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Santa, Elves, & Life on the North Pole

Santa with elves and toys

With the Thanksgiving holiday in the “rear-view” mirror, many Americans focus their attention on end of the year celebrations. And the most popular symbol of secular joy is Santa Claus. Many cultures celebrate a generous gift-giving spirit. In the United States, he goes by the name Santa Claus and is instantly recognizable in his red suit with white trim, red cap with white trim, black boots, white facial hair, and wide smile. I should mention, there are regional variations on this theme. In Hawai`i, for example, Santa wears an aloha shirt and surfs. 

Santa is a chubby, jolly elf as tall as the average man. He keeps a list of good girls and boys. If you think about the list, the concept is rather creepy. As the song says: He knows if you’ve been bad, or good. Anyway, Santa brings a toy to good children. That’s A TOY, as in one.

In the above Normal Rockwell illustration from 1922, Santa looks a bit different from the standard description. He looks tired, instead of jolly. And the elves swarm over their dozing boss like mice as they add finishing touches to a toy house, and prepare Santa’s bag to be filled. Ever wonder how the elves cram toys for children all over the world into what looks like a small red bag. Magic!

How Large is Santa’s Compound on the North Pole?

Even though Santa only gives one toy to each good child, that’s still a lot of toys. Santa lives and works at the North Pole, where he has living quarters, workshops, warehouses, and a large labor force of elves. Traditionally, these workers dress in red or green clothing, wear pointed hats and have large, pointed ears. There are seven elves in Rockwell’s illustration, but Santa needs thousands of elves to get the toys made. Santa Tracker estimates Santa employs about 110,000 elves.

Workshop of Santa Claus

With so many elves, Santa’s North Pole is a busy place. In 2015 Granite Geek David Brooks did some computations and came up with some interesting figures. At that time, if Santa gave each good child a toy, his workshop needed to produce 1.2 billion toys. Brooks estimated that if the elves worked a 40-hour week for 50 weeks a year, each elf would work 2,000 hours per year to produce 600,000 presents per hour.

In order to provide each elf with two square feet of workspace, the workshop would take up 1.2 million square feet. Of course, there might be smaller workshops, rather than one large workshop.

But, the elves can’t just leave toys scattered on the shop floor. They have to put them in a warehouse. According to Brooks, if each toy takes up 1 cubic foot of space, Santa needs a warehouse with 1.2 billion cubic feet. If Santa’s warehouse is 20 feet tall, that would still be only 60 million square feet.

Brooks estimated that the warehouse and workshop alone would take up 61.2 million square feet which is about 2.2 square miles. This doesn’t include living quarters for Santa and the elves or stables for the reindeer.


Caribou pulling 2-person sled

In the mid-19th century, Americans concluded Santa lived on the North Pole, partly because no one had any idea what the North Pole looked like. Publicity about expeditions looking for the Northwest Passage didn’t offer much detail other than cold and snow. So people thought the North Pole was a somewhat logical place for Santa, reindeer and lots of elves with plenty of room for expansion.

1870 postcard of Santa and reindeer

Santa’s reindeer are probably R. Tarandus Platyrhynchus, the smallest sub-species. In his poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, poet Clement Moore specified eight tiny reindeer named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen. Clearly, when naming reindeer, one must be precise.

There is some confusion on the issue of reindeer gender. Illustrations depict Santa’s reindeer with a full rack antlers, and the presumption is they must be male. Not so. Older males lose their antlers in December. The females, on the other hand, grow their antlers in the summer and keep them all year. Which means … either Santa’s reindeer are female or he has to keep recruiting younger males who maintain their antlers at least until Santa completes his rounds.

Santa’s Sartorial Flair

So the next question is, how do we know what Santa looks like. Moore described Santa as a jolly old elf. But elves are small.

Santa Claus

Between 1862 and 1886, Thomas Nast produced 33 drawings of Santa Claus. Over the years, Santa gained weight, grew a beard, and started smoking a pipe. But despite Nast’s iconic portrait, prior to 1931, Santa lacked a consistent image. He might be tall or short, chubby or thin

Life & Adventures of Santa Claus book cover

In 1931 Coca-Cola hired Haddon Sundblom to paint the real Santa Claus as a way to appeal to children. Besides, everyone deserves a relaxing beverage during the Christmas Season. Sundblom modeled Santa after one of his friends, and drew a chubby, human-sized, happy man with rosy cheeks, laugh lines, twinkly eyes, and a white beard wearing the now-famous red suit with white trim.

I don’t have a picture of Santa drinking a Coke, but if you’ve got a minute to check out this Coca-Cola ad from 1995, you can see Sundblom’s famous pictures on the sides of bright red delivery vans. In some ways, Coca-Cola is as famous as Santa.


Norman Rockwell. Santa with his Elves. 1922.

The Workshop of Santa Claus. Godey’s Lady’s Book. 1873.

Couple in Sled Pulled by Reindeer. Nome, AL. Early 20th century.

Santa Clause and his Reindeer. 1870.

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1881.

Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L.Frank Baum.

“Did Coca-Cola Create Santa Claus?” Coca-Cola Company.

Peter Biello. “Granite Geek: How Big is Santa’s Workshop?” New Hampshire Public Radio. Dec. 24, 2015.

Erin Block. “How the North Pole became part of Santa’s Story.” Mashable. Dec. 20, 2015.

Jill Harness. “11 Things You Might not Know about Reindeer.” Mental Floss. Dec. 7, 2015.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


  1. I don’t have a precise figure for Santa’s elf population, but in 2020 Santa Tracker estimated that by 2021 Santa would employ 200,000 elves.


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