Tag Archives: Christmas

Friday essay: dreaming of a ‘white Christmas’ on the Aboriginal missions

Christmas Dinner, Mt Margaret Mission 1933. State Library of Western Australia

Aboriginal missions, which existed across Australia until the 1970s, are notorious for their austerity. Aboriginal people lived on meagre rations – flour, sugar, tea and tobacco – and later, token wages. At some missions, schoolgirls wore hessian sacks as clothes or skirts made from old bags.

Christmas, however, was a joyful time on them. Old people remember Christmas for food, gifts and carols. But the celebration had a sinister edge. For years, missionaries hoped the joy of Christmas would replace Aboriginal traditions. But Christmas actually became an opportunity for creative cross-cultural engagement, with Aboriginal people adopting its traditions and making them their own.

The food was a respite from the usual diet of damper, rice or stew. On the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory, missionaries would shoot a bullock, and the old women remember feasting on beef and mangoes on the beach.

Oenpelli Mission (Gunbalanya) Christmas, 1928. National Archives of Australia

Missionaries used food to attract people to church. Christmas might be the only day of the year that it was distributed to everyone. Cake was a favourite. On Christmas Day at Gunbalanya in western Arnhem Land in 1940 the superintendent called it “the happiest we’ve experienced here. Ten huge cakes for Natives – no complaints – 106 at service” (suggesting that church attendance was linked to cake quantity).

For elders on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, turtle-egg cake was a highlight of Christmas in the 1940s. As Jabani Lalara recalled:

We used to have a lovely Christmas … In front of the church, that’s where they used to put the Christmas tree and that’s where we used to get a present. Especially like cake, used to make from turtle egg. I love that cake. True.

Gifts were another drawcard. On Christmas 1899, the Bloomfield River Mission in far-north Queesland was said to be “overflowing” because Aboriginal people “heard there would be a distribution of gifts”. These included prized items such as handkerchiefs, pipes and knives. At some missions, Santa (often the superintendent) distributed gifts.

Father Christmas arriving at Mt Margaret Mission in a rickshaw, 1945. State Library of Western Australia

However looking back, old people have mixed feelings about the gifts. As much as they loved them at the time, they discovered their treasures were only toys that white children had rejected. As one person told me:

We didn’t have much in them days, it was tough, but we were happy. We were happy with those secondhand toys at Christmas from the Salvation Army. We didn’t know they were secondhand toys at the time. I found out in my later years.

Christmas rally church service, Fitzroy Crossing Mission, 1954. State Library of Western Australia

Missionaries and Aboriginal people alike loved carols; they were an opportunity for shared enjoyment. Tiwi women look back fondly on their time singing with nuns. Said one woman:

Sister Marie Alfonso, she used to play organ and all of us girls used to sing in Latin, but we still remember… Every Christmas [the old women] sing really good. They all can remember that Latin. It’s really nice.

There were also nativity plays, with Aboriginal children proudly performing for their communities. Said another:

When there was Christmas or even Easter Day there was a role-play… On Christmas Day I used to read. Three of them was the Wise Men and the other one was Mary and the other young boy was Jesus.

Christmas at Nepabunna, C.P. Mountford, 1937. State Library of South Australia

Behind the lightheartedness came an agenda. As one priest commented, Christmas was to be a “magnet” to draw people into missions. Ultimately, missionaries hoped the celebration of Jesus’s birth would prove more attractive than Aboriginal people’s own ceremonies.

For those who would not settle on missions, Christmas was used against them. At Yarrabah in Queensland the “unconverted heathens” were invited to join the festivities, but their exclusion was symbolised by them walking at the back of processions, sitting at the back of the church and being the last to be served their meal.

Aboriginal Christmas

In missionaries’ eagerness to use Christmas to spread Christianity, they started to use Aboriginal languages (with Aboriginal co-translators). At Ngukurr in southern Arnhem Land and Gunbalanya, the first church services in Aboriginal languages were Christmas services (in 1921 and 1936).

Aboriginal people loved carols, so these were the first songs translated. On the 1947 release of the Pitjantjatjara Hymnal, Christmas carols were the most popular (The First Noel sung in parts being the favourite). On Groote Eylandt, translation began with Christmas carols, nativity plays and Christmas readings in the 1950s. At Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, the annual Christmas Drama was in Yolngu Matha from 1960.

Translation was meant to make missionary Christianity more attractive, but it opened the way for more profound cultural experimentation. Aboriginal people infused Christmas with their own traditions. On the Tiwi Islands, in 1962 there was a “Corrobboree Style” nativity on the mission told through traditional Tiwi dance. Dance traditions missionaries had previously called “pagan” were now used by Tiwi people to share the Christian celebration.

At Warruwi on the Goulburn Islands in western Arnhem Land, Maung people began “Christmas and Easter Ceremonies” from the 1960s, blending ceremonial styles with Western musical traditions as well as their own music and dance. At Wadeye, in the Northern Territory, “Church Lirrga” (“Liturgy Songs”) include Christmas music, sung in Marri Ngarr with didjeridu. The Church Lirrga share the melodies of other Marri Ngarr songs that tell of Dreamings on the Moyle River.

Many who embraced Christianity sought to express their spirituality without missionary control. At Milingimbi in the NT, Yolngu people developed a Christmas ceremony with clap sticks and dijeridu outside the mission and free of missionary interference.

Mt Margaret Mission Christmas, 1933. State Library of Western Australia

At Ernabella Mission in South Australia in 1971, people began singing the Christmas story to ancient melodies, with the permission of their songmen. Senior Anangu women at Mimili, SA, later sang the Pitjantjatjara gospel to their witchetty grub tune, blending Christmas with their Dreamings and songlines.

Christmas was woven into community life. Just as introduced animals found their way into Aboriginal songs and stories, Christmas became part of the seasons and landscape, as Therese Bourke explained at Pirlangimpi on the Tiwi Islands:

They used to have donkeys [here] and the donkeys used to come round in December. And my mother’s mob used to say, “they’re coming around because it’s Christmas and Jesus rode on the back of one.”

The missions transformed into “communities” under a policy framework of self-determination in the 1970s, although missionaries themselves often remained active in the communities for decades. Meanwhile, many Aboriginal people have mixed memories of the missions – fondness for some aspects, anger at others – including Christmas.

But regardless of the missionaries, Christmas became an Aboriginal celebration in its own right. Some missionaries even came to appreciate Aboriginal ways of celebrating Christmas in line with their Dreamings. Though missionaries had wanted to replace Aboriginal spirituality with a “white Christmas”, it became a season of deeper meetings of cultures.

Laura Rademaker, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Modern History, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When was Jesus born?

Every last one of us leaves our mark on history. Most only make a tiny shallow line for our family and friends to notice. A few leave deep grooves that countless other marks align with. Whether you’re a believer or not, the historical figure of Jesus Christ is inarguably one of the latter. Much of the western world as we know it was shaped by his life and the stories people tell about him, his life philosophy (as we know it, of course), and a religion others built around him.

Image credits Greg Montani.

One of the widest-used calendars in the world today — the Gregorian Calendar — is timed from the birth of this person. It separates history into two large parts: B.C., “before Christ”, and A.D., “anno Domini”, loosely meaning “year of the Lord”. The birth of Jesus is obviously when we shift between the two.

At least, that’s the theory. To the best of our knowledge, Jesus wasn’t born on what we consider to be the 1st anno Domini. With that in mind, though, “the best of our knowledge” on this topic is quite muddy. So roll up your sleeves and let’s dive right into it.

Tweak for glory

For starters, although Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas (25th December), we’re pretty sure that’s not actually when it happened. But we can’t say when it happened for sure, either. Part of the problem is that Jesus wasn’t born famous, so nobody actually bothered to record the exact date. There’s also the issue that our current dating system was not even invented yet when it happened, and equating dates between systems is imperfect at best. Factor in the huge spans of time involved here, and accuracy is out of the question.

However, what we do know is that at some point Christianity was an underdog of religions. It had quite an uphill battle gathering new followers in several communities, especially those who were polytheistic. This new, one-god religion was simply very strange to them and the customs they held. People who were better-off were also wary of it, as adopting a new religion would often come with a social cost. Not to mention that following teachings which decried slavery and looked down on riches wasn’t high on the priority list of people who enjoyed owning slaves and being rich.

In the Roman Empire, the largest single community that Christianity was trying to get into at that time, both of these issues were at work at the same time.

So what Christianity did was a little bit of PR. Christmas today is celebrated very close to the winter solstice. Many ancient peoples aligned their celebrations with significant natural events, such as the solstice. Whether this was intentional or not on their part is a very interesting question, but it’s not particularly relevant right now. What is relevant, however, is that by changing dates around a bit, Christian customs would better reflect the pagan ones they were competing against. In other words, it would be more familiar to those it tried to convert. It felt less like a completely new celebration, and more of an updated, reskinned celebration — and, so, easier to accept.

In the case of Rome, the end of December marked the start of Saturnalia. This was a celebration in honor of their god of the harvest (Saturn) and lasted between the 17th and 23rd, roughly. Symbolically speaking, this was a good celebration to try and associate yourself with, as it was customary for everyone to enjoy freedom during this time, so social norms would be laxer, even discarded altogether. Well, to be more specific, Saturnalia saw an inversion of one’s fate.

Slaveowners, for example, would dress, feed, and entertain their slaves like they would a friend. The slaves, in turn, could tell their masters their grievances during this time without fear of reprisal. It was a celebration meant to ‘reset your karma‘, so to speak. Gambling was also allowed on Saturnalia, and carnivals were common. In the grand scheme of things, someone celebrating Christmas would probably stand out far less during Saturnalia than any other time of the year.

This is also probably where we get the custom of gifts during Christmas. Romans exchanged gifts with their friends for Saturnalia, although they were either small figures or gag items, and there most definitely weren’t any trees involved.

