But, according to a public health expert, with his portly belly and a fondness for a drink-fuelled spin on the sleigh, Santa is a bad influence on parents and children, encouraging everything from obesity to drink driving.
Dr Nathan Grills has done a study of the famous man and suggests Santa slim down by ditching the mince pies, snacking instead on his reindeers’ carrots and celery sticks. He also should trade in the sleigh for a bike or throw his sack over his shoulder and deliver his presents on foot.
“To create a supportive environment for Santa’s dieting we should cease the tradition of leaving him mince pies, and brandy, whiskey or stout. This is bad not only for Santa’s waistline but for parental obesity,” says Dr Grills, who is based at Monash University in Victoria, Australia.
“Santa might also be encouraged to adopt a more active method to deliver toys – swapping his reindeer for a bike or walking or jogging.”
Dr Grills also warned that Santa’s habit of consuming brandy, whiskey or a bottle of stout at every home indicates a drink problem – and the more disturbing possibility of him drink-driving his sleigh.
“Despite the risks of high speed air travel, Santa is never depicted wearing a seatbelt or helmet.”
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Dr Grills declared: “Other dangerous activities that Santa could be accused of promoting include speeding, disregard for road rules, and extreme sports such as roof surfing and chimney jumping.”
Dr Grills said Santa Claus’s contemporary image arose through a series of Coca Cola advertisements that began in the 1930s. His image was subsequently used in tobacco advertising and, while most countries had moved to ban this, it was common to still see Santa pictured on Christmas cards with a pipe in hand.
A study found Santa Claus was second only to Ronald McDonald for characters recognised by American children.
“If Ronald McDonald can be so effective at selling burgers to children, we might expect Santa to be equally effective at selling other goods,” Dr Grills said.
“Public health needs to be aware of what giant multinational capitalists realised long ago, that Santa sells and sometimes he sells harmful products.”
Santa’s “rotund sedentary image” also had the effect of making “obesity synonymous with cheerfulness and joviality” around the world, he said.
Given the jolly giant’s popularity Dr Grills argues that “Santa only needs to affect health by 0.1% to damage millions of lives”.
Amid a global swine flu pandemic, Dr Grills says that most people who stood in as Santa impersonators were not required to undergo a health check – and they get “kissed and hugged” by a succession of “snotty-nosed kids”.
If he sneezes or coughs around 10 times a day, all the children who sit on his lap may end up with swine flu, Dr Grills who denies he is a “public health scrooge”.