Friday, April 25, 2008

Things of Christmas

Ah, tis the time to blend science and the holiday season with tidbits of folklore, mythology, and science and a bit of whimsy.

"A Visit From Saint Nicholas"


Clement Clarke Moore


T'was the night before Christmas,

when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, --not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight.


"'Twas The Night Before Christmas, NASA-style"


Gail Koske Phillips and Patrick Koske-McBride

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the stars

Not a creature was stirring, not even on Mars.

The space boots were hung by the airlock with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

The robots were nestled all snug on their tires,

As visions of upgrades danced through their wires;

Mom put on her headset while I counted prime numbers,

We had settled our brains for a long winter's slumber,

When out on the dome there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my sack to see what was the matter.

Away to the porthole I flew like a flash,

And tore open the air filter with a great clash.

The moons on the crest of a new volcano,

Gave an alien luster to objects below.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a small UFO, and eight rocket reindeer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than light, his rockets they came,

And he whistled, and shouted and called them by name:

"Now Saturn! now, Sputnik! now, Titan and Atlas!

On, Redstone! on, Delta! Apollo, Polaris!

To the top of the dome! to the top of the wall!

Now blast away! blast away! blast away all!"

As meteors blaze through the heavens up high,

When they meet with the atmosphere and burn in the sky,

So up to the dome-top the rockets they flew,

With a ship full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too.

And then in a twinkling, I felt on the ceiling

The heat of the thrusters and landing tiles peeling.

As I covered my head, and was turning around,

Through the airlock old Santa Claus came with a bound.

He was dressed all in plastics, from his feet to his head,

And his clothes were all covered in dust that was red;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a scientist opening his pack.

His visor- how it twinkled! his filter how scary!

His gloves were from Earth, the logos quite merry!

His space boots, how costly! they played songs and glowed!

The frost on his suit was as cold as Pluto;

The stump of his air tube held tight in his teeth,

And oxygen swirled round his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly

That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
and I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a nod of his head,

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the space boots; then turned with a jerk,

And spreading his fingers just like Dr. Spock,

He quietly exited out the airlock.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like a high flying missile.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

"Twas the Week before Solstice"

Twas the week before Solstice, when all through the city,

Not a planet was shining, now isn't that a pity.

The telescope was stored in the garage with despair,

In hopes that the weather would soon turn to fair.

The astronomers were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of nebulae danced in their heads.

And Mojo with his laptop and I with my starmap,

Had just settled down for a cloudy night nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew with a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon shone brightly, no clouds hid the glow,
The full moonlit lustre to objects below.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But Pleiades, Orion, and Ursa Major, the bear.

With our trusty old telescope, the setup was quick,
I knew in a moment we had objects to pick.
More rapid than eagles, the targets they came,

We aimed and we pointed and called them by name.

"Now, Procyon, now Pollux, now Castor and Capella!
On Aldebaran, on Rigel, on Sirius, and Betelgeuse, the red fella

To the top and around the winter circle of stars,

Now a quick look at Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and Mars.

As fireflies that before the dawns morning light,
Brilliantly flicker and soon are a memory bright,
A new wonder would paint the dark sky to pale blue,

The sunrise was nearing and morning twilight was too.

And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof,
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I stepped from the telescope and was turning around,

Down the chimney the stranger came with a bound.

He looked like an astronomer, bundled from head to his foot,
Like a stargazer his clothes were tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

Looked just like our telescope accessory pack.

His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry
He looked like we do after a cold winter starshow

Freezing but happy from the Milky Way glow

The stump of a flashlight held tight in his teeth

Its soft red glow encircled his head like a wreath

We asked him if he'd ever looked closely at Mars

"I'm working at night, I have no time for the stars".

He stepped up to the eyepiece, a right jolly old elf,
And I smiled as he gasped, in spite of myself.

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but took in view after view,
Then he spoke with a sigh he had more work to do.

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
Happy stargazing to all and to all a dark night.

Jane Houston Jones

Physicists can enlighten and muddle our universe; they can be serious and downright frivolous. Here are the cold, hard facts about Santa and the nocturnal visit.

1.) No known species of reindeer can fly. But there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2.) There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn't (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total - 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that's 91.8 million homes. One presumes there's at least one good child in each.

3.) Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical).
This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc. This means that Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man- made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second - a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4.) The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight.
On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that 'flying reindeer' (see point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload - not even counting the weight of the sleigh - to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison - this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.

5.) 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance - this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each.
In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion - If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he's dead now.



Larry Silverberg
The Premise:

Goal: To explain the phenomenon of Santa Claus.
Human factors: What human conditions can explain the phenomenon? Why would a community of elves evolve to dedicate itself to such a goal? Engineering Principles: What instruments and devices would need to be developed. What engineering limitations would need to be overcome? Science: Which scientific principles would be used? Do we currently have the ability to understand these scientific principles? If we don't understand the scientific principles, then why not, and why does Santa understand them? The following is the story of how and why Santa delivers presents to children based upon the most likely scenario given the human, physical, and engineering constraints that we all live with.