Of course, none of this actually proves that Christmas was shifted around the calendar to make it more palatable to pagans. But it’s very likely that it was, because we’re seeing too many coincidences. Further proof that the 25th of December date isn’t true to the historical date of Jesus’ birth is that the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine half of the Roman Empire set the date of Christmas at January 6th. If one church can change the date, why couldn’t another?

The Christmas date origin topic is way broader than I have a taste to get into here, but the Washington Post has a nice breakdown of it here.

Not exactly on time

“Saturnalia” sculpture by Ernesto Biondi, in Buenos Aires. Looks like a fun celebration.

So we already know the birth date is probably off, although we don’t know by how much. The thing to keep in mind here is that the texts which make up books such as the gospel weren’t written while Jesus was around, by people who were around him. They were written some time after — often, a very long time after — by people working mostly off hearsay. It’s not a criticism on their part, it’s just the product of a day when writing was still a rare skill, and par for the course of the time.

This material was also heavily curated, edited, tweaked, and cleaned-up by (probably) well-meaning but (in my opinion) extremely biased and damaging individuals as Christianity evolved into a mainstream religion. A mainstream religion, after all, needs to have some mainstream-able texts, and working in media, I can assure you that the first copy is never that. Large parts of the initial bible were taken out, and what was left was re-ordered and re-worded to better suit individual agendas. It was an ongoing process, not a single event, as most people who sought power through religion wanted a bible that would fit their narrative better than those of others.

But we’ll turn the other cheek to that. I’m not telling you all this to invalidate anyone’s faith. If you believe, you believe. Personally, I don’t. But I think we can all agree, no matter what side of that fence we’re on, that understanding the actual historical facts in the story is a worthwhile pursuit. We are, after all, talking about one of the most influential people in the West, and maybe globally.

I’m also telling you all that so you’ll understand why I don’t particularly rely on the texts themselves for answers. They were maintained by people, and people are both fallible and biased. We’re also talking about thousands of years here, so there was probably a lot of failing and biased behavior involved. In other words, the texts themselves are not a reliable source if what you’re after is to understand what happened and when with accuracy. Not only that, but these are religious texts; they were never intended to preserve chronology, but theology. The dates are not as important as the message, as far as they are concerned.

Back to the year

While religious texts aren’t reliable as direct sources, they do offer useful context. Context which we can then bash against what we know from historical records and archeological digs to hopefully arrive at the truth.

One of the first attempts in this regard was to date the birth of Jesus using the figure of Herod. In the bible, soon after Herod dies, the new ruler of Judea orders all male infants under two years old in the Bethlehem region (where Jesus was born) to be killed. The good news here is that we have a rough timeline for when Herod died: around 4 B.C. The bad news is that that’s not a reliable date by any stretch and that the rest of the story seems to be made-up as well. Still, if we take these at face value, Jesus was likely born between the years 6 and 4 B.C.

The story also holds that Jesus’ birth was heralded by a star — the Star of Bethlehem. It has been proposed that this star was actually a slow-moving comet, one that Chinese observers recorded around 5 B.C. This fits well with our previous estimation, which is a plus, but it also basically boils down to “hey these two events fit so they could be the same”. This isn’t necessarily a wrong conclusion, but it definitely isn’t proof.

Reasonable Theology makes a valiant effort of estimating the birth date of Jesus drawing mostly from scripture here (it’s a pretty interesting read). I’m not that familiar with everything going on in the bible, so I’ll have to take their word for it, but the conclusion they draw from several passages is that Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 5 B.C. This, again, fits with the previous estimation and is a little more reliable as it ties events going on in the story to historical figures such as Emperor Caesar Augustus and Governor Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, which are somewhat well-anchored in history.

It also loosely fits with the Aemilius Secundus inscription, a tablet discovered 300 years ago in Beirut, Lebanon, which tells of a census ordered by Quirinius, the governor of Syria, in 12 B.C., according to biblical scholar Jim Fleming. This census is mentioned in the texts, although different gospels disagree on whether Jesus was born before or after it.

However, there are some grounds to believe that Herod actually died around the year 1 B.C., which would put Jesus’s birth around the year 3 B.C.

All things considered, we can estimate with some certainty that Jesus was born between 6 and 4 B.C., and with less certainty that it happened a few years later. But everybody is pretty confident that he — ironically — was not born in ‘the first year of the lord’.

Since we can’t yet know for sure exactly when it happened, this tiny incongruency will have to stick around for a bit longer. With that being said, our calendars are made so practical issues like historical events or yearly tax records can be kept in an organized fashion that future generations will still be able to use, should they need it. Although we think of years as either before or after Christ, they are primarily a chronological tool, not a theological one.

Yuletide is almost upon us! But what’s ‘Yule’ anyway?

Christmas, at its very heart, is a hazy holiday, a Christian twist on a an ancient, pagan celebration — or rather, several ones that were mixed together. To top it all off, we have the Victorian tales of Christmas Past and the consumerist present-buying tradition that seem to have completely taken over our festive season.

In essence though, Christmas remains a pagan celebration. The Roman festival of Saturnalia is a precursor to it, culminating with the Kalends in which people would give presents to their loved ones and celebrated by feasting and drinking (sounds familiar?). Yuletide from the Germanic people is another precursor and in some ways, it’s still very much alive and celebrated.

Yuletide is a midwinter festival celebrated from at least the 4th century by the German gothic populations. It is connected to the mythical Wild Hunt, the Norse god Odin, and the Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. Today, Yule is directly celebrated in some forms of Neopaganism, but many of us still carry out many Yuletide rituals (though we may not be aware of it).

Straw Yule ornaments from the Embassy of Sweden. Image credits: Avery Jensen

Hunting for Yuletide

The winter season wasn’t always the jolly spend-time-with-your-family period we know today. It used to be a dark and dangerous time, with many families struggling to even get through the winter at all. Famine was not uncommon. For many ancient peoples, the winter solstice (December 21) was a time where you’d basically make your prayers and hope for spring to come. So if you look at winter holidays, it’s unsurprising that they often have darker origins.

It’s also unsurprising that Europe, and the English-speaking world especially, draws so heavily from Germanic myth. After all, we all know Thursday (or “Thor’s day”) and Friday (“Frigga’s day”), with Thor and Frigga being two major Norse gods. Yule comes from the old Norse jól (or the old English géohol), which was a season for hunting. But Yule and are also connected to a different type of hunt: the Wild Hunt.

The Wild Hunt was recently popularized in media by the Witcher Franchise, which was immensely popular. The Wild Hunt is an old folkloric motif represented by a pack of spectral hunters (either Odin or some local figure). It was said that the ethereal hunters were accompanied by ghost dogs, fairies, or even Valkyries that would either take away the souls of anyone who saw them or bring great misfortune. You really wouldn’t want to chance seeing the Wild Hunt, so all the more reason to stay inside and mind your own business, especially during December, when the specters were thought to be most active.

Odin, leading the wild hunt in a 19th century illustration by August Malmström.

The Wild Hunt was described by Jacob Grimm (one of the Grimm Brothers) in 1835, who noted that variations on this myth appear in many parts of Northern, Western, and Central Europe. But by the time Grimm wrote his work, the Wild Hunt had already changed its meaning and had become christianized. No longer was the Wild Hunt bringing catastrophe to everyone who was around — it only targeted the unchristened.

“Another class of spectres will prove more fruitful for our investigation: they, like the ignes fatui, include unchristened babes, but instead of straggling singly on the earth as fires, they sweep through forest and air in whole companies with a horrible din. This is the widely spread legend of the furious host, the furious hunt, which is of high antiquity, and interweaves itself, now with gods, and now with heroes. Look where you will, it betrays its connexion with heathenism,” wrote Grimm.

Mōdraniht (or “Mother’s Night) was also associated with Yule and Christmas. It was an Anglo-Saxon festival atested by the medieval English historian Bede in the 8th century. It’s not clear exactly what happened at Mōdraniht, but it seems to be a fertility celebration that probably included sacrificial rituals. A description of Yule practices is also provided by Snorri Sturluson, a famous Icelanding poet and historian.

“It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part of the drinking of ale. Also all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also.”

Christianity swoops in

Whether you like it or not, Santa Claus is an intercultural figure.

Yule celebrations were already happening in the 4th century, and probably even before that. But as Christianity came in, things started to change.

The Christian knew they couldn’t really get people to cancel their traditional celebrations, so they did something else: they tried merging pagan celebrations with Christian ones. This is excellently portrayed in Saga of Hákon the Good, which credits the Norwegian King Haakon I (whose rule started in 934) as rescheduling Yule to fit with Christmas.

Yule had been celebrated for three days: starting from the Winter Solstice on the 21st of December, and it was all moved to center around Christmas’ 25 December (although some celebrations started much earlier, at some point around mid-November). In fact, it seems just as if not more likely that it’s not pagan celebrations that were moved, but rather Christmas itself. There’s no historic indication that puts Jesus’ birth on the 25th of December, and it wasn’t always celebrated on that date. In fact, it seems very unlikely. It’s entirely possible that Christmas was moved to fit with the existing Saturnalia and Yule celebrations, which would make the transition to Christianity more acceptable for local populations.

Norway isn’t the only country that did this: at various stages of their Christianization, other European countries adapted their previous celebraitons and switched to Christmas — but many traditions remained.

Celebrating Yuletide in modern times

In fact, we find most of the Christmas traditions in the darkness of history, with roots extending to the distant past. Spending time inside, with your family, feasting and celebrating? Sounds like Yule. Caroling and singing Christmas songs? That’s called Yule singing or Wassailing, and it’s been done since Old Norse times. The Yule Log? Well, that’s obviously Yule.

Mulled wine — a Yule classic. Image credits: Toa Heftiba.

There are other traditions too. Mulled wine is a Yuletide special, the mistletoe representing female figure was used for Yule fertility celebrations, and the Christmas tree is often called the Yule tree (though its origin doesn’t exactly stem from the old Yule). The Yule goat is also popular in Christmas depictions and decorations.

