10 things about Christmas a researcher could tell you

How do reindeer navigate, how large is a Christmas tree’s genome, and what is the best surgical stitch to use on a Christmas turkey?

December 21, 2016
Santa Claus/Father Christmas getting punched in the face
Source: Getty

Researchers are not always trying to solve famously complex mysteries such as the nature of consciousness or the origins of the universe; on occasion, they have also uncovered a few unexpected facts about Christmas. Some such discoveries have been helpful or revealing, although others are arguably less so. Here we run through some quirkier bits of Christmas-related research.

How would a surgeon handle a Christmas turkey?

A 2011 study published in Veterinary Records sought to find the answer to a crucial question: what is the best type of suture for closing a Christmas turkey? A number of turkeys were deboned and stuffed, and then randomly given one of five different closures: four types of stitches, or surgical staples. After the birds spent two hours in the oven, the researchers studied the closures and judged them on the basis of suture line integrity and cosmetic appeal. The skins of the Christmas turkeys were pulled apart when the stitches were removed, and remained intact only when staples were used. (This was perhaps an unfortunate outcome, given that only the stitches have the benefit of being digestible.) “Using this technique you will be able to impress family and friends at Christmas dinner, and finally show them your surgical skills,” the researchers suggest.

People punch each other in the face more often during Christmas

The authors of a recent study, “Assault-related facial injuries during the season of goodwill, wished to find out if the festive spirit of the 12 days of Christmas would result in a reduction in interpersonal violence (and a reduction in patients appearing at A & E with facial injuries). The researchers identified patients with violence-related injuries to the face who appeared at a teaching hospital during the Christmas period over four years, and compared these numbers with those appearing at other times. They found that rates of such injuries were higher during Christmas than at Easter or other times of the year. In this respect, Christmas is far from a season of goodwill.

Do we have a ‘Christmas spirit’ network in our brains?

A Danish study has identified what could be described as a “Christmas spirit” network in the brain. The researchers recruited a group of people who celebrate Christmas, and a group who do not. Using fMRI scans – which detect blood flow in the brain to identify which areas are activated – they investigated which parts of the subjects’ brains responded to be being shown Christmassy and non-Christmassy images. They found that certain areas of the brain were much more highly activated in the festive group than the control group when they were shown the former group of pictures. The Christmas spirit network exists in the sensory motor cortex, premotor and primary motor cortex and the parietal lobule; these areas have been associated with spirituality and recognition of facial emotion, among other functions.

Reindeer use harmful ultraviolet light to navigate

Rudolph could have benefited just as much from a shining ultraviolet (UV) nose as a red one. UV light, which can cause snow blindness in humans, is, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, used by reindeer to survive in the Arctic. High-energy, short-wavelength UV light is strongly reflected from snow, and in humans, unless this light is blocked from reaching the retina, the cornea and lens of the eye can suffer burns. While humans can see light only down to a wavelength of 400nm, reindeer can see light with a wavelength as short as 350-320nm. This adaptation to their snowy environment allows them to detect life-saving information from their surroundings, whereas typical mammal vision could make them vulnerable. This raises questions about how reindeer – unlike most other mammals – are able to protect their eyes from UV damage.

Exchanging Christmas cards could be a form of social climbing

Far from being an act of generosity, exchange of Christmas cards is sometimes used as an opportunity for social climbing, as people are more likely to reciprocate card-giving with people they are interested in scoring points with. Previous research has shown that people reciprocate card-giving even with complete strangers. A study conducted in 2000 at West Texas A&M University took this a step further, arranging the exchange of nearly 600 Christmas cards between strangers of different social classes. They found that perception of high status increased the likelihood of a sender getting a response, and the effect was even more pronounced among low-income receivers of the cards. High-status strangers – such as doctors, lawyers and CEOs – received responses for 1 in every 5 cards they sent, with few recipients so much as asking about their identity.

Children are glad to discover the truth about Father Christmas

According to a 1994 study in Child Psychiatry and Human Development, parents are more upset than their children when their offspring discover the truth about Father Christmas. Children who no longer believed in Father Christmas were interviewed, and their parents surveyed. The study found that children uncovered the truth at around the age of seven, and although they described themselves as feeling immediate sadness, disappointment and anger, they soon came to feel positive about their discovery. Parents, on the other hand, were saddened by their children’s realisation. Other studies suggest that children tend to discover the truth about Father Christmas via their own reasoning, rather than being told by other children.

Do we think too much about ourselves when giving gifts?

A paper entitled “Why certain gifts are great to give, but not to get: a framework for understanding errors in gift giving” explains the common mistake we make in being too concerned with the giving of a gift, and failing to see the exchange from the point of view of the recipient. Givers, the author says, need to think less about the moment a present is opened and more about the longer time afterwards when the recipient keeps or uses the gift. The author suggests that experiential gifts, gifts from registries and gift cards are usually well received, whereas recipients may not necessarily enjoy thoughtful, expensive or socially responsible gifts (such as charitable donations).

How to prevent Christmas tree needle loss

The shedding of needles over a sitting-room carpet is a major reason for families resorting to artificial Christmas trees. A study published in Trees, however, explains why Christmas tree needles drop, and suggests how this could be delayed. By standing Christmas tree branches in water containers in a growth chamber, the scientists found that after 10 days the branches began to produce a plant hormone called ethylene, after which the needles began to drop. The branches were left completely bare after 40 days. By adding two chemical compounds that interfere with ethylene, they doubled the length of time the needles were retained, and the branches remained green far longer. One of the compounds, a gas, could be released into storage during tree transit, while the other, a liquid, could be added to water in tree stands at home to lengthen their lives.

Using fine art on Christmas cards gives the impression of good taste

A University of Exeter study has found that Christmas card designers in the late Victorian period used fine art on their cards to deflect criticism that Christmas was becoming too commercialised, revealing that this is something we have been complaining about for more than a century. Christmas cards began to be exchanged in the 1840s to raise money for charity, and were in mass circulation by the mid to late Victorian period. This gave the impression of the cards being mass-produced and vulgar, so the use of art by admired illustrators, fine artists and members of the Royal Academy attracted new middle-class customers. “They were developed to bridge the boundary between the fine and decorative arts and bring lessons in art and aesthetic discernment to a mass middle-class public,” the study reports.

Scientists sequence the enormous Christmas tree genome

The human genome is made up of about 3 billion pairs of DNA base letters, but the genome of the Norway spruce – a common choice for Christmas trees – seems to have about 20 billion base pairs. Each of its chromosomes is nearly the size of the entire human genome. For many years, scientists have been wondering why trees such as spruce, fir and pine have such large genomes. Recently, Swedish researchers sequenced the genome of the Norway spruce, an immensely difficult task given that it has accumulated many repeating sections of genetic code. It has been suggested that its enormous genome may be in part thanks to “genome duplication” at some point in its ancient evolutionary history; a process by which the entire genome is doubled up.


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