspension would also help cushion the sleigh to make landings a little more pleasant.
And if Santa should need an immediate Christmas Eve repair, the head elf technician could climb through the transdimensional present compartment and fix the sleigh in mid-flight. We'd like to think that Santa has been greatly influenced by NASCAR, and that this procedure works very much like a NASCAR pit-stop.
How do Santa's elves power this high-tech facility? Well, solar power and wind power, of course. The North Pole gets sunlight nearly round the clock, all summer long [source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], and the workshop's state-of-the-art solar array is able to store enough power to run through the winter, when the sun all but disappears. Wind turbines help supplement the stored power so there's no danger of running out. This environmentally friendly setup is also how the elves charge the electric motor in Santa's sleigh.
Without his sleigh, Santa would have a tough time getting airborne the night before Christmas. Fortunately, elves, reindeer and technology could all be available for help, keeping St. Nick as jolly as possible.
Milk and cookies could help, too, of course. So don't forget to put those out.
Santa's Magic Horse?
Early stories of Santa Claus from other nations, when he was better known as St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas, associated the big guy with sailors, navigators and horses instead of sleighs. During the 19th century, for instance, Washington Irving — author of the famous short stories "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" — told the tale of a small, elf-like creature who rode a magic horse around New York City and delivered presents by climbing down chimneys. It wasn't until Clement Clarke Moore published the classic poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (aka "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") in 1823 that Santa Claus was given his sleigh and a team of reindeer [source: Galloway].