The Yule log is another interesting tradition, still carried out in many places: a big log is taken into the hearth and burned, sometimes for days on end. The idea behind is to use it as an emblem of the Sun, or alternatively, to help lend strength to the Sun so that it may re-emerge after the short and cold winter days. As early as 1725, Henry Bourne sought an origin for the Yule log in Anglo-Saxon paganism:

“It seems to have been used, as an Emblem of the return of the Sun, and the lengthening of the Days. For as both December and January were called Guili or Yule, upon Account of the Sun’s Returning, and the Increase of the Days; so, I am apt to believe, the Log has had the Name of the Yule-Log, from its being burnt as an Emblem of the returning Sun, and the Increase of its Light and Heat. This was probably the Reason of the custom among the Heathen Saxons; but I cannot think the Observation of it was continued for the same Reason, after Christianity was embraced.”

Another piece of information comes from writer and historian Washington Irving’s Christmas stories from The Sketch Book (1819) who recorded Christmas celebrations drawn from Yuletide:

“Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, Bob apple, and snap dragon: the Yule log, and Christmas candle, were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”

All in all, many of us are already celebrating Yule, though we may not be aware of it.

In modern times, countries in northern Europe still use the word yule (or variations on it) to denote Christmas and still incorporate some ancient traditions.

Some choose to take it to the next level, though. Neopaganism (and umbrella term for religious beliefs emerging from old pagan beliefs) tends to emphasize Yule quite a bit. In most forms, it is considered a winter solstice celebration, a symbol of rebirth. Modern Druid traditions also acknowledge Yule as a major celebration, and in some Germanic Neopagan sects, Yule is celebrated with gatherings with friends and family, involving meals and gifts.

Christmas is probably the most successful holiday in mankind’s history, being celebrated by billions worldwide — Christian or not. But Christmas itself is a mosaic of other holidays, drawing from many ancient beliefs. Perhaps that makes it even better.

The neuroscience of the Christmas cheer ‘emotion’

Credit: Pixabay.

It is, for many of us, the most wonderful time of the year. “Christmas cheer” is that thing which is often referred to by those who believe December really is the season to be jolly. It’s that feeling of joy, warmth and nostalgia people feel when the jingle bells start jingling. But what is the science behind it?

Evidence of Christmas cheer inside the brain was found during a study run at the University of Denmark in 2015. Twenty people were shown images with either a Christmas or non-Christmas theme while having their brain monitored in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The fMRI machine highlights parts of the brain when there is an increase or decrease in activity in that region. And when there was an increase of activity for this study, that region lit up like … well, a Christmas tree.

When the participants saw photographs of Christmas themed images, such as mince pies, a network of brain regions lit up, leading the researchers to conclude that they had found the hub of Christmas cheer inside the human brain. What the activation in brain regions actually meant, the researchers couldn’t say. One theory was that that network in the brain could be related to memories or spirituality. The scientific understanding of our internal experiences is changing and it now seems likely that Christmas cheer may be an emotion in itself.

What is an emotion?

Many scientists used to think that emotions were pre-programmed reactions, hardwired into human brains. According to the traditional view, when you see Christmas TV adverts, some dedicated part of you (a kind of “happiness circuit”) leaps into action to bring you Christmas cheer.

The happiness circuit was thought to be a single part of the brain responsible for making you feel that warmth in your chest, making your heart beat quickly with joy and forming an expression of happiness on your face – an expression thought to be universal across peoples and cultures.

According to the traditional view, humans have a small set of core emotions, like fear and happiness. Each of these emotions has its own dedicated brain region which creates changes in physiology and behaviour – changes which are similar (if not the same) across different instances of the same emotion. For example, it was thought that the happiness you feel when you see a puppy would activate the same neural and physiological systems as the happiness you feel when you spend time with your friends. And so, when activated, the happiness circuit should light up in the fMRI machine. The traditional view feels intuitive. But, in the 100 years science has been studying emotion, scientists have never been able to find a specific happiness circuit or a circuit relating to any emotion.

When it comes to Christmas cheer, this is likely the reason why there was no specific neural path found in the fMRI data. Rather, the general network of neural activation associated with Christmas cheer points to a more nuanced understanding of emotions.

Emotion on demand

The contemporary view says that emotions are the brain summing up three sources of information to create an on-demand experience. The brain combines information about your physiological state, environment and personal experiences to form a subjective feeling inside you. According to the contemporary view, when you see Christmas TV adverts, you feel positive because you associate good things with Christmas, your heart beats quicker because some part of you recognises the excitement the advert evoked in you as a child and you express the feeling physically, usually through facial expressions.

All of these things culminate as a feeling. A feeling which we label and categorise as an emotion. Throughout our lives we learn to label categories of emotions. This labelling is why we use the same word to describe the terror felt heading on to a rollercoaster and the terror associated with being in a car accident, despite the fact that these experiences feel completely different.

But because the brain constructs an emotion on-demand using a wide range of brain regions, there is no neural signature or physiological blueprint with which to record or measure the experience. Many different parts of the brain work together to create an emotion depending on what’s going on around and inside you. This is why every experience of an emotion – even the same emotion – will look different in an fMRI scanner. When it comes to emotions, brain activation isn’t predictable because each emotion is formed from different, unpredictable information and contexts.

At Christmas time, each person has associations with songs, foods and activities that help them use the label “Christmas cheer” to categorise the experience. These associations are totally unique to each person. This is why your festive family traditions don’t always seem to translate when you introduce them to your friends or your significant other.

But Christmas cheer can be shared with others through rituals (such as decorating the tree) and language (through things like carol singing) to cement those emotion categories. Every time we encounter items or ideas that we relate to over Christmas because of our past, our brains create the emotion of Christmas cheer.

Bah humbug syndrome

But, of course, some people are like Ebeneezer Scrooge and just want to get through the holidays. A lack of Christmas cheer has anecdotally been called “bah humbug” syndrome. In the same way as Christmas cheer, “bah humbug” can be seen as an emotion. Perhaps it’s the dread of family politics or the tight, pounding chest people feel thinking about the cost of Christmas. But the brain combines these sources of information to create an emotion. So if you’ve had more negative experiences associated with Christmas, you are more likely to feel bah humbug than cheer.

Regardless of whether you tend to feel more of the Christmas cheer or the bah humbug emotion, there is a slither of magic in these festive emotions. In every waking moment, your brain is constructing your emotional reality. You have the power to increase your Christmas cheer or banish your feelings of bah humbug. This phenomenon is known as prediction, and it’s really just a numbers game. Rather than reacting to the world, your brain is running an internal model built around patterns of your previous experiences. The more instances your brain has of a positive experience relating to Christmas, the easier it is for your brain to construct Christmas cheer on-demand in the future.

So if you want to get into the Christmas spirit, spend time doing festive activities which you enjoy, share your experiences with the people you love, and do whatever rituals make sense to you. If science can give you anything this year, let it give you the gift of Christmas cheer.

Olly Robertson, Doctoral Researcher in Psychology, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Study finds risk of heart attacks rises nearly 40 percent on Christmas Eve

Credit: Flickr, Simon Matzinger.

Credit: Flickr, Simon Matzinger.

Do you know that the risk of a heart attack increases on Christmas Eve around 10 p.m.? This is especially true among older or sicker people.

Recent publication from the SWEDEHEART group

A new study in Sweden was published using data from a national database that collects information about all acute cardiac patients in the country, known as SWEDEHEART. The BMJ publication by a team of investigators from Lund University (Moman A Mohammad, Sofia Karlsson, Jonathan Haddad, Björn Cederberg, Sasha Koul, David Erlinge), Danderyd’s University Hospital (Tomas Jernberg), Uppsala University (Bertil Lindahl), and Örebro University (Ole Fröbert) analyzed data on 283,014 heart attacks that took place in the country between 1998 and 2013. As previous studies have, they found that heart attacks happened more frequently in the early morning hours (before 8 am) and on Mondays. They also noted that the risk of heart attacks spiked during the holiday season, with a peak at 10 pm on Dec. 24 — the day when most Swedes hold their Christmas family gatherings. Heart attacks were 37% more likely to happen on Christmas Eve than during the control period and 20% more likely on New Year’s Day. Throughout the week between Christmas and New Year, heart attack risks were 15% higher than other days of the month of December.

So why is this happening?

“We do not know for sure but emotional distress with acute experience of anger, anxiety, sadness, grief, and stress increases the risk of a heart attack,” said researcher David Erlinge, of Lund University’s Department of Cardiology. “Excessive food intake, alcohol, long distance traveling may also increase the risk.”

Increased salt and sugar intake from all the holiday parties or getting less sleep and exercise could be the culprits. It is possible that family members visiting relatives after a long time apart, find them in a poor health condition and decide to admit them to hospitals. Similarly, people might delay reporting symptoms and seeking care to not disrupt the holiday celebrations which is why we would expect lower cases before Christmas than afterwards. However, the absence of any decline before or after Christmas means that these behavioral aspects are not the main contributing factors to the observed peak of myocardial infarction on Christmas.

Is this phenomenon only in Sweden?

Sweden is not the only country where this phenomenon has been observed. In 2004, cardiologists in Los Angeles, California noted an increase in heart attacks and other acute cardiac episodes during the period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Researchers suggest that this association could be explained by the possibility that people often delay medical treatments or doctor appointments during the holiday season. Likewise, a publication in the European Journal of Epidemiology showed that myocardial infarction rates went up in Kuwait, a predominantly Muslim country during Islamic holidays.

Avoid the “Merry Christmas Coronary” and “Happy New Year Heart Attack” 

All these studies remind us of the importance to check in with our doctor if we haven’t, especially before the holiday season and notably if you have risk factors for heart disease. Don’t spend the “most wonderful time of the year” in a hospital. Learn the symptoms of heart attack: chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, and nausea. Women, however, may experience different symptoms including abdominal pain, pain in one or both arms, and unusual fatigue.

Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms | US CDC

Internet searchers reveal people’s favorite Christmas spirit

It’s almost Christmas time, and even the studies are getting festive. Brandy, it turns out, is the most popular Christmas drink — at least in the UK.

