Santa: the world’s oldest multinational

Santa Claus’s global gift-giving operation is the model of a modern multinational, yet he’s managed to duck scrutiny. Chris Carter asks him the tough questions.

MoneyWeek Xmas cover illustration
(Image credit: © Adam Stower)

Santa Claus's global gift-giving operation is the model of a modern multinational, yet he's managed to duck scrutiny. Chris Carter asks him the tough questions.

The first thing that strikes you about Santa Claus is just how big he is. On meeting him, I find myself staring up into a voluminous white beard cascading from a pair of plump, rosy cheeks beset with two sparkling blue eyes like sapphires. He exudes an air of merriment, and his breath smells of warm sherry. When he laughs, his belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly.

When he stops to think, he knits his bushy white eyebrows and strokes his beard with a huge white-gloved hand. I've come to Santa's Grotto to speak to the man tasked with producing and delivering toys to the world's 2.2 billion children, all in the space of a few hours. It's a staggering undertaking and the fact that he's been doing it for hundreds of years (see below) makes him arguably the oldest multinational in the world. So what insights does Santa have to offer on doing business around the globe in the 21st century?

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Just over a quarter of a century ago, a little girl named Katy Sheen wrote to Santa asking him how he did it all, I say. Santa nods at the recollection. "I should have the letter filed away here somewhere," he grunts, casting his eyes around the cavernous walls. Two beefy elves either side of us look on. So what reply did Katy get? That it was all done by magic. "And it is," Santa protests, his eyebrows arching up in surprise. That little girl didn't take "magic" for an answer, I tell him. Katy grew up to become Dr Sheen, a physicist at the University of Exeter, and she's come up with her own answer, reported last week in The Daily Telegraph.

"I'm more of a Guardian reader," Santa booms. So I tell him that Dr Sheen has calculated that, in line with Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Santa whooshes around the world so fast that he and his reindeer shrink in size, enabling him to fit down chimneys and guzzle mince pies. Travelling at 6.2 million miles per hour, Santa could make his rounds in 31 hours, taking into account time zones. As his reindeer hit their stride, the Doppler effect changes Santa's red suit to green, before he disappears entirely as the rays of light bouncing off him get squashed which is also why children never see Santa no matter how hard they try to stay awake.

"So what powers my reindeer so they can go so fast?" Santa challenges. I shrug. "Magic", he cries, before falling into a fit of laughter so violent he sends me flying up into the air. I land with a thud. "Still, that's not the point, is it", says Santa, suddenly growing serious. "The logistics is the easy bit. But have you seen the paperwork I have to fill in? It's a good thing Christmas comes but once a year, considering all the forms take so long."

He shakes his head. "Take the safety regulations. Have you tried reading the European Toy Safety Directive 2009/48/EC? It's 'elf and safety gone mad. Then you've got all the other countries' regulations to consider." But you're Santa, I point out Father Christmas, Pre Nol, the Weihnachtsmann, the fat man in red. Surely they make allowances for you. "Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you," he says. "But no, I have to meet every regulation in every country I want to deliver to, just like every importer."

"And what about all those names and addresses," he adds. I must have looked at him with a blank expression, for Santa let out a long sigh. "All those children who have written to me over the centuries, we keep tabs on them all so we can tell who has been naughty and who has been nice. I have records going back generations. You know what Donald Trump wanted as a little boy?" I replied that I didn't. "Hula hoop. It's all there." And was the young Donald a good boy, I ask. "Oh, he was a sweet little child. How they change," he says wistfully.

Santa goes on to tell me how his elves are in the process of digitalising his record system. Doesn't that put pose a risk of being hacked? "I'll say it does," says Santa. "And Yahoo thought they had it bad. [Russian president] Vladimir Putin tried a couple of times to hack the system to change his record from naughty to nice so he'll get some presents this year." I ask Santa if he's ever been hacked? "Snow balls, no," he bellows. At that point, the elf on our left leans in and whispers something in his ear. "My press office will get back to you on that," mutters Santa.

We move on to talk about conditions in his workshops. Is it true, I ask, that he has based his operations at the North Pole to take advantage of weak labour standards? Does he adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Elf? Is his elven workforce unionised? Santa looks uncomfortable and it isn't just my weight. "Why would they need to be unionised," he asks, trying his best to look offended. "All my elves have access to pensions, healthcare, they have great teeth all of them. Poke one and you'll see. Conditions in the Workshop exceed international standards." What is the minimum age of retirement? 217. I ask if I can inspect the factory floor. "Maybe, later," he says, shaking his head at the two attendant elves.

"Now let me ask you a question," says Santa. "Have you been a good boy this year?" I bat away his attempt to intimidate me, and come again at him with a charge made by Trump earlier this year, that by dumping his cheaply made toys on the market in vast quantities every December, he is driving down prices for toy makers in the West. "By Rudolph's red nose," he cries, "the toys I deliver are free." But isn't that the ultimate destination when you engage in a race to the bottom? What about other countries in the world where toy-making is an important source of jobs? "My free toys mean that parents don't have to spend so much on gifts, so they can buy other things for themselves," he says, animatedly.

But does Santa feel the children value the effort he, or rather, his elves put into making the toys, I ask. Wouldn't it just be better to give the children cash so they could buy what they want? "Do I look like the Bank of England," Santa chuckles. "I can't just start printing billions with no thought to inflation. We're elves, not central bankers." I remind him that academic research into gift-giving finds that people on the receiving end usually value their gifts they get at less than the price the giver paid. Wouldn't it just be best to give cash and avoid what economists call a deadweight loss? Economists, pah," snorts Santa. "But where is the fun in cash." Well, I say, give me £50 and I'll show you.

The elf on my right taps his watch and tells me to wrap it up. I press on regardless, sensing I have Santa on the back foot. I ask Santa why, if indeed his toys are free, is he channelling revenues into an offshore bank account in the British Virgin Islands, as exposed in the leaked Panama Papers. He tells me that's money earned from selling his image rights. If sports stars can make millions from image rights and legally keep the money offshore, why shouldn't he? Considering how many Christmas cards he appears on, he'd be "mad not to".

Then there's the way his image appears on countless high-fat and high-sugar snacks around this time of the year. Is that really a good example to set for children? Perhaps most contentious of all are the film tax avoidance schemes he is reported to have joined, financing many of those terrible Christmas movies. Public figures and big business and Santa is both are expected to be cleaner than clean these days. Is he worried about being summoned to appear at a House of Commons select committee?

The atmosphere in the Grotto has grown heavy. Santa sits there looking at me in silence. I have just one more question, I say: can I have an iPhone for Christmas? After all, I have been a very good boy.

Fact file: Santa Claus

The origins of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas if you prefer, are shrouded in mystery. He is broadly based on the historical figure of St Nicholas of Myra, born around 280AD in modern-day Turkey, who is the patron saint not only of children, but also pawnbrokers and penitent thieves.

It's possible his long white beard and shaggy hair are cast-offs from the pagan gods Saturn and the Norse Odin. Either way, he liked the look and it's stayed.

During the Protestant Reformation, saints went out of fashion, and poor old Santa was shoved to the side, while the main winter celebration was shunted from his feast day on 6 December to Christmas Day. In the early 19th century, the Americans got hold of him, and Clement Clarke Moore united Santa with his reindeer (although not Rudolph he came later) in his poem A Visit From St Nicholas in 1822. A hundred years on, the suits at Coca-Cola hired him for their festive advertisements and, in 1931, fitted him up with his famous red togs. And that's more or less how he's stayed ever since.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.

Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.

You can follow Chris on Instagram.