This story was originally published Dec. 19, 1993. Mary Lou Aguirre was the coauthor.
The phone rang. It was an elf.
“Meet me at the Fulton Street Parking Garage, second level, tonight at 9. I’ll be wearing a trenchcoat and leg warmers. Don’t be late.”
It was a slow news day, and even though elf calls this time of year are a dime a dozen, we decided to take a chance.
“I’m glad you could make it, “ he said nervously. The bells on his slippers reflected the dim overhead lights. “I don’t have much time. I’ve got a flight to catch.”
He handed over a thick, manila envelope. “I know there are people in the Valley who don’t believe my boss could possibly deliver all those gifts. They say Santa isn’t possible. I’m sick of it. Here’s the proof. This is his flight plan. It’s top-secret stuff.”
We took the documents back to the office. Sure, we were impressed, but any hardcore investigative journalist knows you never trust a source in green tights. We consulted the experts and crunched some numbers of our own. That’s how we learned each of Santa’s nine reindeer would need the power of 236,000 gas-guzzling V8 engines to pull the sleigh, which at 10 feet tall would need to be two football fields wide by one football field deep to contain the Christmas cargo. And that’s just to deliver all his toys to the central San Joaquin Valley.
Don’t ask us how Santa manages to spend seven hours in the Valley when he’s responsible for delivering presents to Saskatchewan as well. There are fundamental mysteries about Mr. Claus that even we can’t explain.
10,000 feet above Merced. Santa’s on a strict schedule and takes one last swig of to-go espresso. “Rudolph, we need to speed things up a bit,” he shouts above the roar of the wind. “I told you we shouldn’t have stopped at that 7-Eleven.”
Santa removes his Toshiba laptop computer with a 486 processor and a 300-megabyte hard drive from the sleigh’s glove box and turns it on.
His gift list for the Valley is instantly accessed with a click of the mouse. Santa long ago abandoned written lists. Just to fit the names of 434,276 kids would take a scroll of paper 8.2 miles long.
With his laptop computer, he can sort by street address and name, says George Reichman of Computer Consultants and Systems of Fresno. It makes Christmas Eve easier, but someone still has to input all that data. Hey, that’s what elves are for, right?
Santa punches up Northwood Drive. Time to see some red fur fly.
First stop. Santa knows exactly what he’s delivering – no pick-and-choose this late in the game. He grabs a sack, which was inventoried, packed and stamped with a barcode weeks before, hops off the sleigh and drops down the first chimney on his list.
Just how fast is Santa? He scoots down a chimney laden with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and a Barbie Fun House, stuffs the socks, chows down on the chocolate-chip cookies and milk waiting for him on the kitchen table, and then it’s up and away to ...
... the next house. To hit all the homes with kids in the Valley, he has less than a tenth of a second at each house. This is where “quicker than a blink of an eye” comes in.
Next house. You get the idea.
Finishes with Merced County. As the sleigh climbs to cruising altitude, Santa checks in with air traffic control. He’s always been a stickler for procedure.
But he doesn’t have to worry, says Ed Hammonds, supervisor of the Federal Aviation Flight Standards District Office at Fresno Air Terminal.
“Santa is in full compliance with all FAA regulations and procedures during takeoffs and landings, “ he says. Santa is given random routing authorization, which means he can go anywhere he needs to.
And because Rudolph’s nose is so bright, Santa doesn’t have to worry about foggy Christmas Eve nights. “He has clearance for zero-zero landing conditions,” Hammonds says.
In the thick of Madera County. Santa deftly peels off to the east to hit Oakhurst and North Fork. He’s always been a whiz at driving, which is a real accomplishment these days, considering the size of his sleigh.
If he takes two gifts for every child in the Valley, that means he’s lugging around 868,552 presents.
If you figure each child’s presents take up about 4 cubic feet, Santa’s sleigh is a whopping two football fields long, one football field wide and 10 feet high, says Greg Fernandez, a physics graduate student at Fresno State University.
A foggy night over Fresno. Santa is a tiny bit ahead of schedule, so he slows the pace for the reindeer. They’re getting tired, anyway, and are looking forward to their half-hour union-mandated dinner break. Blitzen has a slight case of the sniffles tonight and is dying for a drink of water.
Scheduled landing at Chaffee Zoological Gardens in Fresno. Reindeer eat various species of flowers, brush, lichen and grasses. Since the Central Valley isn’t exactly reindeer country, Santa has to make special arrangements.
“If Santa needed to stop and feed his reindeer, he could stop at the zoo and we’d feed them a specially prepared meal that would be high in fiber, “ says Susan Karby, the zoo’s education curator.
