How Santa's Sleigh Works

Santa's antimatter propulsion unit allows him to travel faster than the speed of light. See more pictures of Christmas trees.
Miyoko Komine/Gettty Images

­On Christmas Eve, millions of children around the world will settle uneasily 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 "The Night Before Christmas"? 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 in the night.

Everyone has their own traditional image of Santa's sleigh, but could there be more to it than just a sled and a team of 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? And how does Santa fit all of those presents into one bag? In the next section, we'll look at the possible technology behind Santa's sleigh.

Sleigh Technology

2007 HowStuffWorks

Rustic on the outside and state-of-the-art on the inside, Santa's sleigh would have to be a marvel in engineering. These are the main parts of the sleigh that would be needed to get Santa across the world in one night.

The Sleigh's Interior

The front of the sleigh's dashboard would be dominated by Santa's own GPS navigator -- the elves would map out millions of destinations before Christmas Eve, just to make sure Santa doesn't miss anyone. The device would also have a built-in Naughty-or-Nice sensor that keeps Santa updated on children's activities. This is important, as even the most minor of naughty deeds committed within the last few hours of Dec. 24 can determine whether or not a child receives a shiny lump of coal.

A speedometer on the far left of the dashboard would allow Santa to monitor his flying speeds. On the far right would be a radio communicator -- Mrs. Claus sends broadcasts, and the elves update Santa with weather reports and toy inventory.

For in-flight entertainment, we'd like to the think that the elves would have installed an iPod dock -- perhaps even a red-and-green iPod, which would come with enough memory to play Christmas songs for the entire year through. There would also be a hot cocoa dispenser in the middle of the console, and fuel for the reindeer (in the form of carrots) in a compartment located on the left side of the sleigh.

Transdimensional Present Compartment (The Bag)

Ever wonder how Santa fits all of those presents into one bag? Think of a transdimensional present compartment in the form of a traditional gift sack, which would act 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

What is antimatter? Is it some kind of magical substance Santa uses to power his sleigh?

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]

Santa's would have to be way ahead of the game, however, and we'd like to imagine that he has his own custom Stardust Antimatter Rocket. It would be  small enough to install in the back of his sleigh and fast enough to deliver every present to all good children across the globe. Of course, if the rocket ever malfunctions, the reindeer would be there to back Santa up. (Learn more about how Santa makes it around the world in one night.)

To learn more about Santa's reindeer and how they manage to fly, head over to the next page.

Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!

Physiologist Paolo Viscardi estimates that reindeer would need a 33-foot-long wing span in order to take flight.
Physiologist Paolo Viscardi estimates that reindeer would need a 33-foot-long wing span in order to take flight.

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 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 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 drive Santa's sleigh. These are the reindeer we know of: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner/Donder, Blitzen and Rudolph.

A reindeer training with a virtual reality flight simulator
2007 HowStuffWorks

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.

North Pole Hideaway: Reindeer Training

2007 HowStuffWorks

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 make an ideal facility 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 pretty frequently. Since Santa lands on so many roofs on Christmas Eve, the elves would need to make sure the sleigh's landing equipment can handle a few scratches and dents.

2007 HowStuffWorks

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.

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.


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More Great Links


  • Adam, David. "Scientist gives Rudolph wings." Dec. 17, 2003.,3604,1108503,00.html
  • Swartz, B.K."The origin of American Christmas myth and custom."
  • Steigerwald, Bill. "New and improved antimatter spaceship for Mars missions."
  • "Caribou & reindeer."
  • "How does NORAD track Santa?"
  • "Reindeer/caribou."
  • "The Claus that refreshes." March 2007.