NORAD may be counting how many cookies Santa eats tonight, but have they got their eye on his overseas snacking habits too?
The North American Aerospace Command (NORAD), which has been tracking Santa (along with intercontinental ballistic missiles, spy planes, and other rogue aircraft) since 1955, has announced that this year it will also be counting how many cookies he eats en route.
Presumably our newly diet-conscious government is concerned that if every child in the world leaves out cookies and milk for Santa, he will put on more than the extra pound or two of weight most Americans accumulate over the holidays.
But, in an important twist that I can only hope NORAD has on its radar, Santa only eats cookies washed down with milk in North America. In the U.K., where I grew up, Father Christmas is treated to mince pies and sherry, although in some households that is upgraded to a stiff drop of whiskey. In Ireland, rumor has it, the sherry is replaced by a bottle of Guinness, and the internet, that most trustworthy of sources, suggests that Australian children leave out a nice cold beer to refresh Santa on the Antipodean leg of his journey.
One French friend (and parent) suggested that Père Noël should be rewarded with a glass of wine, some cheese, and a handful of marrons glacés, but that may just be wishful thinking. Traditionally, French children only leave out hay and carrots for Père Noël's donkey (donkey? I suppose the reindeer have to rest at some point). Venezuelan and Belgian children also cater to Santa's trusty steed rather than St. Nick himself, although in Belgium, Santa's non-politically-correct helper Black Pete often gets a beer, perhaps in return for the pepernoten cookies he leaves behind.
In Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Santa also goes hungry, but his lucky elves are welcomed with bowl after bowl of rice pudding. In neighboring Finland, however, St. Nicholas arrives while children are actually awake, and is too busy quizzing them on whether they have been good or bad to indulge in any snacks/bribes.
According to Caroline Oates, librarian of The Folklore Society in London, each of these various treats are the cultural traces of a pre-Christian mythology, in which evil spirits were propitiated and good fortune attracted to the household through the judicious application of offerings.
In any case, it's good to know that while Santa's diet may not be healthy, it is certainly varied.