Santa Claus is understood to be a beneficent gift giver who loves all children and wants them to be happy. This may be true in a broader spiritual sense, but in a practical sense and for fairly obvious practical reasons, Santa Claus tends to skip over the economically depressed or poor parts of towns and linger in well-groomed cul de sacs. The truth is — and a 2016 study of 186 pediatric wards in the British Medical Journal offers hard evidence to prove this — that delinquency, measurements of naughtiness or niceness, is a poor predictor of Santa’s behavior. Socioeconomic status of families is a very good predictor of Santa’s behavior. So, ultimately, the Kris Kringle narrative unwinds for poor kids, who receive less because they have less, not because they are lesser.
“Deeper socioeconomic factors are at play, even impacting Santa Claus’s abilities to reach out to every child,” the authors wrote. “Whether his contract needs to be reviewed or local Santas employed in ‘hard to reach’ areas, all we want is for every child to be happy this Christmas.”
This research was part of the legendary British Medical Journal Christmas Edition, which has been tickling science fans for thirty years with rigorous studies that skew whimsical. Contributors have demonstrated that Peppa Pig promotes medical malpractice, orthopedic surgeons are smarter than anesthesiologists, and sealed chocolates last barely 12 minutes in hospital wards.
But even in a crowded field, this darkly humorous Santa study stands out because it suggests that the myth of Santa Claus could potentially be harmful or unkind to disadvantaged children. It suggests that the naughtiness narrative is false — and not in a kindly way. When researchers collected data on study participants’ rates of absenteeism from school and conviction rates, there was no correlation between Santa’s odds of stopping by. When the researchers ran the numbers on socioeconomic deprivation, however, a strong trend surfaced. So talking to poor kids about Santa’s list was akin not only to blaming them for their own poverty but to punishing them for it as well.
“The results of this study dispel the traditional belief that Santa Claus rewards children based on how nice or naughty they have been,” the authors conclude. “Santa Claus is less likely to visit children in hospitals in the most deprived areas. Potential solutions include a review of Santa’s contract.”
The quip was intended to be light hearted, but it’s actually not an unreasonable point.
Granted, it’s not so easy as that. Santa’s contract, described in thousands of children’s books and films, is not so easy to alter and the research may be flawed. Seven medical and pharmacy students, who wrote a letter to BMJ critiquing the methodology of the Santa study at length (and demonstrating that medical school can’t possibly be as time-consuming as they say it is). The students called into question whether “naughtiness” can be measured by school absenteeism and criminal conviction rates (especially in a pediatric ward), and note that Santa is not supposed to avoid visiting naughty kids—he’s supposed to leave them a lump of coal. None of the children, including those in poor areas who were snubbed by Santa, received coal.
“We have identified a few flaws in the methods that were used to reach the conclusion that wealth is the only determinant of whether Santa visited children in pediatric hospital wards,” they conclude. “The relevance of naughty or nice in Santa’s decision making process may be better evaluated by using different measures of child behavior and by including the quality of gift delivered by Santa.”
Regardless, the authors of the original study recognize that—beyond highlighting systemic inequalities that harm children every Christmas—they’ve challenged the widely-held notion that Santa cares about each child’s behavior throughout the year. If word gets out, they warn parents to prepare for “a possible increase in outbursts of bad behavior by children over Christmas.” Their advice to parents? Hide the results of this study from your children. Or, at the very least, do not open until after Christmas.