Christmas brandy, anyone? Credits: Will Shenton.

Different people like to do different things for Christmas, but if you ask me, there’s nothing quite like a quiet drink with your loved ones — and I’m sure many adults would agree. But different people also like different drinks, and for some reason, researchers were determined to figure out the favorite. Nathan Cunningham from Warwick’s Department of Statistics has discovered that during the week of Christmas, UK online searches for all alcohol soar, but those for brandy were way higher than those of any other drink.

Nathan Cunningham commented:

“In each of the last five years, the search volume for some of the most popular alcoholic spirits has peaked dramatically around the week of Christmas. I found it interesting that there’s been such a consistent surge in searches for spirits around the festive period, and wanted to find out which one, more so than any other, we associate with Christmas above and beyond any other time of the year.”

However, Cunningham didn’t just rely on the results, because that would show what is the most popular drink in general. Instead, he carried out a standard statistical analysis, looking at the standardized search volume of each candidate drink, subtracting their respective means (the average search volume of each drink) and dividing this by their respective standard deviations (how each search volume varies from the average). Brandy was still the highest, rum came in second, and surprisingly, vodka was third.

However, brandy’s popularity could also be owed to the fact that it’s also associated with cooking popular Christmas cakes, especially puddings and mince pies — which contrary to their name, don’t contain meat. Mince, in this case, is a mixture of raising, cranberries, sugar, and other sweets. Speaking for himself, however, Cunningham isn’t a fan.

So, it appears the Christmas spirit is … brandy. Hardly surprising, I guess, given its association with Christmas puddings and mince pies, both of which often contain brandy or are served with brandy butter. I’m not particularly a fan of either; Christmas dessert in my house has always been my mum’s delicious lemon cheesecake.

You can read more about it on his blog. The analysis was done in R, with the plot created in ggplot2 and tidied up after in Inkscape. The data come from Google Trends.

The glorious Ded Moroz during a celebration in Moscow, 1973. Credit: Russian Ambience.

Ded Moroz: the story of the soviet Santa Claus

The glorious Ded Moroz during a celebration in Moscow, 1973. Credit: Russian Ambience.

The glorious Ded Moroz during a celebration in Moscow, 1973. Credit: Russian Ambience.

The modern mythical figure of Santa Claus has gone a long way since Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra which served as folklore inspiration. Today, Santa Claus conjures the image of a jovial, red-nosed, round-bellied, red-suited, bearded figure, but this doesn’t apply to all of the world. Russia and many other Slavic countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, have their own version of Santa Claus called Ded Moroz.

Ded Moroz is very similar in many respects to Santa Claus, but can be strikingly different. For instance, Ded Moroz carries a staff and wears a long white beard. His coat is sometimes red, but most often is blue. He wears tall valenki, traditional felted boots from Russia, to protect him from the cold. Instead of eight reindeer, Ded Moroz employs three horses that drive his Russian troika. Gifts are delivered on New Year’s Ever rather than on Christmas Eve, a remnant of the Soviet transition to more secular holidays. Instead of the North Pole, the Russian Santa Claus officially makes his home at an estate in the Russian town of Veliky Ustyug.

Santa Claus vs Ded Moroz. Say what you will about Moroz, but he has style!

Santa Claus vs Ded Moroz. Say what you will about Moroz, but he has style!

Like the western gift-bearer, the Slavic Santa went through many transformations. The origin of Ded Moroz, sometimes known as “Grandfather Frost” or “Father Frost”, can be traced to Slavic mythology which predates Christianity. According to these myths, Frost or Morozko was known as a snow demon for some, and “a powerful hero and smith who chains water with his “iron” frosts,” to others. Morozko could be quite cruel as popular folklore suggests he would kidnap children, and only return them when their parents provided him with gifts.

Under the influence of the Orthodox Church and Russian authors, Ded Moroz morphed into a kinder magical figure who instead of kidnapping children, provides them with presents on New Year’s Eve.

Kirghiz SSR, 1981.

Kirghiz SSR, 1981.

1963 Soviet postcard showing Ded Moroz supporting the Russian space program. Credit: Ebay.

1963 Soviet postcard showing Ded Moroz supporting the Russian space program. Credit: Ebay.

In 1917, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Ded Moroz was outright banned because he was considered a sort of children’s god and too “bourgeois”. That sounds a lot like religion and in the newly founded Soviet Union there was no place for it.

Ded Moroz would be reinstated by Josef Stalin who was looking to build support twenty years later. The new government, however, framed Ded Moroz as a gift bearer that comes only on New Year’s Eve, as celebrating Christmas was not allowed in the Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc countries. His coat was also made blue so as not to be confused with the red-coated, Coca-Cola drinking, capitalist pig Santa Claus. And, of course, Ded Moroz is slender and manlier than Santa.

Basically, the new Soviet Santa was made to represent a good spirit who inspires hard work in Soviet children. According to a 1949 article in The Virginia Advocate “at children’s gatherings in the holiday season… grandfather frost lectures on good Communist behavior. He customarily ends his talk with the question “to whom do we have all the good things in our socialist society?” To which, it is said, the children chorus the reply, ‘Stalin.’

The Soviet Ded Moroz doesn’t only know when you’re naughty — he knows everything. He taps your phone and invades your living room with propaganda. He swiftly delivers a wooden toy if you’ve been a hard-working child but can be mean if you missed your factory quota. He comes and leaves through the front door because he already has the keys, silly. No need for a chimney entrance. If you lived in a Soviet satellite country, you had your own version of Ded Moroz to remind you that we all belong to one big, working family who lives to serve the state and party.

Some quick facts about Ded Moroz:

  • Ded Moroz is about 2,000 years old;
  • His birthday is on November 18;
  • Ded Moroz never appears without his pikestaff – made either of silver or crystal;
  • The home of Ded Moroz is found in Veliky Ustyug, Vologda Region, Russia, and is often visited by children and friends of Father Frost.
  • Ded Moroz is said to bring presents to children starting November, but he’s the most giving on New Year’s Eve. Traditionally, this is the night Ded Moroz and his companion Snegurochka put presents under the fir tree (New Year’s Tree) for children to discover in the morning.

Despite decades of rule, the Soviets failed to make their fabricated version of Ded Moroz stick with the population. After the Soviet Union Collapsed in the early 1990s, people returned to their old customs, like celebrating Christmas. People from former Soviet Bloc countries actually started demonizing their Ded Moroz clones like Dyado Koleda in Bulgaria,  Djed Mraz in Yugoslavia, Dziadek Mróz in Poland or Moş Gerilă in Romania, since they saw him as a specter of times they did not want to remember or celebrate. Today, Ded Moroz is mostly celebrated in Russia, having gone out of fashion in other countries.

In the 1840s and 1850s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularised a new way of celebrating Christmas. This engraving from 1840 shows the two monarchs surrounded by children and gifts around a Christmas tree. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The origin and history of the Christmas tree: from paganism to modern ubiquity

In the 1840s and 1850s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularised a new way of celebrating Christmas. This engraving from 1840 shows the two monarchs surrounded by children and gifts around a Christmas tree. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1840s and 1850s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularised a new way of celebrating Christmas. This engraving from 1840 shows the two monarchs surrounded by children and gifts around a Christmas tree. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For many, it’s unthinkable to celebrate Christmas without a beautiful evergreen fir in the living room decorated with sparkling ornaments and wrapped presents. Like most Christmas traditions,  including the celebration of Christmas itself, the origin of the Christmas tree can be traced to pagan traditions. In fact, were it not for Queen Victoria, the most powerful monarch of her time, decorated fir trees might have remained an obscure custom that only a couple of Germanic and Slavic countries practiced. Here’s a brief rundown of the Christmas tree’s intriguing history.

Pagan origins of the Christmas tree

Ancient Egyptians used to decorate the temples dedicated to Ra, the god of the sun, with green palm during the Winter Solstice. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Long before Christianity appeared, people in the Northern Hemisphere used evergreen plants to decorate their homes, particularly the doors, to celebrate the Winter Solstice. On December 21 or December 22, the day is the shortest and the night the longest. Traditionally, this time of the year is seen as the return in strength of the sun god who had been weakened during winter — and the evergreen plants served as a reminder that the god would glow again and summer was to be expected.

The solstice was celebrated by the Egyptians who filled their homes with green palm rushes in honor of the god Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a crown. In Northern Europe, the Celts decorated their druid temples with evergreen boughs which signified everlasting life. Further up north, the Vikings thought evergreens were the plants of Balder, the god of light and peace. The ancient Romans marked the Winter Solstice with a feast called Saturnalia thrown in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, and, like the Celts, decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Saturnalia was the most important celebration in Roman life. It was a week-long lawless celebration held between 17 and 25 December in which no one could be prosecuted for injuring or killing people, raping, theft — anything usually against the law really. But although a lot of people blew off steam by taking advantage of the lawlessness, Saturnalia could also be a time for kindness. During Saturnalia, many Romans practiced merrymaking and exchange of presents.

Sounds familiar? In the early days of Christianity, the birth of Jesus was set at the last day of Saturnalia by the first Christian Romans in power to approach pagans, even though scholars assert Jesus was born nine months later. It was a clever political ploy, some say, which in time transformed Saturnalia from a frat party marathon into a meek celebration of the birth of Christ.

While a lot of ancient cultures used evergreens around Christmas time, historical records suggest that the Christmas tree tradition was started in the 16th century by Germans who decorated fir trees inside their homes. In some Christian cults, Adam and Eve were considered saints, and people celebrated them during Christmas Eve.

During the 16th century, the late Middle Ages, it was not rare to see huge plays being performed in open-air during Adam and Eve day, which told the story of creation. As part of the performance, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a “paradise tree” hung with fruit. The clergy banned these practices from the public life, considering them acts of heathenry. So, some collected evergreen branches or trees and brought them to their homes, in secret.

These evergreens were initially called ‘paradise trees’ and were often accompanied by wooden pyramids made of branches held together by rope. On these pyramids, some families would fasten and light candles, one for each family member. These were the precursors of modern Christmas tree lights and ornaments, along with edibles such as gingerbread and gold covered apples.

