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Christmas and the Scientist in the Technological Age
By Roger Highfield
For those who like to plan their Christmas in advance, here is a little formula that can reveal the day of the week that Christmas Day falls on in any year (including leap years) after 1600.
Christmas is a time for the crunch of snow, spiced wine, and tinseled trees. Christmas is a time for giving, meeting friends and feasting. Christmas is a time for carols, family gatherings, gaudy greeting cards, and all the jollity of the seasonal spirit. Christmas is also a time for science.
Chemists are hard at work in the Christmas kitchen. Experts on thermodynamics have drafted equations to help us cook turkeys to perfection, scanners have scrutinized steaming plum puddings, and pharmacologists have traced the baroque metabolic pathways of the brain to explain why chocolates can be so addictive. Meteorologists study every aspect of the snow cycle that provides a seasonal sprinkling, from the seeding of an ice crystal high in the sky to the traces of past Christmases buried deep in the snowpack. Climatologists are plundering this record to help predict white Christmases far into the future. A handful are even concocting outlandish schemes to guarantee that each and every Christmas is white. Psychologists tease out the hidden agenda of the Christmas card and what it reveals about our social status. Anthropologists hunt for the foundation of the celebration in pagan rituals that took place before the birth of Christ, during long winter nights when our ancestors feared that the sun would never return.
I have been investigating the science of Christmas for more than a decade. When I first began to take an interest in the subject, I was unprepared for the breadth and depth of the insights that would eventually emerge. Take those flying reindeer, Santa's red and white color scheme and his jolly disposition, for example. They are all probably linked to the use of hallucinogenic toadstool in ancient rituals. I can add that Santa was born with a genetic predisposition to become obese and now suffers from diabetes. He does not live at the North Pole, preferring the warmth of an island off the coast of Turkey. There, panting at his side, you will find Rosie - not Rudolph - the reindeer.
I was at first puzzled by how Santa could fly in any weather, circle the globe on Christmas Eve, carry millions and millions of presents, and make all those rooftop landings with pinpoint accuracy. The answer lies in his unprecedented research resources and expertise across a range of fields, spanning genetic engineering, computing, nanotechnology, and quantum gravity. My experience undermines the idea that the materialist insights of science destroy our capacity to wonder, leaving the world a more boring place. For me, the very reverse is true. I can still remember the day when, as a child, I first became convinced that Santa did not exist. Now, by refracting the Santa myth through the prism of science, he seems more real than ever.
I believe that science and technology can even shed a little light on a deeper question: where did Christmas come from in the first place? Peel back the wallpaper of centuries and you will find that the festival is an amalgam of influences - German, Dutch, English, American and other traditions, both religious and pagan - that emerged over the millenia. Even today, the traditional Christmas hoopla is far from a homogenous phenomenon, taking place alongside Kwanzaa, an African-American harvest holiday, and the eight-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. Together they constitute the annual celebration.
Part of the reason winter festivities went global can be found 150 years ago, at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. It was then that the "Christ's Mass", the church service that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, along with a wealth of other traditions, entered the scientific age of mass communication, transport, and other technologies. This collision between ancient tradition and the age of science and technology was particularly significant in Victorian Britain where, during a single decade, there was a striking coincidence of events of significance for science and the annual celebrations.
The 1840s saw a dizzying rate of change in society due to efforts across a proliferating range of disciplines. In the world of science, there was Darwin's ideas on natural selection, Joule's work on thermodynamics, and Faraday's studies of magnetism, light and electricity. In the sister disciplines of engineering and technology, there were developments in factories, machine tools, and information technology. Babbage was hard at work on his difference engine and a web of telegraph lines spread across the nation. All the while the old certainties seemed to have been squashed flat by the steam hammer, steamboat, and steam train. The resulting turmoil in society made the traditional Christmas message of charity more relevant than ever. Emerging communications technologies, from speedy railways to the telegraph, paved the way for that message to be disseminated and homogenized for mass consumption, forging much of what we think of today as the traditional festivities.
The tumultuous 1840s also saw an important token of the rising influence of science: the birth of a specific label for the burgeoning army of individuals at work in this field. William Whewell, a polymath who was a Fellow of the Royal Society, coined the word "scientist" in earnest in his two-volume book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. The word was of dubious legitimacy in philological terms, a hybrid of Latin and Greek, and was attacked (wrongly) as "an American barbarous trisyllable." But the pressure to put a name to this increasingly influential group was overwhelming.
At the same time that the scientist was born, an eminent and extraordinary individual, Henry Cole, decided to reduce the burden of writing Christmas greeting letters by taking advantage of another development he'd had a hand in: the introduction of the penny post in 1840. His invention, the first Christmas card, was published in 1843 and cost a shilling, the equivalent of a day's wages for a laborer. After two decades, the price fell dramatically thanks to one of the technological inventions of the day, cheap color lithography, and Christmas cards entered the mass market.
Cole regarded the card as the folk art of the Industrial Revolution, and it ultimately became the greatest popularizer of now-standard Christmas iconography, with designs ranging from bizarre characters with pudding heads to mannequins in period costume, as well as the more conventional mistletoe, robins, holly and fireside scenes. Not only were the cards printed on paper, but they were also gilded, frosted, and dressed with satin or fringed silk. Some were even made to squeak. Through the evolution of one of the card's most familiar characters, it is possible to trace the influence of scientists, engineers, and technologies on our way of life. I am, of course, referring to the many depictions of the fat man with the white beard.
A silk-fringed card published in 1888 reveals how by then, Santa had resorted to the latest communications technology to improve the links with his market. The figure shown on the card seems to be engaged in what can only be described as a conference call, listening to the simultaneous demands for presents from an assortment of children. Only the previous decade, Alexander Graham Bell had patented the telephone had made it all possible.
By the 1890s Santa had decided to give up his sleigh and reindeer, preferring to haul his gifts around by "the new monstrosity from France," the automobile. As a result of the development of the internal combustion engine, the silent night, holy night now throbs to the sound of traffic. The stillness of the snowy landscape shown on so many Christmas cards is marred by the groan of the snowplow. The search for the Bethlehem star is now obscured by a haze of photochemical smog. Another newfangled device, the wireless, appears on one 1929 Christmas card, which features a Santa apparently mesmerized by the crackling message it is receiving over the ether. Radio would become the first mass medium to reinforce the tendency for Christmas to be a festival held behind closed doors. When Santa reached for a cool soda pop in a Coca-Cola advertisement that appeared during the Christmas season of 1937, he was again a technological pioneer. The source of his refreshment was a refrigerator, even though iceboxes were still being used by most American households that year.
Santa can now be found in cyberspace. The last time I checked, there were hundreds of Santa home pages for children's email. Digitized images of Santa now scud about the web of international computer networks every Christmas. One day these images may even supplant the traditional Christmas card. However, I believe that an emailed Santa, spouting digital "ho, hos" and seasonal greetings, would still honor the spirit in which Henry Cole first dreamed up the card - as a practical way to marry mass communication and art.
Cole would be amazed and gratified by the extent to which his little invention has caught on today. A century and a half later, science is still altering the very nature and fabric of the celebrations through the introduction of new technology, whether cloned Christmas trees, the Internet, or those infuriating cards that play carols over and over again. The future of Christmas and Hanukkah in our increasingly technological age seems assured.
Roger Highfield earned a D.Phil in chemistry from Oxford University and is currently science editor at the Daily Telegraph in London, England. The above is adapted from his book The Physics of Christmas, published in 1998 by Little Brown & Company.
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