The real Santa’s face: ID software sorts Father Christmas from his stand-ins

Is this the real Santa Claus? According to computer-driven research, led by a clinical geneticist, Father Christmas does have a distinct facial phenotype. Photograph: stocknroll/Getty Images
The man in red’s distinct visage emerges by algorithm, proving not any old bearded man looks like him

Santa impersonators watch out. Scientists have created a Santa-detection machine and used it to prove what children have been telling adults for generations – that Santa has a unique face which clearly distinguishes him from other elderly bearded men.

Previous research has suggested that children as young as three can identify Santa Claus based on his distinctive appearance.

“Santa Claus or Father Christmas is obviously a very recognisable person, but we wondered whether this is because of his clothing, his beard or his face?” said Dr Thomas Wright, a clinical geneticist at the University of Manchester, who led the research. “Until now no one has ever systematically and scientifically interrogated the modern face of Father Christmas.”

To investigate, Wright and his colleagues trained a deep-learning facial-recognition algorithm – similar to the facial ID software used to unlock smartphones or identify people in digital photo libraries – on multiple images of Santa gathered from the internet. They then used the software to scrutinise further images of Santa, as well as other adult men and elderly men with beards.

“The important thing is that this [algorithm] is only looking at the facial features. It doesn’t care what the individual is wearing or what colours are in the photograph. We wanted to know, does Father Christmas have a facial phenotype that is distinguishable from other adult men or other elderly bearded men?” said Wright.

The research, published in the journal Vision, found that Santa’s face is distinguishable from those other men – although whether internet representations of Santa are an accurate portrayal of the real magical inhabitant of the north pole, only Rudolph and his friends can say.

Their tool also did not categorise as Santa any images of Saint Nicholas, an early Christian bishop from the Middle East whose habit of secret gift giving is thought to have inspired modern ideas about Father Christmas. Neither did it classify Walter Clement Shields, an early 20th-century Alaskan man recently proposed as a prototype for Santa, even though he also delivered gifts by reindeer sleigh.

Wright wants to examine whether related festive characters, such as Papa Noël, Tomte, Julenissen, Ded Moroz, Sinterklaas and Los Reyes Magos, might pass the test, as well as dedicated Santa impersonators who attend the annual World Santa Claus Congress.

The tool could also be developed to provide a Santa “lookalike score”, rather than merely classifying individuals as “Santa” “adult man” or “elderly bearded man”, Wright suggested.

It would also be interesting to explore whether other folklore characters, such as the Tooth Fairy, Robin Hood, and Tom Thumb, had distinct faces, he added.