Some say the first to light a candle atop a Christmas tree was Martin Luther. Legend has it, late one evening around Christmas time, Luther was walking home through the woods when he was struck by the innocent beauty of starlight shining through fir trees. Wanting to share this experience with his family, Martin Luther cut down a fir tree and took it home. He placed a small candle on the branches to symbolize the Christmas sky.

What’s certain is that by 1605, Christmas trees were a thing as, in that year, historical records suggest the inhabitants of Strasburg ‘set up fir trees in the parlours … and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.’

During these early days of the Christmas tree, many statesmen and members of the clergy condemned their use as a celebration of Christ. Lutheran minister Johann von Dannhauer, for instance, complained that the symbol distracted people from the true evergreen tree, Jesus Christ. The English Puritans condemned a number of customs associated with Christmas, such as the use of the Yule log, holly and mistletoe. Oliver Cromwell, the influential 17th-century British politician, preached against the “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.”

The modern Christmas Tree

christmas tree

Credit: Pixabay.

It wasn’t until the time of Queen Victoria that celebrating Christmas by bearing gifts around a fir tree became a worldwide custom. In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. German immigrants had brought the custom of Christmas trees to Britain with them in the early 1800s but the practice didn’t catch on with the locals. After Queen Victoria, an extremely popular monarch, started celebrating Christmas with fir trees and presents hung on the branches as a favor to her husband, the layfolk immediately followed suit.

Across the ocean, in the 19th century, Christmas trees weren’t at all popular, though Dutch and German settlers introduced them. Americans were less susceptible to the Queen’s influence. However, it was American civic leaders, artists, and authors who played on the image of a happy middle-class family exchanging gifts around a tree in an effort to replace Christmas customs that were seen as decadent, like wassailing. This family-centered image was further amplified by a very popular poem written by Clement Moore in 1822 known as the “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. The same poem conjured the modern picture of Santa Claus.

It took a long time before the Christmas tree became an integral part of American life during this faithful night. President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) arranged to have the first Christmas tree in the White House, during the mid-1850s. President Calvin Coolidge (1885-1933) started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.

Though traditionally not all Christian cultures adorned their homes with evergreens and presents, the influence exerted by the West and rising consumerism has turned the Christmas tree into a ubiquitous symbol. In fact, many people of other faiths have adopted the Christmas tree (See Japan for instance).

The Christmas tree has gone a long way from its humble, pagan origins, to the point that it’s become too popular for its own good. In the U.S. alone, 35 million Christmas trees are sold annually, joined by 10 million artificial trees, which are surprisingly worse from an environmental perspective. Annually, 300 million Christmas trees are grown in farms around the world to sustain a two-billion-dollar industry, but because these are often not enough, many firs are cut down from forests. This is why we recommend opting for more creative and sustainable alternatives to Christmas trees.


The Christmas tree we made at the ZME Science headquarters last year. Credit: ZME Science.

Simple tips you can follow for a sustainable Christmas

Christmas is the time of year we spend with our loved ones, a relaxing and special time for everyone to get closer and cherish the people in their lives. But Christmas is also a period of massive spending, crowdedness, and waste. Christmas is the most wasteful time of the year in many countries, but small, simple things can go a long way to avoiding that and make your Christmas greener – here are a few of them.

  • Careful with the Christmas tree

The Christmas tree we made at the ZME Science headquarters last year. Credit: ZME Science.

The Christmas tree we made at the ZME Science headquarters last year. Credit: ZME Science.

The Christmas tree is the centerpiece of most homes, but no matter how you look at it, it’s not really sustainable. Some people would recommend buying an artificial tree, but in many ways, artificial trees have an even bigger impact than real trees. In truth, both real and artificial trees have a big impact on the environment, unless you choose a tree with roots and replant it afterward. You could opt for a more creative alternative to a Christmas tree, which could be very fun and will definitely get the conversation going around the dinner table. You can read our full article on Christmas trees here.

  • Eat local, responsibly, and less meat

We waste a lot of food throughout the year, but during Christmas, things get really crazy. Ten million turkeys are eaten every Christmas, most of them coming from a great distance, a process which consumes resources and generates emissions. It’s hard to generate accurate figures, but the average Christmas dinner in the UK for example reportedly travels a combined distance of 49,000 miles. The figure is likely similar or even worse for North America. So the first thing to do is to check for local foods. The second thing to do is to not buy more than you need. I know, I know – it’s Christmas, you’d much rather buy more than you need than less, but try to estimate your needs and buy accordingly. If there are leftovers, they can be eaten the next day or frozen for further consumption.

Meat also deserves a special mention. Meat has long been shown to be less sustainable than other foods. It has a bigger carbon footprint, requires much more water, and comes with a big bunch of emissions – not to mention the moral aspect of eating meat. But meat is also the food of choice for most households on Christmas. So if there’s one small thing you can do to green up your Christmas, eat less meat, it will make a big difference.

  • Ethical presents

We all love Christmas presents, and we all want something special for our loved ones. But every year, thousands and thousands of tonnes arrive from China and other far away lands. Instead, it’s worth buying sturdy, local gifts which support local businesses. Also, it’s worth avoiding gifts that require batteries or other rechargeable parts. The same goes for decorations – local, sturdy decorations are the best way to go.

Image via Pixabay.

What we recommend is gifting experiences more than physical things. Movie or theater tickets, a makeover, or a nice trip can create even more lovely memories.

  • Bags, bags, bags

Christmas shopping is, of course, a big thing, and along with the shoppings, lots of plastic bags are also used. If there’s ever a time to use a reusable bag – that’s Christmas.

  • Recycled wrapping

Wrapping is a surprisingly large source of waste, and recycling the paper is quite significant. Also, you can buy wrapping from recycled paper which is identical to non-recycled one. Britain alone bins 227,000 miles of Christmas paper every year. After all, it’s the gift that matters, not the wrapping.

  • Turn off Christmas lights during the night

This is probably the hardest to do for me. I love Christmas lights! Waking up in the morning and seeing the Christmas lights just makes my day, but they also burn a lot of energy. Switching from regular lights to LEDs also helps a lot and lights that are powered by solar power or rechargeable batteries make it even better.

Image via Pexels.

So, those are just a few ways you can green up your Christmas. It’s perfectly possible to have a beautiful, pleasant celebration, and reduce your environmental impact. If you have any other tips and tricks, feel free to send them our way and we’ll add them!

Science Santa History: The Pagan Origins of Christmas

Every year, billions of people all around the world celebrate Christmas — but most of them don’t really know how it started. Most people think it’s a Christian celebration but that’s not exactly the truth.

The history of Christmas is a bit more complicated — and very interesting.

Christmas, Christ, and Christianity – when was Jesus born?

Via Wiki Commons.

For most people, Christmas is a holiday deeply rooted in Christianity – but is that really the case? It’s been celebrated for more than two millennia, so it’s pretty safe to assume that the holiday we celebrate today is a mixture of different cultures and religions.

The earliest history of Christmas is composed of “pagan” (non-Christian) fertility rites and practices which predate Jesus by centuries. Most of the traditions we associate with Christmas are actually not Christian at all, including decorating Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols, and giving Christmas gifts.

So then, is Christmas not when Jesus was born? The answer is probably ‘yes’. The New Testament gives no date or year for the birth of Jesus, and the first year was determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, “abbot of a Roman monastery”. In the Roman, pre-Christian era, years were counted from ab urbe condita (“the founding of the City”). Thus 1 AUC signifies the year Rome was founded, 10 AUC signifies the 10th year after Rome was founded and so on. Rome was founded in 753 BC, so what we consider today as year 0 would be year 753 AUC. But Dionysius Exiguus, basing his calculations on Roman history, estimates that Jesus was born in 754 AUC. However, Luke 1:5 places Jesus’ birth in the days of Herod, and Herod died in 750 AUC – four years before the year in which Dionysius places Jesus birth. Pretty much anyway you take it, it seems very unlikely that Jesus was born in what we consider year 0.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer – Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission supports this idea:

“Though the year [of Jesus birth is not reckoned with certainty, the birth did not occur in AD 1. The Christian era, supposed to have its starting point in the year of Jesus birth, is based on a miscalculation introduced ca. 533 by Dionysius Exiguus.”

So what about the date? Irenaeus (c. 130–202) viewed Christ’s conception as March 25 in association with the Passion, with the nativity nine months after on December 25. The Bible doesn’t speak about the date, but the references in the Bible show it most likely did not take place in winter. Rather it is because this was the date that the Romans historically celebrated the winter solstice.

Romans and Christmas

The Saturnalia. Image Source.

Romans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, which was basically a week long lawless celebration, taking place between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The things that happened during the Saturnalia were almost unspeakable – we won’t go into that here, but they often included violence, rape, and even human sacrifice.

Another interesting tradition was the pagan custom called wassailing, or singing from door to door. While the wealthy feasted and … did their thing, the poorer people gathered and sang from door to door, with people often giving them food and (albeit more rarely) drink. This is almost certainly the origin of caroling, and there are occasional mentions of this tradition all throughout the middle ages. It was also a common habit for people to gather in groups and sing naked in the streets – really, these are the precursors of caroling.

As the first few centuries of the “AD” era passed, Christians wanted to attract more pagans into their religions, so they somehow attempted to incorporate Saturnalia into Christianity; the only problem was that it had absolutely nothing Christian in it, so they simply adopted its ending date (25th of December). Because the Saturnalia was the central holiday in ancient Rome, they had to make the date important as well, so they made it the birth of Jesus. It was a rather clever political trick, which lured some into the new religion, while leaving the rest do the same things undisturbed.

Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes:

“In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.”

So there you have it, it’s very likely that both the date and the year aren’t actually representative for the birth of Jesus.

