Does Santa only visit rich kids?

Contrary to the popular notion that Santa gives presents to children who are “nice” and not “naughty,” it may be that visits from Santa have more to do with socioeconomic factors than child behavior, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study will be published in the December 17, 2016 Christmas edition of The BMJ. For more than three decades, the prestigious journal has devoted its Christmas-week issue to articles that are quirky, amusing, or creative—but all scientifically sound.

Noting that “no empirical research exists” to confirm whether or not Santa Claus gives presents to children who are nice and not naughty, the researchers took it upon themselves to take a scientific look at which factors may influence a visit from the jolly one.

The study team conducted a telephone survey of 186 hospital pediatric departments in the United Kingdom to find out whether Santa had visited on Christmas Day 2015. They correlated the information about Santa’s visits with possible influencing factors, including data on local school absence rates and youth conviction rates (as a proxy for “naughty” vs. “nice”) and socioeconomic deprivation in the area. 

Santa visited most of the pediatric departments in the survey, the study found. But the odds of Santa not visiting were significantly higher for departments in areas with socioeconomic deprivation in income, employment, health, education, and housing. In contrast, there was no association of Santa visits with school absences or youth conviction rates.

The researchers even looked at whether Santa visits to pediatric units had anything to do with the hospitals’ distance to the North Pole—but found no association.

The authors acknowledged study limitations—including lack of data on the quality of whiskey left in hospitals, the availability of chimneys, and free parking spaces for reindeers at hospitals.

As possible strategies to offset Santa’s apparent circumvention of some pediatric units in areas of lower socioeconomic status, the researchers suggested employing local Santas to target more poorly represented regions.

“Santa’s commitment to bringing presents to children across the world in a 24-hour period is legendary,” said senior author Jarvis Chen, research scientist at Harvard Chan School. “But our study shows that socioeconomic deprivation presents structural barriers to cheer that challenge even Santa’s preternatural abilities. This speaks to the continued need for policies and interventions to address socioeconomic deprivation and inequities in the UK and worldwide.”

Added lead author John Park, Kennedy Scholar at Harvard Chan School, “Dispelling the ‘naughty or nice’ myth has important implications, including a possible increase in outbursts of bad behavior by children over Christmas if they find out. Normally we would hope our research reaches the widest possible audience. But on this occasion, we call for caution in discussing the results, especially in front of children, for the sake of worried parents worldwide.”

“Dispelling the nice or naughty myth: retrospective observational study of Santa Claus,” John J. Park, Ben Coumbe, Esther Ha Gyeong Park, George Tse, SV Subramanian, Jarvis T. Chen, BMJ, online December 14, 2016, BMJ 2016;355:i6355, doi: 10.1136/bmj.i6355

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