Read an Excerpt
There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas.
Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz
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. The
same goes for presents. The price, the nature of the gift, and
even the way it is wrapped say a great deal about the giver
and his or her relationship with the recipient. All the while,
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.
The origins of the holiday in the darkness of prehistory
emphasize perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Christmas:
everyone's invited. The seasonal message of hope and
charity is a message for all -- Christians, Jews, Hindus,
Moslems, Buddhists, and, yes, even scientists and engineers.
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 a hallucinogenic toadstool in ancient rituals.
I can add that Santa was born with a genetic propensity 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 of writing this book undermines the idea
that the materialist insights of science destroy our capacity to
wonder, leaving the world a more boring and predictable
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
Even today, the traditional Christmas hoopla is far from a
homogeneous 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 "Christ's Mass" (Cristes maesse in Old
English), the church service that celebrates the birth of Jesus
Christ, along with a wealth of other traditions, entered the
scientific age of mass communications, transport, and other
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, the
annual celebrations, and this book.
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 were 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
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.
That same decade saw the introduction to Britain of one
component of the German Christmas that remains very
much a part of the celebrations today. Queen Victoria and
Prince Albert set up a Christmas tree for the first time in
Windsor Castle in 1840. She recorded that this German custom
quite affected dear Albert, who turned pale and had
tears in his eyes! Eight years later they appeared beside the
tree in the Illustrated London News, one of the magazines
established that decade to exploit advances in illustration
technology. This would become one of the most famous
nineteenth-century Christmas scenes of all.
At the same time that scientist was born and Albert gazed
upon his tree, an eminent and extraordinary individual,
Henry Cole, decided to reduce the burden of writing Christmas
greetings letters by taking advantage of another development
he had 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 innovations of the day, cheap
color lithography, and Christmas cards entered the mass
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
Through the evolution of one of the card's most familiar
characters, it is possible, in the wake of the pioneering contributions
of Cole, Prince Albert, and Whewell, to trace the
influence of scientists, engineers, and technologists on our
way of life. I am, of course, referring to the many depictions
of that 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 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
that 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 and the
susurrus of chains on wheels. 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: "You're in my Christmas circuit / And on the waves of
thought / A Happy Christmas and New Year / To you is
gladly brought." 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
e-mail. 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 e-mailed 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 communications
Cole would be amazed and gratified by the extent to
which his little invention has caught on today. The significance
of the 1840s does not end there, however. As Cole sent
out his first cards, the greatest and most influential of all
Christmas books made its first appearance in a crimson and
A Christmas Carol was published by Chapman and Hall on
December 19, 1843. By Christmas Eve it had sold six thousand
copies, the most successful publication that season.
Within two months eight pirated theatrical productions had
The genesis of this work of popular genius dates back to
around 1840 and Dickens's correspondence with the philanthropist
Lord Ashley. Dickens was horrified by the impact
on society of the age of machines, notably the appalling conditions
endured by children working in coal mines and factories.
He started work on the book to make a sledgehammer
blow against these evils of the industrial age.
One newspaper described the book as "sublime." Thackeray
said that it was a "national benefit." Lord Jeffrey told
Dickens that it had "prompted more positive acts of beneficence
than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals
in Christendom since Christmas 1842."
Thus the 1840s saw a striking convergence: the first scientist,
the tree, the card, and the Christmas book to top all
Christmas books. 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.
And so on to the science of Christmas.