Studly Santas hit the slopes in the Swiss Alps

Participants in the World Championship of Santa Clauses in Samnaun, Switzerland climb a five-meter-high chimney, in Nov. 2010. The fastest team gets the most points.

If your mental image of Old St. Nick is of a jolly fat man sitting on his duff for hours on end, it’s safe to say you've never been to Samnaun, Switzerland. In this village in the Swiss Alps, Santa runs, skis, climbs and snowshoes like an Olympian.

Or make that Olympians, as 60 of them will convene here on Saturday to compete in ClauWau, aka, the World Championship of Santa Clauses. Between the offbeat events and other festivities, we suspect these guys (and girls) aren't fueling their efforts with cookies and milk.

According to event manager Josef Schmid, the festivities are an outgrowth of a local tradition in which residents would toss sweets and candies to children as the latter walked the streets, singing songs and playing music.

“ClauWau,” said Schmid, “is like a reward; it means to pick up something.”

In this Nov. 2011 photo, participants navigate an obstacle course inside a visibility-impeding Santa hat.

These days, the competing Clauses don’t pick up candy, but rather, packages that provide bonus points during a series of team events. Among them:

  • Santa Clauben: Teams of four racers climb under a giant, visibility-impeding Santa hat and try to pick up packages while navigating an obstacle course marked by trees and hay bales. Thankfully, there are no roofs involved.
  • Santa’s Baton: Teams undertake an uphill/downhill relay race involving snowshoes, toboggans, snowmobiles and skis made of barrel staves. Stabbing packages with a lance-like pole scores extra points.
  • Santa’s Chimney Climbing: Think Santa only climbs down chimneys? Not in Samnaun. Here, Santas have to climb up a four-sided chimney-like tower with a sack of toys. Upon ringing the bell at the top, each Santa drops his or her bag, the signal for the next Santa to start climbing.

After these and other events, the competition comes down to four final teams that compete in dual-heat relays involving toboggans, balancing on tree trunks and barrel-stave ski races. Between Santas careening downhill, flying through the air and tumbling head over heels, there’s enough red-suited mayhem to make even the grouchiest Grinch crack a grin.

“It’s very sporting,” said Schmid, “but it’s also a lot of fun.” Potentially profitable, too, as the winning team takes home 1,500 Swiss francs, or roughly US$1,600.

Now, that’s what we’d call putting some ho-ho-ho in the holidays.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.