Dr Gopee

The Medicalisation of Santa Claus and Christmas?

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee 

Perhaps it was to be expected, that sooner or later the medical profession would catch up with obese, rotund, red-cheeked  

Santa Claus! And it seems that the inevitable has happened, questioning whether Santa is a healthy role model although he is a well known and loved character, by children in particular. Perhaps because he looks grandfatherly – and especially because they believe that he brings them gifts? Until, that is, they come to know that it is their parents who fill the shoes and put the boxes under the Christmas tree.


According to a study by psycho-education professor Serge Larivee of the University of Montreal and cited in Science Daily under the title ‘Why do we believe in Santa?’ the findings were that although upon coming to know the truth as the children grew older, some felt betrayed, others disappointed, yet overall ‘When they learn the truth, children accept the rules of the game and even go along with their parents in having younger children believe in Santa. It becomes a rite of passage in that they know they are no longer babies.’ Good – even if some parents felt that they were ‘outright lying to their children.’ And the newly grown-ups seem to be happy enough to perpetuate the lie ‘in having younger children believe in Santa.’

And now Santa has even come under medical scrutiny, in an article published in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal by public health expert Dr Nathan Grills, from Monash University in Australia, under the title ‘Santa Should Get Off His Sleigh and Walk.’ He says that ‘the current image of Santa promotes obesity, drink-driving, speeding and a general unhealthy lifestyle’ — hence the recommendation captured in the title. In his analysis, Grills also found that ‘Santa sells, and sometimes he sells harmful products’ — and this happens on a global scale – ‘Like Coca-Cola, Santa has become a major export item to the developing world.’ But we’ve known that a long time, don’t we.

But there’s more, for ‘While Santa is now banned from smoking, images of him enjoying a pipe or cigar can still be found on Christmas cards. Father Christmas also potentially promotes drink-driving,’ argues Grills, ‘and refers to the tradition of leaving Santa Claus a brandy to wish him well on his travel, with a few billion houses to visit Santa would soon be over the limit.’ Music to the ears of public health experts and healthy lifestyle promoters – anybody (the inebriated variety) listening out there?

And then the mot de la fin, ‘Also, Santa has real potential to spread infectious diseases. If Santa sneezes or coughs around 10 times a day, all the children who sit on his lap may end up with swine flu as well as their Christmas present.’ With the pall of AH1N1 still hanging over the world, it would perhaps have been amiss not to find a link between the pandemic and Santa habits, cherubic though they may be. My greatest prayer is that no one comes along next year and ‘finds’ on analysis that Santa is abusing of children.

As for reactions to the article, a colleague from Australia mailed that ‘they must cut his (Dr Grills’) research funds.’ Others thought that he had a great sense of humour, and that his article must be looked at from this angle. Who would want ‘authorities to regulate Santa’s activities’? Or the new image of Santa that Grills proposes – ‘a slimmed down version on a treadmill.’ That would no doubt take the fun out of Christmas.

For that’s what the celebrations around Christmas are all about, isn’t it? One has only to surf the web to appreciate that this is indeed the true spirit of modern Christmas, enjoyed in families which are now, in the UK at least if we go by the media there, composed of several ex’s (ex-wife, ex-step dad, ex-husband’s ex-wife, etc.,) who, nevertheless it seems, have now accepted their new situations and come together to have a jolly good time – leaving all their baggage forever behind. If that is the new family norm, and they do so well for themselves at least during Christmas, who is to gainsay that?

Whether the articles cited are serious or not, I for one would say leave Santa Claus alone! And please, for heaven’s sake don’t spoil the spirit of Christmas. Even though I am not a Christian, I have grown up with a lot of Christian friends, sang Christmas carols in the choir, attended midnight mass, and no one will ever dissuade me from soaking in the lyrics and melody of ‘Holy night, Silent night’ which cannot leave untouched a true lover of elevating music endowed with a sense of aesthetics. By virtue of its openness, depth and breadth, my Hindu dharma can accommodate such pluralities. It is enough for me that for my Christian friends this is a Holy night. I have my own too, and they understand that – isn’t that mutual comprehension and respect more important than that Santa Claus is promulgating an unhealthy lifestyle?

The point is missed about the symbolic aspect of Santa and Christmas in general – this is a sad trend in the Christian world, Europe in particular, which is rapidly unchristianising. And they go to absurd limits in their cultural relativism, which in effect is increasingly coming to mean bending to religious extremists who come in both soft and hard varieties. For example, scenes of the nativity story are banned in public places – and the disease, it seems, is spreading even to North America. Can one get more ridiculous than that? One does not have to be a Christian or even to believe in Jesus Christ to appreciate that it is a beautiful story. And that someone born in a stable to humble parents could rise to inspire hundreds of millions by his good deeds and messages. What is wrong with that? Does one have to knacker about whether or not he was the son of God? The way they are going about it, sooner than we think there will be no Christmas trees, and none at the Rockefeller centre in New York. As for England, well, even its Royalty is unlikely to be able to save it from cultural degradation at this rate of relativising.

As for me, I will continue to wish Happy Christmas to my Christian brethren – and why not, to all of us. It’s time to share and cheer – can there be anything better to do? 

RN Gopee  

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