Santa Claus: Behind the Beard

Contributor: Lindsey Congalosi. Lesson ID: 13247

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. Santa knows a lot about you, but how much do you know about Santa?


Physics, World Cultures

Social Studies
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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You may know him as Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, or even Pelznickel.

  • But who is this guy, really?

Santa icons

Here Comes Santa Claus by Gene Autry, courtesy of

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  • How did Santa get his name?

Santa's origin can be traced back to the Dutch. They believed that Saint Nikolaas gave presents to children. The Dutch honored this saint by exchanging gifts during an annual festival held on December 6th, also known as St. Nick's Day. It wasn't only the Dutch who enjoyed this activity; their English-speaking neighbors also decided to adopt the tradition.

However, when the Dutch people said the name Saint Nikolaas, they said it very quickly causing the English-speakers to mishear and then mispronounce it. Try it yourself.

  • Can you guess which name evolved from this misunderstanding?

To the English, Saint Nikolaas sounded more like Sinterklaas, which eventually morphed into the modern-day Santa Claus.

Not everyone knew the gift-giver as Saint Nicholas. In German folklore, he was called Pelznickel or Belsnickel. Pelz meaning pelt of fur, and nickel referring to Saint Nicholas. Pelznickel is usually portrayed as a fur-clad figure who judges children for being good or bad. If they were deemed good, they would receive cakes, nuts, or fruits.

traditional Christmas stollen with marzipan and dried fruit

This tradition eventually became associated with the birth of Jesus. Germans referred to the Christ child as Christkindl which evolved into Kris Kringle, another of Santa's many monikers.

  • Why does Santa wear a red suit?

Many people think that the first time we saw Santa in his red suit was in a Coca-Cola advertisement in the 1930s.

Coca-Cola Santa ad from 1931

Image from Miel Van Opstal, via Flickr, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Although Coca-Cola's print advertisements did help to cement the present-day image of Santa, he was wearing red long before that, most likely because red was the color of the robes worn by Catholic bishops at Christmastime.

  • When did Santa get married?

Although we do not know exactly when Santa gave up the bachelor's life, we first became aware of Mrs. Claus in the short story "A Christmas Legend" from 1849. In the story, a family allows an old couple to take refuge in their home on Christmas Eve and wakes up to find presents left for them. However, it wasn't actually Santa and his wife who left the gifts in the story, but the hosts' long-lost daughter and husband.

Mr. and Mrs. Claus

Image by Linnaea Mallette, via Public Domain Pictures, was released into the public domain.

A few years later, in 1851, a student author wrote about Santa Claus in the Yale Literary Magazine. When referring to Santa Claus's "indescribably fantastic'"appearance, the author writes that he thought Santa's wife, Mrs. Santa Claus, must have helped him.

  • Why do we leave out cookies and milk for Santa?

Leaving out treats most likely started as part of the celebration of the Feast of St. Nick, on December 6th. Children would leave food and drink out, and St. Nicholas would exchange them for gifts while they slept.

  • How can Santa visit every house on Christmas Eve?

This is one of the most difficult questions about Santa Claus, and one that we still cannot fully answer. However, we do know that Santa can give himself a lot more time to get the job done. Here's how.

In total, Santa has about 500 million households to visit on Christmas Eve. On average, each house is approximately 0.205 miles apart. Santa most likely starts his trip at the International Date Line, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

After first visiting any island nations in the Pacific, Santa moves west. If he starts in Russia on Christmas Eve and ends before sunrise on Christmas Day in Alaska, he will have a total of 42 hours to reach all of the half-a-billion houses. This might sound hard to believe, but remember that the further north Santa travels, the more hours of nighttime he has to work with. If he travels far enough north, the sun doesn't even rise in December!

This gives Santa a total of 300 microseconds (0.0003 seconds) to visit each household. Assuming he uses half of this time to travel from home to home, he is traveling at around 1,367 miles-per-second.

Santa running across rooftops

With our current technology, humans are not able to travel that quickly. However, it's not as fast as you might think. In fact, it's slower than a lot of things - the speed of light, the particles emitted by radioactive atoms, or even our Sun.

So, assuming that Santa has access to some top-of-the-line high-speed technology that has not yet been invented by the rest of us, there is no reason he couldn't reach every house in the allotted time.

Another possibility is that Santa has discovered how to create a rip in time and space. If this is true, then Santa could have months or even years to deliver the presents each Christmas.

  • How is this possible?

To find out, let's take a look at a young Albert Einstein.

Before Albert Einstein became a famous physicist, he worked in a patent office. Young Albert took a tram car, similar to a trolley, home from work. As he traveled home each day, Einstein would do "thought experiments" where he attempted to think through very complicated ideas.

One day, as he moved away from a clock tower, he wondered what the clock would look like if his bus were moving at the speed of light. He decided that the hands of the clock tower would appear to stop because the image of the clock travels to Einstein at the speed of light. The image of the hand of the clock moving could not travel faster than the speed of light and reach Einstein, who was also traveling at the speed of light.

Imagine that you and I are going running. We're a great match because we run at the exact same speed! However, if I start running before you start, then you won't catch up to me. You'll always be behind me.

2 people running

In this scenario, I represent Einstein, and you represent the image of the clock (in other words, the visual light coming from the clock that allows us to see it).

This caused Einstein to have a revelation:

The faster you move through space, the slower you move through time.

In other words, time is relative. It is not the same in every situation. If Santa Claus is able to somehow harness this idea, then he could have more than enough time to reach every house.

To understand this complex theory more, watch Time Dilation - Einstein's Theory Of Relativity Explained! from Science ABC:

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  • Ready for the Got It? section and its slightly easier activity than stopping time?

Let's go!

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