The Expedition to the North Pole:

Centuries ago, in a small Norwegian village crime becomes widespread (like biblical
Sodom). Santa and his followers set out on a journey to the North Pole. Life at the North Pole, with its cold weather and its strong winds, is difficult. But the hardship draws Santa and his elves close together.

They build elaborate underground dwellings to protect themselves from the harsh conditions, and they learn how to grow their own food in underground greenhouses.
The underground dwellings are built using technologies similar to those developed by NASA for moon dwellings. Closed ecological systems are used for agricultural production and for high quality air circulation.

The Constitution:

Santa and elves agree to dedicate their lives to goodwill. They write the following constitution: WHEREAS, the great elves of the North Pole are a generous and intelligent people; and WHEREAS, dedication to goodwill is uplifting to the spirit, to each and to all; NOW, THEREFORE, we the great elves of the North Pole from this day forward dedicate ourselves to the delivery of presents once a year on the eve of CHRISTMAS day to the good children of the world.

The Evolution of Santa's Science and Technology:

Santa's society of elves has at least five hundred uninterrupted years to evolve- socially and intellectually.

Their understanding of physics and engineering exceeds our own.
To deliver presents in a single night, Santa and elves would have researched a means to create more "time" - recognizing that time itself can be stretched like a rubber band, that space itself can be squeezed like an orange, and that light itself can be bent (based on general relativistic principles).

It is thought that the first breakthrough came when they learned how to control time, how to control space and how to control light. They would have created "relativity clouds."
In contrast with Santa's five hundred years of understanding general relativistic principles, our understanding spans less than 100 years - and it's incomplete. We haven't unified the electrical and gravitational forces, nor resolved issues associated with wave-particle duality, nor examined singularities and other dramatic curvatures of space-time that could be used to manipulate space-time.

Relativity clouds are controllable domains (volumes) within which space-time is controlled. An observer inside a relativity cloud perceives time, space and light differently than an observer outside the relativity cloud.

Inside the relativity cloud, Santa has months to deliver presents. Santa sees the world frozen and only hears silence.

Upon returning to the North Pole, and leaving the domain of the relativity cloud, only a few minutes go by.

The presents are truly delivered in the wink of an eye.

Listening to Children's Thoughts:

An antenna is spread out under the snow. The antenna aperture is a round mesh, a few square miles in size, with mesh spacing on the order of a millimeter to accommodate microwave frequency reception. The antenna receives the electromagnetic waves from children's' thoughts.

The associated input signals to the computer are divided into different sources associated with children's brain waves. This is done by a dedicated filtering software platform. The filtering is accomplished using tunable FFTs (fast Fourier transforms), adaptive pattern recognition algorithms, and with artificial intelligent neural networks with automated hidden layer constructions.

The listening antenna combines technologies currently used in EKGs, antennas looking into deep space, and cellular telephones.

The Sleigh:

The sleigh-port is an underground facility that serves as a command and control center. It houses Santa's central computer, which has a fully integrated optical-based architecture. The sleigh has a similar on-board computer.

Unlike our Shuttle, Santa's sleigh is a fully autonomous vehicle. At launch, the sleigh downloads needed information, activates the relativity cloud, and initiates the launch sequence.

The Sleigh's dashboard is holographic. It displays cruise control and manual override, the nano-toymaker, the children's toy lists, and the optimized navigational maps. The sleigh also has two drink holders (for eggnog).

Reindeer are equipped with jet packs for propulsion and control.

Reindeer are specially bred to balance on rooftops and bio-engineered to see well at night. But we think that Santa really uses reindeer because they're his favorite arctic animals!

Entering Homes:

Relativity cloud is used not only for transportation, but also to "morph" Santa into children's homes.

Sleigh changes some of the relativity cloud's characteristic parameters to send Santa through the tiniest of openings into the child's home.
Depending on time allowed, Santa has the option to morph the presents from the sleigh to under the tree and not to enter the home himself.

The Presents:

The presents are grown on-the-spot under the tree wrapping and all using a nano-toymaker.

Nano-toymaker has a toy information data base that is kept on the sleigh and a remote control. The database contains toy-making instructions. The remote control initiates the toy-making.

Use of a nano-toymaker avoids the need to haul large quantities of toys (reduces payload). It also simplifies and automates the elves' toy making processes.

The nano-toymaker remote control is pointed at toy making material placed under the tree, and a catalyst initiates a rapid crystallization growth process. The process is analogous to inorganic crystal growth of minerals, and snow, and the DNA driven organic growth of biological organs, tissues and other body parts.

The toy instruction algorithms could have been first developed by copying the manner in which DNA molecules command the growth of organic material.


191 million children under age 18 in industrialized countries (per UNICEF).

Average of 2.67 children per home. So there are 75 million homes to visit.

Earth's radius is 3986 miles which yields a surface area of 4pR2 =200 million square miles.
Average distance between homes is the square root of 200/75 =1.63 miles.

Total distance traveled is 75x1.63=122 million miles.

