A Day in the Life of Santa: The Man and The Myth

We looked at a day in the life of the magical Kris Kringle himself versus the not-so-magical but equally spirited mall Santa by the numbers.

12.03.15 5:00 AM ET

There are a few enduring questions for skeptical Santa Claus truthers. For instance, how does he get around the world in 24 hours? Does he actually eat all those cookies and drink all that milk? And does he have a permit for those reindeers?

According to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which has been tracking him for 60 years now, Santa has time to burn off the calories. After all, he doesn’t really travel around the world in 24 hours.

“His trip seems to take 24 hours to us, but to Santa it might last days, weeks or even months,” says a NORAD fact sheet, concluding that this must mean that, “Santa somehow functions within his own time-space continuum.”

This might seem like NORAD just can’t admit what they don’t know (Santa physics!), but supposing this is true, it still leaves a number of questions. So, here’s a bit of math:

Suppose that all 2 billion children in the roughly 1,568,987,103 households in the world somehow find redemption before the holiday season and get their names on the “Nice list” earning a spot on Santa’s holiday itinerary. To reach all those houses, Santa would have to cover about 196.9 million miles, or the entire surface area of Earth.

Once Santa and his sleigh are the air, the reindeer do the bulk of the work. Let’s say most of the houses he visits are a story tall. That’s a 15.7 billion-foot climb, but to stack the odds in his favor, we’ll say he can go as fast as world speed climbing champion Danylo Boldyrev at a rate of 8.76 feet per second. Very fast, but Santa would still be clocking in a lot of overtime—4.9 million hours to be exact, or 560 years.

Working against Santa’s cross (continental) fit regimen are the sugary offerings of 2 billion grateful children, which we’ll equate to roughly 226 billion calories. Factor in the milk—we’ll use 2%— and that’s another 244 billion calories, or 470 billion calories total.

How does this, err, heavy caloric intake balance out against the benefits of chimney-climbing? With that exercise, Santa would burn a whopping 4.46 billion calories—but still not enough to beat out the dangers of a few million freshly baked snickerdoodles. The only way Santa has a chance of being able to fit into his iconic red suit next year? He’ll need to ditch the sled and walk his route which would take 49 million hours and burn about 20.3 billion calories.

Those are the numbers for the myth—sorry, kids, the legend—but what about the man? Or, more accurately, the men? Every year, hundreds of people dress up as Santa to bring a little bit of joy into children’s lives. “Santa RG,” as he’s known in the mall Santa world, is one of them.

RG is employed through the Noerr Programs, a company that specializes in dispatching Santas nationwide, and is currently based in that classic winter wonderland, Austin, TX. This will be his ninth year as a mall Santa, but his history as St. Nick began in 1981. “It was kind of an accident, I really kind of got drafted into it,” RG says. “But I tell you, the first time some kid came running across the clubhouse and jumped in my lap and hugged my neck, I was hooked.”

The holiday season can get pretty busy for a mall Santa, with the day starting around 8 or 9 AM and sometimes stretching until 10 PM. “I give a lot of consideration to my health,” RG says. “I try to get adequate rest, eat a good breakfast, take vitamins and minerals and supplements, and I do some mental preparation usually when I first get up.”

When it’s particularly busy, RG says he loses count of how many children visit him every day, but thinks the numbers reach into the hundreds. He normally takes about four breaks per day to walk around, about 800 yards (or, roughly 960 steps) to and from the dressing area on average. He’ll occasionally also walk around and interact with passersby at the edge of the set. All told, a whole day might involve anywhere from half a mile to a mile of walking (that’s about 2,112 to 3,168 steps), averaging about 100 calories burned just during breaks. It’s a far cry from the official Santa’s workout, but RG works just as hard at providing care and attention to the children who visit him: “Except for the break time,” RG says, “I’m there in the chair waiting, talking to children.”

For RG, who has a background working in child welfare, the kids make it all worth it. He loves working with them and listening to their requests. And these days, it’s Star Wars and Disney princesses. No surprise there: according to the NPD Group, the Disney movie Frozen had over 300 different types of toys and sold made $513 million in 2014. There are 96 different types of Star Wars toys in the Hasbro Force Friday catalog alone, and most of those are action figures.

RG has noticed that recently, though, many children aren’t only concerned with toys. Rather, they’ll ask after the wellbeing of others. “They’ll be asking more for happy Christmas for children that are less fortunate,” RG says, “or what really gets me is they’ll ask for their family to be safe and happy and together at Christmas.”

Even though a mall Santa might not be putting in the same number of hours as the “real” Santa, his work is just as important. And, after the holidays are over, he’ll have almost as much work to do to get into shape for next year.