J. Alan Smith considers the description of angels in the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas

In his books, The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey and Can Reindeer Fly?, Roger Highfield considers the reported appearances of Santa Claus and his reindeer on Christmas Eve from the standpoint of physics. He makes reasonable assumptions about the number of Christian families with children, the minimum weight of presents for each child, and the time available for their distribution. By demonstrating that Santa Claus and his reindeer team would suffer from both overheating and crushing gravitational forces, he concludes that if Santa ever did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.

‘Spiritual creatures’

In this article I examine the hypothesis that Santa Claus is an angel as described by St Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae, Ia, Questions 50–64. The question of the distribution of presents is discussed by a reference to Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, Question 66.

At the beginning of the volume containing Questions 50–64, St Thomas writes: ‘We now come to the division of creatures into spiritual and corporeal. I will take first the purely spiritual creatures, which the Bible calls angels (50–64); then those that are only corporeal (65–74); thirdly the creature called man, composed of spirit and body.’

Position in space

Question 52 considers ‘angels and position in space’. Article 1 asks ‘does an angel exist in place?’ Aquinas concludes: ‘An angel can be said to exist in place, but not in the same sense as we say this of a body. A body is localized as being related to a particular place by a contiguity than can be measured quantitatively. Now an angel has no measurable quantity; he has however a “power-quantity”, by which I mean that when an angel’s power is applied in any way to a given place, he can be said to be locally there – where the body is to which it is applied.’ Article 2 asks ‘can an angel be in several places at once?’ and receives the answer: ‘Since then an angel is in place inasmuch as his power is applied in a place, he is never simply everywhere at once, nor in several places, but in one place only at a given moment.’

Their movement

Question 53 considers ‘the movement of angels in space’. Article 1 asks ‘can an angel move from place to place?’ St Thomas answers that, ‘The blessed angels can move from place to place; but, just as an angel and a body are not in place in the same sense, so they do not move locally in the same sense… Neither then is the local movement of an angel commensurate with place; nor does it have to be continuous because of the inter-local space-continuum; in fact it may be either continuous or not.’

Article 2 develops this point, asking ‘does an angel, moving locally, pass through an intermediate place?’ Here we are told, ‘But when an angel’s movement is discontinuous, it may happen that he passes from one point to another without crossing a place in between.’ Article 3 proceeds to ask ‘is an angel’s movement instantaneous?’ Aquinas replies: ‘But an angel can move in discontinuous time; he can be now here and now there, with no time-interval between.’

Pure spirit

To summarize: an angel is a pure spirit and therefore not subject to problems of centrifugal forces when accelerating or decelerating; nor would he suffer from overheating when travelling quickly through air. He can exist in a place and can move from place to place without limitations of continuity or speed. Thus the reported observations of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve can be explained on the hypothesis that he is an angel.

The presents

One question does remain. His reported movements have been explained, but how does he distribute the presents? The simple and straightforward answer is that he does not: Christmas presents are given to children by their parents. Why, then, does Santa Claus appear at the time that parents put out presents for their children? If he were an angel, a messenger of God, Santa Claus could appear in order to teach the truth that St Thomas expressed in

Summa Theologiae, IIa, IIae, Question 66, Article 7: ‘The natural order established by God in his providence is, however, such that lower things are meant to enable man to supply his needs. A man’s needs must therefore still be met out of the world’s goods’. Young children first learn this truth through the story of Santa Claus. As they achieve a greater maturity they discover that this act of distributing material goods on behalf of the Creator is performed by their parents, their procreators. ND