Life at the North Pole is not all toys and candy

Looking to make a good impression with the big guy in red this year? It might behoove you to learn a little bit more about life at the North Pole to best understand how to get in Santa Claus’s good graces, said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist Hal Scofield, M.D.

Why does Santa crave milk and cookies? Well, the easiest explanation is that milk and cookies are delicious. But it might also be that grocery shopping is difficult to do in that isolated region. It’s about 1,200 miles to the nearest city, so he can’t just pop out to the store for Oreos whenever he feels like it.

That said, Santa probably gets reindeer milk fairly regularly…with a little help. Reindeer milk has a fat content of 22 percent, which is six times as much as in cow’s milk. But he needs Mrs. Claus or one of the elves to lend a hand, since it takes two people to milk a reindeer—one to do the milking and the other to hold the reindeer’s antlers!

“All that extra fat is necessary to keep warm, which may be why Santa stays so zaftig,” Scofield said. In addition to his heavy red coat, Santa has a layer of fat—much like polar bears do—as additional protection from the cold.

How cold is it at the North Pole? The average temperature in the winter is -29 degrees Fahrenheit. Even during the summer, the North Pole doesn’t get much above 32 degrees—the same temperature at which water freezes.

Scofield said everybody at the North Pole is in danger of cold-related conditions, including frostbite. Did you know that shivering isn’t just an involuntary reaction to the chill? It’s activating muscles and creating heat.

“There’s a reason everybody on those expeditions to the Arctic Circle are covered head-to-toe,” he said. “The cold weather is dangerous and it’s only magnified when it’s wet and windy.”

When exposed to those temperatures, the body takes precautions to ensure life continues, even at the expense of extremities—including fingers and toes, he said. Blood is drawn to the heart and brain (both vital for life) and away from hands and feet, which is why they seem to get colder so much faster than the rest of the body.

While frostbite, caused by prolonged exposure to the cold, might kill some tissue, the real danger is hypothermia, Scofield said. When the core body temperature falls around to 68 degrees, the heart might stop. And at 63 degrees, the brain stops functioning. No wonder Santa is always on the move and dressed so warmly.

If children really want to give Santa an exotic treat, they might want to leave him some fruits and vegetables. Because as harsh at the cold of the Arctic is to people, it’s even more inhospitable to most plant life, which means a ripe orange or a bunch of celery might be just what Old Saint Nick really needs.

Another reason to leave Santa a basket of oranges is to help him ward off illnesses. It’s not just difficult for big animals to live at the North Pole; microscopic germs and bacteria also have trouble surviving the cold, Scofield said. Which isn’t to say there aren’t a few, but bacteria—like humans—tend to congregate where the living is easier.

So when Santa visits all those houses on Christmas Eve, he’ll have to watch out for the flu and colds that are going around. Even though they might not survive the climate out on the ice, germs and bacteria can flourish inside the body, he said.

So maybe leave out a little soap and a towel to remind the big guy to wash his hands in between stops.

“Luckily for Santa, even if he does catch a cold, he’ll have plenty of time to recover before he starts work again next year,” Scofield said.