Romans and Christians

The early Christians learned a lot from the Romans. Despite what most people today think, the Romans didn’t really invent much – they just learned, adapted and incorporated. Early Christians tried to do the same, and they did it pretty smartly. They wanted to attract as many people as possible, but at the same time, they realized that the people weren’t giving up on the things they’ve been doing for generations and generations. So instead, they tried to incorporate all these pagan traditions and make them a part of Christianity.

The best example for this is the one with the Saturnalia – but that’s nowhere near the only case. Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning “Christmas Trees” – but that’s a matter for a different article.

HOW TO: Green Your Christmas Tree

Christmas is just around the corner, and the good old Christmas tree is one of the most enjoyable traditions of the holiday season. Thankfully, more and more people are starting to realize that cutting a tree and ultimately throwing it in the street or in the dump is not the way to go! But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an awesome holiday – here are the some of the best eco-friendly tips to have the greenest and most awesome Christmas tree ever!


Go for a living tree!

Image Source: Design Mom.

Living trees produce oxygen, suck up carbon dioxide, and are a pleasant sight all year round, even without the Christmas decorations. You don’t have to kill a tree, and you get to keep that natural tree look and smell year after year. These living Christmas trees are usually pretty small, but you can use that to your advantage: you don’t need so many decorations, and you can put one (or why not, 2 or 3) in each room.

There is one thing you have to be careful about though – they don’t really thrive indoors. Most varieties don’t survive more than two weeks indoors, so you have to either:

– plant then in a garden or on your lawn
– store them outside on your porch/balcony.

They can deal with the cold temperatures and snow – no problem; they also do well in almost any soil, so you shouldn’t worry about that – just be sure that you get them outside after 7-14 days. This is probably the best option for a truly green Christmas tree – not only are you not doing any damage to the environment, but you’re also helping, and you get to enjoy the real deal.


Try a rosemary tree!

Image Credits: Flower fast.

Who says it has to be a pine or a fir? If you just want a small Christmas Tree, rosemary is just perfect ! You can find these cute little trees pretty much everywhere, even online like on Amazon. They look Christmasy, they smell great, they thrive indoors, and they provide healthy, tasty herbs throughout the entire year! What more can you want?


Rent a (potted) Tree

Again, living trees emit oxygen, and they improve the air quality, making us feel better. This also ensures that the trees aren’t killed just so that we can enjoy them for a meager period. These trees are typically planted somewhere, cared for all year round by the company, and just placed in special pots when they are delivered. You also don’t need to do anything, avoiding the rush and crowd that always seems to accompany Christmas tree shopping – the trees are delivered to your doorstep.

This may or may not be an option – depending on where you live, but Google’s your friend here! Virtually all major American cities have this service available, and the trend is also rising in Western Europe. Just type ‘Rent Christmas tree [city where you live]’, and you should be good to go.


If you buy a cut tree, at least recycle it!

There’s nothing sadder than putting a Christmas tree to waste after the winter holidays are over! So if you really want to buy a cut tree, there are still somethings you can do to recycle it.

The best thing would be to plant it. If you have a garden or a backyard, it’s perfect! If you’ve got the space for it, getting a tree with roots and replanting it is obviously the most eco-friendly solution. If that is not an option, then there are some things you can do, like recycling it into compost. Most cities offer this options (or host companies which do this for you); the tree is still killed, but at least the timber won’t go to waste. In isolated cases, you can also stuff it in a private pond – it offers refuge to fish and provides a nice addition to their ecosystem. Just be sure that it hasn’t been sprayed with damaging chemicals.

If you’re stuck with no backyard, no pond, and no compost recycling, you really shouldn’t buy a cut tree in the first place.


Decorate an outside tree!

Image Credits.

Sure, it may not be traditional and you won’t get the Christmas tree smell in your living room, but the cheapest option is to simply decorate an outdoor tree for Christmas. You’ll have more money for decorations, and it will make for a pleasant sight for all the people passing by – truly a great way of sharing the Christmas spirit. If you decorate a tree that you can actually see from your window, you’ll feel like it’s actually inside your home!

Tip: be extra careful if you’re doing this in a stormy area, the decorations might fly or fall over.


If you’re thinking about a fake tree… think again!

An artificial Christmas tree might seem like the greener option, but that’s rarely the case. They’re typically made from PVC, which is hard to recycle; as Grist puts it: “No vinyl, ever! We are boycotting vinyl to the greatest extent possible”. Furthermore, most of them also contain lead, which is commonly used to stabilize PVC products. But that doesn’t mean we should take faux trees out of the question, just that we have to be a touch more creative.

Try cardboard! Skip the cheap, impersonal made in China or Taiwan PVC lead Christmas trees and go for a more pleasant and interesting cardboard tree, or a plywood tree, or just let your imagination fly! I’ll have another article ready soon discussing other creative options.


Make your own tree from branches and cones!

Image Credits.

This is another ultra-cheap, green way to have a nice, eco friendly Christmas. You can use a couple of small branches, cones driftwood – just get creative. This is a great idea to try with your children – just let your imagination fly while having quality time with your little ones and teaching them healthy environmental values at the same time!

BONUS: use LED lights

No Christmas celebration is complete without multi colored lights. LED Christmas lights consume 90% less energy than incandescent lights, they’re made with less polluting substances and the LEDs never get broken (unless you smash them or something) – so there’s no reason not to use them instead of the traditional lights.

Image Credits.

Here’s to a Green Christmas!

NASA can see your Christmas lights… from outer space

Many are already preparing for Christmas – some shopping for presents, some Christmas lights… the usual. But as you’re gearing up for the winter holidays, NASA is watching you. Well, they’re not really watching you, it’s more that they are monitoring light emissions from big cities – and they report that during the holiday season, patterns in nighttime light intensity change – with US nighttime lights shining 20 to 50 percent more.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

City lights shine brighter during the holidays in the U.S. when compared with the rest of the year, as shown using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Dark green pixels are areas where lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during December. Image Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

Suomi NPP, a joint NASA/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mission, carries an instrument called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). VIIRS can observe the dark side of the planet and detect how much the rest (cities) is shining. You’ve probably seen the 2012 “Earth at Night” maps, created from VIIRS data.

This new analysis uses a different algorithm, which filters out the effect caused by moonlight, clouds and airborne particles in order to visualize the lights which come solely from cities. Initial reports already showed more lights were on during Christmas in the US, and in the Middle East during the month of Ramadan.

The Earth at night: This image of the continental United States at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012.

In the United States, the lights started getting brighter on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, and continued through New Year’s Day, said Miguel Román, a research physical scientist at NASA Goddard and member of the Suomi NPP Land Discipline Team, who co-led this research. He and his team are interested in measuring light output in urban areas, as this is one of the major indicators of greenhouse gas emissions.

What they found was that in the American suburbs, light output generally increases by 30-50 percent during the holiday season. In the more central urban areas, even though the growth wasn’t so spectacular, it was still between 20 and 30 percent.

“Overall, we see less light increases in the dense urban centers, compared to the suburbs and small towns where you have more yard space and single-family homes,” said Eleanor Stokes, a NASA Jenkins Graduate Fellow and Ph.D. candidate at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, Connecticut, who co-led the study with Román.


Despite being of different religions and despite having different customs, people want to light up their houses for Christmas.

“It’s a near ubiquitous signal. Despite being ethnically and religiously diverse, we found that the U.S. experiences a holiday increase that is present across most urban communities,” Román said. “These lighting patterns are tracking a national shared tradition.”

City lights shine brighter during the holidays in the United States when compared with the rest of the year, as shown using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Dark green pixels are areas where lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during December.
Image Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

Snow and Light

The main limitation of this study is that because snow reflects and alters light so much, they could only analyze cities without snow. So they focused on the West Coast from San Francisco and Los Angeles, and cities south of a rough imaginary line from St. Louis to Washington, D.C.

The idea for this study came after another team analyzed night lights in Cairo in 2012, and they found a huge discrepancy. During the Ramadan, the city simply lit up.

“‘Either you have something going on with your data that’s wrong, or there’s a real signal there that you have to look into,'” Román recalls them saying. When the team investigated the satellite record, they found that the large increase in light output in Egypt’s capital corresponded with the holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day, pushing meals and many social gatherings, markets, commerce and more to nighttime hours.

In several cities in the Middle East, city lights brighten during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as seen using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Dark green pixels are areas where the lights are 50 percent brighter, or more, during Ramadan.
Image Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

But in order to confirm their findings and rule out an instrumental error, they monitored the city of Cairo for three consecutive years, finding the same results – during the Ramadan, there were significantly more night lights. But not all Muslim cities are the same: while in Saudi Arabian cities, such as Riyadh and Jeddah, light use increased by 60 to 100 percent, in Turkish cities, it increased far less. In cities in Syria and Iraq there was actually no increase at all.

“Even within majority Muslim populations, there are a lot of variations,” Stokes said. “What we’ve seen is that these lighting patterns track cultural variation within the Middle East.”

It would be very interesting to see how these patterns are different in other areas of the world as well – like China, South America and Europe. The way Europeans decorate for Christmas for example may be similar to how Americans do it, but the population and religion distribution is not the same. It would also be very useful to do, because judging by how much more lights are used at night, you could do a raw estimation on how much more greenhouse gas is emitted. This could in turn lead to better decisions regarding energy management and maybe even investments in eco-friendly Christmas decorations.

“Having a daily global dynamic dataset of nighttime lights is a new way for researchers to understand the broad societal forces impacting energy decisions,” Stokes said. And with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noting that greenhouse gas reductions are going to come from energy efficiency and conservation, scientists and policy makers will need to better understand the driving forces behind energy use.
“More than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from urban areas,” Román said. “If we’re going to reduce these emissions, then we’ll have to do more than just use energy-efficient cars and appliances. We also need to understand how dominant social phenomena, the changing demographics of urban centers, and socio-cultural settings affect energy-use decisions.”


Science Santa History: The origins of Christmas Customs

This is a series of articles about Christmas we here at ZME Science will be doing all December. Our goal is to present interesting, little known facts about the origins and history of Christmas.

Christmas – not the birth of Jesus, but a Roman celebration

Artistic representation of the Saturnalia.

