Bah Humbug, Mate!

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

While the war on Christmas often means eliminating Christian references from this jolly season, some scholars want Santa to get a makeover as well. In a December British Medical Journal article Dr. Nathan J. Grills and illustrator Brendan Halyday question whether Santa Claus is a “public health pariah.” The author, Dr. Grills, openly objects to “multinational capitalists” who use Santa to advertise unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol and sweets.

“Epidemiologically there is a correlation between countries that venerate Santa Claus and those that have high levels of childhood obesity,” writes Grills, a public health fellow at Australia’s Monash University (MU). “This is bad not only for Santa’s waistline but for parental obesity. When Santa is full, Dad is a willing helper.”

Grills goes on to suggest that “Santa (and his helpers)” share “the carrots and celery sticks commonly left for Rudolf” and that Santa should bike, walk or jog instead of sedentarily riding his sleigh.

“Public health needs to be aware of what giant multinational capitalists realized long ago: that Santa sells, and sometimes he sells harmful products,” he writes.

On December 18 the Courier Mail (CM) reported that the MU fellow “has been hit by an avalanche of criticism” in response to his paper, which he argues was meant to be “tongue-in-cheek.” “It’s a Christmas spoof,” he told CM.

Apparently, few Australians are laughing.

“I received much correspondence accusing me of wasting 10 years of university education and bringing the academic institution to shame!,” CM quotes Dr. Grills as opining. “To clarify, I am not a Santa researcher—the article was written in my spare time for a bit of comic relief.”

Dr. Grills was considered an up and coming country doctor not too many years ago, and practiced medicine in the country town of Ballarat after studying at Oxford University, according to a 2004 Fairfax Digital Network article. “‘People have this ill-conceived idea that the country is a horrible place to work,’ said Dr Grills, who returned to his home district with his wife, Claire, after they graduated from Monash University in 2002,” the FDN reported. “‘You’re involved in a community, from Christmas carols on Christmas Day to knowing a lot of the patients and staff inside and outside the hospital,’” they quote Dr. Gills as explaining.

So was his paper truly in jest? “Santa studies is a developing field in public health, and currently there is a disappointing lack of rigorous research on the effect of Santa on public health,” Dr. Gills glibly writes. “More targeted research is required before authorities might take action to regulate Santa’s activities.”

While suggesting that Santa shouldn’t flout “requirements for surveillance at ‘designated airports, ports and certain ground crossings,’” is clearly a joke by Dr. Gills, some of his suggestions have a more practical bent.  “Since Santa is a childhood icon should we prevent him from selling products such as alcohol and unhealthy foods?” Dr. Grills asks in the paper.

He later goes on to criticize how in Australia “there is no standardized requirement for Santa to have a medical check-up or even prove his immunization [sic] status.” “Clearly, basic Santa education and Santa screening are warranted,” he writes, after arguing that Santa impersonators are “potentially a point source for infectious disease outbreaks” and viruses like the swine flu, or H1N1.

With regards to the former regulation, Dr. Gills is not the first to argue that advertising unfairly affects children’s perception of healthy foods, with McDonalds serving as a prime example.

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.