Santa Claus, You're a Bad Role Model for Kids!

Researcher argues -- with a grin -- that St. Nick should lose a few pounds.

December 1, 2009, 1:53 PM

Dec. 23, 2009— -- It had to come someday. Mounting evidence shows that the ultimate corrupter of our young people is a slovenly, brandy-swilling, disease-carrying fat old guy named Santa.

Or so writes Nathan J. Grills, a public health fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, in the current issue of the British Medical Journal.

Grills -- with tongue firmly placed in cheek -- says that Santa would be a lot more helpful if he pried his overweight rear end off his sled and walked instead.

It may sound a bit on the silly side, but Grills has found a receptive audience. When I Googled "Santa should walk" after reading Grills' treatise, I found 25,800,000 hits.

And Grills backs up his conclusions with field experience. He confesses to having played Santa himself, where he was exposed to all sorts of diseases borne by kids who just wanted to kiss his cheeks.

"I was kissed and hugged by snotty nosed kids at each performance and was never offered alcohol swabs to wipe my rosy cheeks between clients," he writes. Thus, he became a potential carrier of diseases that could infect hundreds of kids, although not on the scale of the real Santa, who has to visit billions of homes around the globe in a single evening.

Grills' humorous essay is not intended entirely to be entertaining. Behind his unflattering portrait of Santa lies a well known truth: Image really does matter. And that is especially significant for children.

He cites other research showing that Santa is the most recognized fictional figure among American children, just barely beating out Ronald McDonald. So, before we let our children emulate this "rotund sedentary image" who has obviously had too many cookies, maybe it's worth taking a look at Grills' argument.

Santa, the Jolly Old....

"Epidemiologically, there is a correlation between countries that venerate Santa Claus and those that have high levels of childhood obesity," Grills says, citing a study in the journal Pediatric Health Care. Correlation does not prove causality, he concedes, "but there is a temporal pathway whereby Santa promotes a message that obesity is synonymous with cheerfulness and joviality."

Behind Santa's cheerfulness lies another troubling habit, Grills argues. Apparently, there's a physiological reason why Santa's cheeks are so rosy. All that brandy and sherry left on the kitchen table by well-meaning moms undoubtedly takes its toll.

"With a few billion houses to visit, Santa would quickly be over the limit," and thus handling his sled while under the influence, although one critic argues that Santa isn't driving the sleigh, it's actually Rudolph.

Furthermore, Santa should not only avoid the cups of good cheer left on the table after Dad presumably has retired for the evening. He should also dump the cookies and eat the carrots and celery sticks "commonly left for Rudolph."But Grills, not to put too fine a point on it, is more concerned about Santa as a potential conveyer of infectious diseases than merely a bad image for our children. He cites one study that purportedly shows shopping center Santas are coughed on, or sneezed on, up to 10 times a day. And he suspects that health exams for part-time Santas are probably very lax, and in some cases, nonexistent.

So, it's easy to imagine how much greater the problem is for the Real Santa.

"Santa is potentially a point source for infectious diseases outbreaks," he writes. "Santa in his asymptomatic phase to propagate an infectious disease is clear," he writes, and since he has to visit so many homes, Santa "becomes a contact tracer's nightmare."

In his haste to cover his global assignment, Santa not only becomes tipsy and even fatter. He also stands accused of promoting dangerous activities including "speeding, disregard for road rules, and extreme sports such as roof surfing and chimney jumping. Despite the risks of high speed air travel, Santa is never depicted wearing a seatbelt or a helmet."

Santa Claus: Poor Role Model?

These are serious charges (well, sort of serious), published in a prestigious journal, although the BMJ admits the paper was not peer reviewed. Apparently, there aren't that many Santa critics out there.

And in his defense, Santa has at least quit smoking, although it's possible to find a few old advertisements featuring him puffing on a pipe, or sucking on a stogie.

So, the guy's not all bad. He has a horrific image problem, thanks partly to Grills' piercing examination, but that could be cleaned up a bit if he just dropped the cookies and brandy and lost more than a few pounds.

But there's a potentially more serious problem. Santa, Grills argues, is a deceiver. As evidence, he cites an annual children's pilgrimage to Lapland "to visit an obese, hirsute, elderly white male dressed in a red costume. We sought permission to collude with this man in deceiving young children that he would visit them on Christmas Eve, arriving in a flying sleigh drawn by reindeer, one with a red nose.

"At first glance this proposal seems to contravene the ethics of truth and honesty, but one study has reported that 87 percent of parents are happy about such a deception."

So, Santa is not the only culprit in this worldwide disaster. It can also be blamed on Mom.

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