Santa, meanwhile, takes a well-deserved break, smoking his pipe on a bench outside the Reptile House.
Back in the air.
Finished in Fresno, Santa has a good start on Tulare County. He’s visited about 236,000 homes so far. If he eats two chocolate chip cookies and drinks half a cup of whole milk in each house, he’s consumed 56,640,000 calories so far tonight. By the end of the night, he’ll have gained 22,697 pounds.
But that’s without figuring exercise into the equation. Traveling at half the speed of light is better than a Stairmaster.
“I think it’s going to help that he is active during the night, rather than going back to the North Pole and going to sleep, “ says Nancy O’Neil, registered dietitian at St. Agnes Medical Center. “The weight he might gain on Christmas Eve would also depend on his metabolism.”
She says Santa could save on calories if families left him nonfat cookies and nonfat milk.
Bathroom break at the Lyon’s in Visalia.
Santa receives a fax from Mrs. Claus. He reads: “Hope you’re wearing those warm woolen mittens. Last year you left a pair in a house in Los Banos. And don’t push the reindeer too hard. I’m worried about Blitzen. Love, Mrs. C.”
She’s right to be concerned about the reindeer. If you think Santa’s sleigh is big, consider how heavy it is: The average present this year weights 6.075 lbs. That comes out to a total of 5,276,453 pounds, or 2,638 tons.
To move that mass, Rudolph and friends have to be buff. Each one has to have the horsepower of 2,403 gas-guzzling V8 engines to pull the sleigh. No wonder they have to stop for a brush-and-lichen break.
Last house in Delano. It’s time to return to the North Pole. For jolly old St. Nick, it’s been a long and tiring night. He turns on his foot massager, unscrews his Thermos, takes one last swig of eggnog and flips to CNN on his portable TV.
“Hmmm, that Wolf Blitzer would make a good reindeer name, “ he murmurs absentmindedly, already thinking of his nice warm bed, as he settles back for the long trip home.
Number of stops for Santa in the Valley
We used census information to determine the number of family units with children ages 17 years and under:
- Fresno: 161,781
- Madera: 22,535
- Kings: 22,884
- Merced: 43,246
- Mariposa: 4,026
- Tulare 76,529
Number of children
At an average of two gifts per child, that means Santa would have to carry 868,552 gifts
- Fresno: 209,036
- Madera: 27,383
- Kings: 30,788
- Merced: 60,666
- Mariposa: 3,266
- Tulare: 103,137
Time per stop
We assume that Santa takes seven hours to do the Valley. That’s 420 minutes, or 25,200 seconds. To get to each family housing unit we’d have .076 of a second for each home.
Length of the list
We figure that if Santa had a written list it would have 10 names to a foot. With 434,276 names, that would be 43,428 feet or 8.2 miles. (No wonder he needs a laptop computer.)
Strength of the reindeer
When you know the total weight of the sleigh, you can convert that number to newtons, a unit of measure corresponding to the force that imparts to a mass of one kilogram an acceleration of one meter per second per second. In this case, the number is 23,400,000 newtons. Taking gravity into account and assuming that Santa travels half the speed of light (335,317,864 mph) you can figure the “work.”
(We’re leaving out several sets of complex calculations to keep things relatively simple).
From this you can determine the number of kilowatts needed to drive the sleigh (700,000,000).
That’s then converted into the horsepower needed to drive the sleigh (940,000,000).
Using that number and knowing the power of a V8 engine, we figured that each of the nine reindeer would need the power of 236,000 gas-guzzling V8 engines to pull the sleigh.
Weight of the sleigh
We took 10 of the most popular toys this Christmas season and averaged their weight:
- Toby Terrier: 4 lbs
- Lincoln Logs: 2 lbs
- Stuffed Barney: 2 lbs.
- Jurassic Park T-Rex: 2 lbs.
- Giggles ‘n’ Go Doll: 3.5 lbs
- Glitter Beach Barbie: .5 lbs
- Barbie Fun House: 9 lbs.
- Mighty Morphin Power Rangers accessory: .75 lbs.
- Roadmaster Mountain Bike: 36.5 lbs.
- “Mortal Kombat” Nintento video game: .5 lbs.
TOTAL WEIGHT: 60.75 lbs.
At an average weight of 6.075 pounds, Santa’s 868,552 gifts would weight 5,276,453 pounds or 2,638 tons.
Size of the sleigh
We assume that each child’s presents would take up four cubic feet. We multiplied that figure by the number of children to get a total volume of 1,737,104 cubic feet. A vehicle capable of transporting that volume would have to be 600 feet by 300 feet by 10 feet. In other words, Santa’s sleigh would be equal to two football fields wide by one football field deep and 10 feet tall.