Artistic representation of the Saturnalia.

There is still a lot of debate around this issue and it’s pretty much impossible to accurately pinpoint a date, but it’s highly unlikely that Jesus was born on the 25th of December, year 1 AD, as we’ve previously explained in this article. Scientifically and historically speaking, Christmas is probably based on a Roman celebration – Saturnalia.

Romans celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period during which Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. Celebrations included feasting and singing (often naked in the streets), but also violence, rape, and sometimes, even human sacrifices. The Saturnalia took place between December 17-25.

The Christians wanted to attract as many people as possible into their religion, but they also realized that the Romans aren’t going to give up on their favorite holiday so instead, they tried to incorporate it into Christianity; however, there was nothing about the celebration that was Christian, so they just chose the end date – 25th of December. To add more significance, they ‘labeled’ it as the birth date of Jesus.

The origins of the Christmas Tree

photo credit: Gueоrgui

photo credit: Gueоrgui

There’s really a lot of talk around the origins of the Christmas Tree. Some people claim it’s a German thing, some people claim it was introduced by Martin Luther, but the truth is, the first customs related to Christmas trees are clearly non-Christian.

Pagans had long worshipped trees in the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them. In Poland and nearby areas, there was an ancient pagan custom of suspending at the ceiling a branch of fir, spruce or pine. The branches were decorated with apples, nuts, cookies, colored paper, stars, ribbons, etc. People believed in the tree magical powers linked with harvesting and success in the next year.

Furthermore, as Enciclopedia Britannica explains:

“The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”

Celtic Druids tied fruit to the branches of live trees, and baked cakes in the shape of fish, birds and other animals, to offer to their god, Woden. However, the Christians once again adapted, and the Church incorporated traditions into the religion, unifying the similar, but slightly different traditions into the Christmas Tree we have today.

Mistletoe and Christmas

The mistletoe is entirely Norse in origin. Baldur is a god in Norse mythology, and a son of the god Odin and the goddess Frigg. He has numerous brothers, including Thor and Váli. At one point, his mother feared that something bad would come to him ,so he made every object in every realm vow never to hurt Baldr. All objects made this vow except mistletoe. Frigg had thought it too unimportant and nonthreatening to bother asking it to make the vow. Baldur was later killed with an arrow made from mistletoe. Druid rituals use mistletoe to poison their human sacrificial victim. Somehow, in Christianity… kissing under the mistletoe became a thing.

The origins of Christmas presents

In Pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this custom expanded to gift giving to the general population. The Catholic Church gave this custom a Christian flavor by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of Saint Nicholas – which we’ll discuss in another, separate article.

The origins of caroling

During the Saturnalia, the rich feasted, consuming incredibly large quantities of food and alcoholic drinks. The not so fortunate would sometimes gather and sing at these feasts, in the hope of receiving something. This custom was probably perpetuated throughout the ages, as there are some mentions of the custom in various times, in various places in Europe.

There is another plausible explanation: the intoxicated people would often get naked and sing in the streets – I guess it depends what kind of caroling you want to do.

Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas


Our idea of Santa Claus has been constantly evolving, for many centuries. photo credit: Hello, I am Bruce

Santa Claus has changed so incredibly much during the years it’s almost incredibly to think where he started from. Almost certainly, the ‘original’ Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. We will, however talk more about Santa Claus in another, separate article.

Tips to Stay Eco-Friendly and Chic for Christmas

Via Metro

Sadly, in recent years, Christmas has shifted away from its (already controversial roots) into a consumerism centered holiday. So what can you do, if you want to have a green, eco-friendly celebration, but still cherish the warm Christmas spirit? Here’s what you should do:

Find the right tree

The Christmas tree is at the heart of any celebration, so it’s understandable that many people don’t want to skip it. But with over 1.000.000 trees being cut (and not planted afterwards), is a living tree really a green option? No, not really. I’ve already discussed how you can green your Christmas tree or how to get other, creative alternatives, here’s the gist of it:

Via Design Mom.

Real trees: most of them come from tree farms, not virgin forests, so cutting them down is not really as bad as it seems at a first sight, but I wouldn’t really consider them a renewable, sustainable resource. Furthermore, fossil fuels are used to harvest and transport them. The best thing to do would be to replant the tree, or at the very least recycle it for compost or even wood.

Fake trees: not really as green of an alternative as you think. They use petroleum and PVC in their fabrication process and contain small quantities of lead. However, if you buy one and use it for years and years, you use less and less resources. If you go for a fake tree – stick to it !

Potted Trees: Quite possibly the perfect idea, keep in mind that most potted trees can survive for only approximately 14 days indoors, and they need an outdoor environment, so you have to either plant them outside, or at lease place them on your balcony after your Celebrations are over.

Use LED Christmas lights

Energy-efficient LED (light-emitting diode) can be anywhere from 20% to 90% more efficient than traditional lights, and they also last longer and are more sturdy. Also, when the lights are on and you don’t really need the light, turn it off! It will add a nice groove to the room and also save a lot of energy.

Eco-upgrade your gifts!

Several million postcards are sent each year for Christmas – amounting at about 300.000 trees cut solely for this purpose. Why not craft your own, more personal and creative cards, from recycled paper or fresh cardboard? Not only will you help the environment, but you will also be sending out much more personal and warm thoughts.

Also, when shopping, be sure to use a more eco-friendly bag, like canvas, or something reusable, instead of plastic. This goes for the entire year, but even more for the Christmas period. You can also wrap your presents in recycled paper – which looks and feels just the same.

When purchasing gifts, check how eco-friendly they are – what they are made from, whether they have an extended life, etc. Also…

Buy local!

It takes much more resources to buy things from far away. Patronizing local products not only reduces carbon emissions, but it also supports your local economy.

Soy or Beeswax candles only!

The ultra cheap candles are petroleum based, and they constantly pollute the environment (i.e. your house) when they are lit. Go for more natural alternatives – beeswax or soy candles are fairly cheap, and they’re much healthier and eco-friendly.

Buy organic, healthy, and only what you can finish!

I know, Christmas is the time when you just forget about the diets and go crazy with food. But every year, 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted on Christmas ! That’s an incredible 1.300.000.000.000 kilograms! Each and every one of us can contribute, and only buy what you know you can finish; also, there’s nothing wrong with eating yesterday’s leftovers – especially when they’re delicious.

Have a merry green Christmas, and an eco-friendly New Year!

Science Santa History: The Origins of Santa Claus

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! We’ve discussed the date of Christmas and how it is (or rather isn’t) connected to the birth of Jesus, and when we talked about the origins of some of the most popular traditions connected to Christmas. But Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Santa Claus, this bearded jolly dwarf usually represented in green, blue or purple clothing. Nope, I’m not crazy – Santa Claus became the big red man we know and love today thanks to a company called Coca-Cola – but we’ll get on that just a little bit later.

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and simply “Santa”, is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children on the night before Christmas, December 24. However, way before he was Santa Claus, he was Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas and Christmas

A 13th-century Egyptian depiction of St. Nicholas from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Via Wikipedia.

Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra. He played a crucial role in early Christianity and was, by virtually all accounts, a very kindhearted man. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.

Things took a strange turn in 1087, when a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. Not long after that, the cult spread further North, until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshiped a pantheon led by Woden (Odin) –their chief god and the father of Thor, Baldur, and Tiw. Odin was usually wearing blue clothing.

Prior to Christianity, the Germanic people celebrated midwinter event called Yule. During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky thought to be led by Odin himself. However, something that had happened many times before happened once again: Christianity absorbed this tradition and made it its own. When this happened, the date of 25 December came in and took the traditional 6 December. Saint Nicholas left gifts in the socks or shoes, but Santa Claus would ultimately just leave them under the Christmas Tree – which wouldn’t become a custom for many centuries later though.

The appearance also changed from very strong and warrior like (Odin) to more jolly, bearded, and pleasant looking (Odin had just one eye, trading the other for a drink from the Well of Wisdom).

Santa Claus throughout Europe

In the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, Saint Nicholas (“Sinterklaas”, often called “De Goede Sint”—”The Good Saint”) was an elderly, serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and red clothes. This was however, the only area in which he was red.

Sinterklaas in 2007. Via Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, in England, they were celebrating Father Christmas since the 16th century – the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. In Scandinavia, a being in Nordic folklore called “Tomte” or “Nisse” started to deliver the Christmas presents. He was wearing grey clothes. In Eastern Europe, they mostly celebrated Saint Nicholas bringing gifts on the 6th of December (something still celebrated today in many countries, often in addition to Christmas). Other related figures in folklore include Mikulás (Hungary), the Yule Goat (Scandinavia), Olentzero (a Basque character), Befana (Italy), and many ore.

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Via Wikpiedia.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the world still hadn’t developed a unified idea of Santa Claus. In the mid 1800s, literature started playing a huge role in promoting ideas about Santa Claus. The book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published in New York. It contained Old Santeclaus, an anonymous poem describing an old man on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. The book was immensely popular for the time, and the ideas presented in it spread like wildfire. But most ideas about the modern Santa Claus came from an anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) in the Troy, New YorkSentinel on December 23, 1823.

The poem was later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The main ideas that were presented in the poem are: He (Saint Nick) rides a sleigh that lands on the roof, entering through the chimney, and has a bag full of toys. St. Nick is described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”, in spite of which the “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer” still indicate that he is physically diminutive. The reindeer were also given names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).

The Modern Santa Claus and Coca-Cola

Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom was an American Artist, most known for changing the face of Santa Claus, but also for making a cover illustration on the Playboy magazine, advertising Coca-Cola next to an almost naked, drawn, female character.

Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The campaign was so incredibly successful that many people actually thought that Coca-Cola had invented Santa Claus – which, in a way, was not that far from the truth. He stripped him of his small stature and green/blue/purple clothes and instead, made him a big, lovable, bearded man, dressing him in the company’s red and white colors. This is the Santa Claus almost all of us know today.

