Ever wondered where all those letters to Santa go?
Christmas. ’Tis the season to be jolly and deck the halls with boughs of holly and everything else detailed in that carol that I can never remember. Jokes aside, it is truly a festival of joy, celebrated by millions of people all over the world. It has evolved from its origins as a celebration of Jesus Christ’s birthday into one of the most widely observed holidays in the world, commemorated by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Today, most people don’t even see Christmas as the birth of Jesus but as time for family and friends and tradition. Putting up a Christmas tree, exchanging gifts, hanging wreaths and mistletoe.
But the most iconic symbol of Christmas is, undoubtedly, Santa Claus.
Santa Claus, who lives on the North Pole and has a list of children to whom he gives gifts each year on Christmas Eve. Even I had heard of, and believed in him, as a six-year-old. Me, someone born into a Hindu family in Bangalore, India. Even I wrote to him.
I know now that whatever presents I’d thought were from him were, indeed, from my parents, who’d just read my letters and got me what I’d asked for. My letters never went beyond my father’s desk. That is the fate of all letters addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole”: a letter opener in some parent’s hand.
Well, not exactly.
Some of those letters actually get delivered.
Jeanne Marie Laskas writes in The New York Times about former U.S. President Barack Obama, and his Office of Presidential Correspondence, or O.P.C., in the White House.
Set up by President McKinley at the end of the 19th century, the O.P.C. has evolved from one person sitting at a desk into a system that requires hundreds of people sitting at desks to keep up with the sheer volume of letters that arrive every single day.
Presidents before McKinley hadn’t ever needed to outsource their correspondence — George Washington received about five letters a day. Even so, other presidents before Obama never really read their mail regularly; if you sent a letter to the White House at the time of Presidents Nixon, Bush, or Clinton, your words likely never even left the mail room.
Obama considered constituent letters his window to the world — his way of understanding the people that made up his country. He asked to see 10 letters a day. He received thousands, of course, from people across the country, documenting their stories, thoughts, lives. They sent photographs, bills, criticisms, opinions, thank-you’s, I-hate-you’s. (Santa’s job sounding easier to anyone now?)
The O.P.C. read every letter, email, and scrawled toddler message and categorised them: mortgage crisis, gun violence, drone strikes. About 200 of the more moving letters made it to Fiona Reeves, the director of the O.P.C., and the person in charge of curating the President’s 10 letters a day. Her picks made it to a purple folder in the back of the President’s briefing book each night. The President read the letters and then made notes in margins for Kolbie Blume, who wrote replies on the President’s behalf.
Santa doesn’t have an Office of Polar Correspondence. Instead, he has the city of Nuuk.
Greenland’s capital city lies just below the Arctic Circle, and quite some distance away from the North Pole. That wouldn’t surprise children from Denmark, who are told that Santa lives in Greenland.
Surrounded by icy hills, Nuuk one of the most isolated capital cities in the world. The airport, unlike most large cities is just a few miles away from the city centre. So is the end of the road. Here is one that does not lead to Rome.
Most tourists coming here are just passing through, on their way to gaze at the gigantic glaciers, travel through the tundra, and experience Greenland’s vast, flat sheet of ice.
Of late, that has been changing. In a piece for The Independent, Kari Herbert describes how the city is reinventing itself as a cultural centre. “Colourful Nuuk” is the new motto. The city is aiming to display the many layers of its culture: “the new, the dodgy and the beautiful”.
Despite its new motto, winter time covers the city with predominantly one colour: white. Even during the summer, you can’t do long-distance travel by road — mainly because there are no long-distance roads in Greenland. The main transport options are: plane, boat and helicopter.
But it’s not just tourists that fly in to Nuuk. At this time of the year, also coming in are thousands of letters to Santa Claus, sent by children from all over the world. These letters end up in a big red postbox at the Nuuk Tourism office, which serves as the official letter box for Santa. The postbox is emptied on Christmas Eve every year.
But what happens to these letters when the box is emptied? Santa won’t have time to read them all. That’s why the residents of Nuuk pitch in to sort through the letters, and attempt to read and reply to every one of them.
Does Santa reply to the letters himself? Not necessarily. But then, many famous people don’t. Besides, Santa also has the added challenge of trying to accomplish superhuman feats on Christmas Eve each year.
In the world of astrophysics, there are numerous (humorous) debates about whether Santa’s travels are even possible.
One estimate calculates that there are about 378 million Christian children in the world. Meanwhile, Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work in, because of timezones and the way the Earth rotates. By looking at the average family size and assuming one “good” child per household, astrophysicist Linda Harden estimates an average rate of 822.6 visits per second.
With a few more calculations, Linda shows that Santa will have to travel at least 650 miles per second to make all the trips in time. That’s three thousand times the speed of sound, and way faster than the fastest-known man-made vehicle.
Travelling at such an enormous speed, Santa’s heavy, loaded sleigh will cause a lot of air-resistance. The friction will create so much heat that the reindeer would burst into flames and evaporate in 4.26 thousandths of a second. Meanwhile, Santa will be pushed back by a centrifugal force 17,500.06 times as high as gravity. Imagine falling that fast — sideways. Even Santa Claus wouldn’t be able to survive such pressure.
Of course, there are some loose ends in the argument, on both sides. On one hand, Santa will have to serve a lot more people than just Christians — people like me, who were enchanted by the idea of old St. Nick. On the other, the “at least one good child per household” idea is questionable: it’s more likely that some households have many good children while others — which Santa won’t have to visit — have none at all.
Perhaps we can subtract some more if Santa parks in one place, and sends his little helpers to do some of the deliveries. And then, there are all the houses where Santa doesn’t even have to do the work because parents handle the gift-giving instead.
Actually, come to think of it, can’t we take that idea even further? Are all of Santa’s helpers really of the elvish kind? What about the thousands of parents round the world keeping up the Santa story? By reading letters and wrapping gifts, they’re helping out in Santa’s work, too!
The idea of Santa is so powerful that his work gets done, even when he doesn’t physically exist.
Steve Jobs didn’t painstakingly chisel out iPhones from a piece of metal. Jeff Bezos doesn’t personally drop off Amazon deliveries. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t write every line of code for Facebook. Why should Santa Claus be any different?
In Santa’s decentralised delivery system, most letters never even make it to the postbox. But if mine does, I’d like it to have as smooth a journey as possible. So if I write to Santa again, I’m going to use his complete official address:
They say that adding a pin-code helps letters get delivered faster.
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