Looming U.S. Chimney Shortage Spells Santa Trouble

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This Thursday night, if mainstream media accounts and NORAD are to be believed, Santa Claus will depart his North Pole headquarters in a reindeer-drawn flying sleigh and deliver toys to children all over the world.

Santa’s favored method of getting those toys into dwellings is said to be jumping, or maybe shimmying, down the chimney. So I’m surprised there hasn’t been more hullabaloo over the steady decline in the number of new U.S. houses with chimneys. The percentage of newly completed single-family houses with fireplaces has been declining since the early 1990s and is now, at 39% in 2019, the lowest it has been since the Census Bureau started keeping track in 1973.

Looming U.S. Chimney Shortage Spells Santa Trouble

Zillions of new houses went up in the 1950s and 1960s in Florida and Southern California, where the appeal of a fireplace is perhaps less than elsewhere in the U.S., so it is possible that the share of new houses with chimneys was even lower then. Some of the post-1990 fireplace decline can be attributed to a Sun Belt that is growing and a Northeast and Midwest that are generally not, although the regional breakdown has not always been what you might expect.

Looming U.S. Chimney Shortage Spells Santa Trouble

Another important factor is that 21st-century homebuyers generally aren’t looking to the fireplace as a major source of heat. In 1940, 22.8% of U.S. households used wood as their main heating fuel. In 2019 that was down to 1.6% according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and 1.7% according to its American Housing Survey, and most of those relied on wood stoves rather than fireplaces. The wood burners are also concentrated in a few high-elevation and/or woodsy parts of the country, as this county-by-county depiction indicates:

Looming U.S. Chimney Shortage Spells Santa Trouble

In most of the country fireplaces are thus a luxury, and much of the drop in new-home fireplace prevalence since 2014 can be explained by a change in the housing market: After a period following the 2008 financial crisis when only quite-affluent people could get mortgages, builders again turned to building starter homes for which cost-containment was a priority. “Keeping new homes affordable has become a considerable challenge lately,” National Association of Home Builders economist Paul Emrath wrote last year. “Fireplaces are generally a desirable amenity, but not one that all home buyers report as a must have.” According to the NAHB’s 2019 What Home Buyers Really Want survey, only 16% consider a fireplace essential.

Apartments have always been much less likely to have fireplaces and chimneys than houses — I have lived in seven different early-20th-century apartment buildings in Alabama and New York through the years, and none has had fireplaces. But over the past two decades the share of new multi-family housing units with fireplaces has gone from low to tiny. 

Looming U.S. Chimney Shortage Spells Santa Trouble

The explanation here mostly has to do with the kinds of apartments being built. In 2000, three quarters of the multi-family units constructed were in buildings with 29 units or fewer, and even larger buildings in those days were often sprawling, low-slung affairs that could easily accommodate chimneys. In 2019, 70% of units were in buildings with 30 units or more, most of them the hulking, three-to-seven-story wood-framed structures that I have been trying to get people to call “stumpies,” which are for reasons of both cost and fire safety almost always fireplace-free.

Add up the numbers underlying the two charts, and 57% of the houses built since 1973 and 7% of the apartments built since 1999 have fireplaces. No such data (that I know of) exist on fireplace prevalence for houses built before 1973 and apartments built before 1999. But based on the Census Bureau’s estimates of when existing U.S. housing of various sorts was built, my rough guess — assuming that, among other things, 80% of pre-1940 houses and 0% of mobile homes had fireplaces — is that 42% of U.S. housing units are so equipped.

That’s a lot of living rooms that Santa Claus can’t get into via the chimney! Yet he somehow delivers the presents nonetheless. As the late Sharon Jones, who grew up in Brooklyn, once reminisced in song:

When I was a child I used to wonder
How Santa put my toys under the tree
I said, momma can you tell me how this can be?
When there ain’t no chimneys in the projects

Jones subsequently persuaded herself that “Momma was the one” who gave her the presents. During my son’s mostly fireplace-free childhood, my wife and I came up with the less-unsettling explanation that Santa entered through the window, and always made a point of leaving one slightly ajar on Christmas Eve. That seemed perfectly sensible, which does raise the question of why Santa ever got in the habit of entering houses via chimneys in the first place.

The first reference to the practice appears to come in the work of New York’s Washington Irving. In the 1809 first edition of his “A History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,” the young humorist had concluded a discussion of the holidays celebrated in New Amsterdam with the assertion that “nor was the day of St. Nicholas suffered to pass by, without making presents, hanging the stocking in the chimney and complying with all its other ceremonies.”

Gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, was and is customary in the Netherlands and some other places in Europe. One of the main legends attached to the 4th-century Greek bishop was that he had tossed three bags of gold coins through a high window into the house of an impoverished man who was about to sell his three daughters into prostitution. As the story was retold in colder climes where leaving a window open in December wasn’t such a great idea, the high window became a chimney — with the earliest evidence of this found in some 14th-century frescoes in Serbia, according to Jeremy Seal, author of a book on the saint’s legacy.

So Irving was describing a real tradition, albeit one for which there is scant evidence of wide practice in 17th century New Amsterdam/York. But in a new edition of his history first published in 1821, amid a seemingly concerted effort among New York’s elite to re-envision the often-raucous winter holidays as a tamer, more child-oriented season with St. Nicholas — referred to also by “Sancte Claus,” “Santa Clause” and other similar names — at its heart, Irving made some key innovations:

In the sylvan days of New Amsterdam, the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city, of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the treetops, or over the roofs of houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites. Whereas, in these degenerate days of iron and brass he never shows us the light of his countenance, nor ever visits us, save one night in the year; when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of the patriarchs, confining his presents merely to the children, in token of the degeneracy of the parents.

Elsewhere in the book Irving described St. Nicholas making his above-the-treetops journeys in a wagon. Later that year, an illustrated children’s book anonymously published in New York pictured “Sancteclaus” traveling in a flying sleigh drawn by a single reindeer, and said he came not on St. Nicholas Day but Christmas Eve. Then, in 1823, an upstate newspaper published the anonymous poem that established once and for all that the Christmas-Eve gift-giver was a chubby, jolly fellow who arrived in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and got into the house via the chimney.

That poem, known today as a “A Visit From St. Nicholas” or “The Night Before Christmas,” is usually attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy New York City landowner, divinity-school professor and Irving acquaintance. In recent years a couple of literary detectives have endorsed the claims of the descendants of gentleman farmer Henry Livingston Jr. of Poughkeepsie, New York, who say he first recited the poem to his children in 1807 or 1808. After reading multiple refutations of these claims by experts on the period, I’m inclined to think that Moore in fact wrote it in the early 1820s, but the authorship doesn’t really matter to my story here.

What does matter is that Moore or Livingston found the idea of a fully grown saint entering a house through the chimney so hard to swallow that he depicted St. Nicholas as an “elf” with “a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer.” Somehow this miniaturization has mostly gotten lost over the subsequent two centuries, leaving us with implausible accounts of a full-sized, chubby man somehow squeezing himself down millions of chimneys.

Nowadays, unlike in the early 19th century, most American dwellings don’t have chimneys. So it seems long past time to reclaim the original St. Nicholas story, as my wife and I unwittingly did when our son was little. Santa can deliver his presents through windows, kids! You don’t need a chimney!

Fun fact: San Bernardino County and San Diego County in Southern California and King County in Washington (Seattle), all of which include some fairlyrugged mountains in their territory, are in the top 10 for number of households with wood as the main heating fuel, although the percentages are small.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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