By the end of the 20th century, the merger of Saint Nicholas, Odin, and numerous cults and traditions from the entire Europe, developed by 19th century literature and ultimately shaped by an advertising campaign resulted in the jolly man we see today.

Santa Claus waves to children from an annual holiday train in Chicago. Via Wikipedia.

3 Stocking Stuffers for Techies for the 2012 Holidays

We all get it perfectly – even if we want to give each and every one our loved ones and friends the gift of tech, it’s just downright unrealistic, especially in these trying economic times. You can’t possibly buy six units of the iPhone 5 in a huff – one for each family member – lest you want to use up all your life’s savings for this one single holiday. And let’s face it – even if you want to get the latest Galaxy Note for your two BFFs, it won’t be practical unless you’re a Zuckerberg or a Bieber, perhaps.

But ultimately, you don’t need to give up on Christmas just yet. You can opt for “stocking stuffers” to keep up with your techie inclinations in giving gifts. There are a number of low-priced tech items that are interesting and useful enough to pass as little gifts for friends and family. With this list, you will have no problem filling those Christmas stockings this year. Now, some people would raise their eyebrows at this list, because they could already consider these “stocking stuffers” as real serious gifts – but really – if you can buy yourself the iPad mini or the iPad with Retina display a mere seven months after buying the iPad 3, then maybe you’re just being stingy! Don’t be a scrooge this Christmas by sharing the gift of tech, because such gifts can still be friendly to the wallet.

iPhone 5 cases

Since of your folk already have or are having plans of getting the iPhone 5, you can give them the iPhone 5 cases or protectors found on eBay or Amazon for cheap (they can go as low as $5 but the more decent ones go for $10 and up). Not only will you help them guard their precious, precious phones from scrapes and shocks but you will also be able to help them express themselves through their phone if you choose something that befits their personality. What’s even more interesting is that you can acquire discounts for bulk purchases since these stores usually want to exhaust all stocks towards the yearend.

Generic cables

If you want to give people something they’d really use, then you can buy them generic cables for their phones (or other USB devices). It’s always an ideal gift because you’ll never know when your personal mobile (slash) business phone will drain its battery down to nothing. A spare one – one that you’ll never have to share with anyone, will always come in handy whether you’re in the office or meeting with your business partners in a café. Be careful in buying stuff like these though, as they can get really tricky. They’re relatively cheap; but as prices go lower, the quality may be compromised as well. Grab your cables only from decent accessories suppliers, and not those run-of-the-mill sellers you’d usually stumble upon online.

Tablet joystick

Tablets are aplenty in today’s highly touch-centric market, and products like the iPad and the Galaxy Tab are used heavily for video viewing, media playing, and even console gaming. ThinkGeek’s popular Joystick-It arcade stick for the iPad will help bring gaming on your slate to levels of epic proportions. All you have to do is attach the $7.49 accessory anywhere on your screen and start playing your touchscreen-based games with ease – without having the need to use wires or batteries. And don’t worry about having dents on your device’s screen because they’re easy to remove and reposition whenever desired.

So, can you suggest some other stocking stuffers for your fellow geeks at heart and technology lovers? Sound off in the comments section!

Hot Gift Ideas for the 2012 Holidays

The holiday season has finally begun. As you read this, I’d probably be out in the mall finding presents for friends, family – and of course – myself. Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, flew by so fast – these three usually kicks off the holiday shopping season. I’d like to believe that I’ve officially prepared myself for this, as I’ve written down and carefully weighed in the latest gadgets that I believe would make for great gifts this Christmas.


Perhaps the hottest item Christmas shoppers are eyeing today is the iPhone 5. There’s nothing really outstanding or revolutionary about this latest release from Apple; it’s just that many people already have it on their wish lists as early as, say, its September 12 unveiling in San Francisco. While most features remain the same, the iPhone 5 is sporting a new OS (iOS 6), a new processor (A6 chip), and a taller and bigger screen. Fans have gone head-over-heels with the feather-light new version of the phone, too.

Although the iPhone 5 tops a lot of wish lists this year, it’s highly likely to end up in the “wishful thinking” lists of people instead. Terrific wallet-friendly alternatives like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, the Samsung Galaxy S3, and the HTC Droid DNA, however, can make up for the high-end appeal people eyeing the iPhone 5 are after.


In this specific gadget arena, Apple once again reigns supreme with its outrageously popular iPad. Its two latest incarnations, the iPad 4 (with Retina display) and the iPad mini, are currently the hottest tablet devices in the market. Just the same, competitors such as the Nexus 7 from Google and Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite are not too far behind, selling like pancakes due to their respective price tags. If you’re considering gifting yourself or a loved one a tablet and you’re on a strained budget, perhaps you could get the cheaper tablets so you’ll have more money to spend for other gifts.


There are three general preferences for laptops this season: ultra-thin, hybrids, and touch-enabled laptops. The trend could be largely attributed to the release of Windows 8, the latest OS offering from Microsoft, which is basically carried by every new laptop from any given manufacturer (except for the ones from Apple, of course). If you’re after a device that perfectly fits the ultra-thin, sleek, and slim bill, then HP’s Envy Spectre XT will undeniably be a good buy. For those looking for “hybrids” or convertible laptops, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 which bends up to 360 degrees or the slider-style Toshiba Satellite U925t are automatic shoo-ins.


Aside from the usual smartphones, tablets, and laptops, here are other tech gifts surely worth checking out:

  • Cameras. Olympus Stylus Tough TG-1 rugged compact camera, Nikon’s D3200 entry-level DSLR, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 all-around point-and-shoot, and the Canon PowerShot S110 Wi-Fi digicam.
  • Audio. Klipsch Image S4i earphones, the weird-looking yet improved earphones Apple recently released called Earpods, and the bang-for-the-buck Audio-Technica ATH-M50 professional studio monitor headphones that never goes out style.
  • Games. NBA Live 2K13, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Dishonored, and Halo 4 are just some of the hottest multi-platform games out there.
  • Paid Services. Gift your friends with subscriptions to useful services such as the Insync Google Drive backup and sync tool, RingCentral Office business phone solution, a Flickr Pro account, or a Chatter Plus account for collaborative messaging efforts.

Shopping for the holidays can be a tough task; but with a little knowledge of what’s in and what’s hot in the tech marketplace, decision making would be a tad easier. Now the only thing that’s left to do is to procure the funds needed to buy even one of these drool-worthy gadgets.


Why is Rudolph’s nose red? Scientists explain


(c) Flickr

Labelled as an outcast by the rest of Santa’s sleigh pulling reindeer, Rudolph the red-nose reindeer, though mocked off, is indispensable and without him Christmas might not make it to every house from all corners of the globe. With his very shiny nose, Rudolph guides Santa’s sleigh even through the harshest of weather, but exactly why is his nose so red? Dutch scientists suggest that Rudolph’s nose has  microvascular flow issue in his nasal mucosa.

“In colder climates and also when they are higher up in the atmosphere pulling Santa’s sleigh, the increase in blood flow in the nose will help keep the [nose’s] surface warm,” Dr. John Cullen of the University of Rochester

The scientists used high-tech instruments like hand-held intravital video microscopes to analyze and then compare the blood vessels of two reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) with those of human volunteers – five were healthy and one had nasal polyps. They found reindeer have 25 percent more capillaries carrying blood to their nasal area. Reindeer, like most mammal, don’t sweat and in turn have to rely on other methods to regulate their internal body heat, like through their noses. When put to run on a treadmill, thermographic imagery revealed hot spots in the reindeer’s nose. Also, the researchers found glandlike structures in the nasal mucous membrane of reindeer, which were surrounded by capillaries.  The scientists at  Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the University of Rochester in New York write in their paper:

“The exceptional physical burden of flying with a sleigh with Santa Claus as a heavy load could have caused cerebral and bodily hyperthermia, resulting in an overworked nasal cooling mechanism that resembles an overheated cooling radiator in a car: Rudolph suffered from hyperemia of the nasal mucosa (a red nose) under more extreme heat loads during flight with a sleigh.”

Curiously enough, one  of the humans was examined after inhaling 0.0035 ounces (100 milligrams) of cocaine (for the sake of science), “a drug routinely used in ear, nose, and throat medicine as a local anaesthetic and vasoconstrictor.”

“We’re kind of glad they didn’t do the same thing with the reindeer, because the last thing we would want is reindeer on cocaine, pulling Santa around the sky,” said Cullen.


120 million crabs hit the streets

Image by Lilolebob.

Every year, around this time of year, more than 100 million determined crabs take to the streets in a massive attempt to get to their spawning grounds as soon as possible; as a result, they literally flood the streets in Christmas island, covering the streets and forcing rangers to divert traffic and use some quite creative methods of protecting the crustaceans.

Photo by Ian Usher.

However, despite the absolutely huge number of crabs, there have been no reports of violence, from any one of the islands 1200 inhabitants. “It is difficult to see crabs in the houses,” one local resident told BBC Brasil. However, the efforts local rangers have been sustaining are nothing short of laudable; they constructed plastic bridges and fences to keep them from more populated areas and even help them across difficult areas (I don’t know, but I’m guessing difficult urbanized obstacles).

At 135 square km and located 370 km off of Indonesia, this Australian territory is often called the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean” for its diversity of both plant and animal life. It’s also home to 14 different species of crabs, including the coconut crab, the largest invertebrate in the world. The efforts I mentioned earlier are even more impressive taking into account the 1.5 million people who come to see the amazing wildlife display each year.


Dreaming of a white Christmas

Oh boy time sure do flies! It seems just yesterday it was January… still, it’s the 2nd day of Christmas (here), and still no snow :(

That’s why the ZME team will set onto other plains where you can make snowfights and watch the snow from the fireplace. Let’s see…

  • Christmas hat – check
  • Snow – check
  • Wine(just a little) – check
  • So, we’re all set for a small holiday. Why do I say small?? Because we’ll be back THIS YEAR (no matter where you’re from), with a review of the scientific and environmental events of the year that is about to pass.

    Wishing you peace, love and happiness,

    the ZME team.

    Warp speed, cap’n!