Perhaps when you last sauntered past a Santa's grotto somewhere in the bowels of an urban shopping center, you thought you were witnessing just another transaction, one in which parents shell out a few pounds so their offspring can enjoy a five-minute chat with a man sporting a fake beard.

Not so. What you actually saw, according to a rigorous academic study based on interviews with a multitude of Santas, was nothing less than "a performative, epistemic and ethical process of self-transformation" in which the actor playing Father Christmas sought to "transcend the trials and tribulations they encountered as interactive service workers, ranging from crying and vomiting babies to verbal assaults from teenagers, up to and including attempted robbery." The motive for putting up with so much? "The sense of recognition . . . bestowed upon them."

Or, as one Santa interviewed for the British Academy-sponsored study put it: "When you're Santa Claus, you're a celebrity and sort of, for one short season, you're somebody that, you know, 98 percent of people are very happy to see."