An upper bound without relativity : Assuming 1 sleigh delivering presents over 24 hours, the average speed of the sleigh is 122x106/24=5, 083, 000 mph (Mach 480). The speed of light is 300 million meters/sec. = 669,600,000 mph which is 669,600/5,083=130 times greater than the average speed of the sleigh. There's more than enough time to do it!! A more realistic scenario: Assume Santa delivers the presents in 6 "Santa" months. The average speed is then 5,083,000/182.5 = 27,852 mph (Mach 2.62).

In another scenario, assume that Santa has a fleet of 750 sleighs. The average speed is then 84 mph - which is achievable using Santa's reindeer equipped with jetpacks.


Human Factors: conditions are established that create accelerated growth on the moral and technological levels.

Physics: Santa's understanding of relativistic principles reaches a point where the manipulation of time-space becomes possible. Relativity clouds are created.
Engineering: Antennas are used to listen to children's thoughts; An advanced sleigh with jetpacks takes Santa from home to home in 6 "Santa" months (which in our time is in a wink of an eye); Data is processed using an "optical" computer; toys are synthesized in a process analogous to DNA growth of biological parts.

"Santa's Science"


Roger Highfield

Christmas may be a fun time for most of us...But for Santa it's all rather hard work...

On the Christmas cards, it all looked so effortless. Apart from the occasional slip-up with drunken reindeer, narrow chimneys and blizzards, Santa manages to deliver millions of gifts on Christmas Eve, maintaining his smile and benevolence all the while. His support team: a few reindeer and a handful of diligent elves.

Clearly, only an innocent child would swallow this propaganda, a fantasy peddled by generations of Christmas cards to divert attention away from what is undoubtedly the most spectacular research-and-development outfit this planet has ever seen.

I like to think that somewhere under the North Pole there is a handful of scientists experimenting with the latest in high-temperature materials, genetic computing and technologies and warped geometries of time and space, all united by a single purpose: to make millions of children happy each and every Christmas. Put yourself in Santa's fur boots: how does he know where children live, and what gifts they want? How can he fly in any weather, circle the globe overnight, carry millions of pounds of cargo and make silent, rooftop landings with pinpoint accuracy? Some years ago, Spy Magazine examined these issues in an article that has since proliferated across the Internet. The magazine concluded that Santa would require 214,200 reindeer and, with the huge mass of presents would encounter 'enormous air resistance, heating the reindeer up in the same fashion as a spacecraft re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.' In short, it continued, 'They will burst into flames almost instantaneously, creating deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa meanwhile, will be subjected to forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity…In conclusion - if Santa ever did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he's dead now.'

The point is, Santa is not dead. He delivers presents every Christmas Eve, as reliably as Rudolph's nose is red. If he overcomes the kinds of problems outlined above, it can only be with the aid of out-of-this-world technology.


Santa has a huge market: there are 2,106 million children aged under eighteen in the world, according to the United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF. Given the pagan origins of the festival and the emphasis on charity, we can assume that Santa will deliver presents to each and every child and not just Christian children or the 191 million who live in industrialised countries. It is Christmas after all.

Assume there are 2.5 children per house. That means Santa has to make 842 million stops on Christmas Eve. Now let's say these homes are spread equally across the land masses of the planet. The Earth's surface area is, given a radius of 6,400km(3,986 miles), 510,000,000 sq km (196,600,000 sq miles), calculated as radius squared, multiplied by 4 pi. Only 29 per cent of the surface of the planet is land, so this narrows the populated area to 150,000,000 sq km (57,9000,000 sq miles). Each household therefore occupies an area of 0.178 sq km (0.069 sq miles). Let's assume that each home occupies the same sized plot, so the distance between each household is the square root of the area, which is 0.42 km (0.26 miles).

The Giving of Gifts:

Every Christmas Eve, Santa has to travel a distance equivalent to the number of chimneys - 842 million - multiplied by this average spacing between households, which works out to be 365 million km (221 million miles). This sounds daunting, particularly given that he must cover this distance in a single night. Fortunately, Santa has more than twenty-four hours in which to deliver the presents. Consider the first point on the planet to go through the International Date Line at midnight on 24 December. From this moment on, Santa can pop down chimneys. If he stays right there, he will have twenty-four hours to deliver presents to everyone along the date line. But he can do better than this, by travelling backwards, against the direction of rotation of the Earth. That way he can deliver presents for almost twenty-four hours to everywhere else on Earth, making forty-eight hours in all, which is 2,880 minutes or 172,800 seconds.

From this, one can calculate that Santa has little over two ten-thousandths of a second to get between each of the 842 million households. To cover the total distance of 356 million km (221 million miles) in this time means that his sleigh is moving at an average of 2,060 km (1,279 miles) per second. Ignoring quibbles about air temperature and humidity, the speed of sound is something like 1,200 km (750 miles) per hour, or 0.3 km (0.2 miles) per second, so Santa is achieving speeds of around 6,395 times the speed of sound, or Mach 6395.

When a sleigh, or indeed any object, exceeds the speed of sound, there will be at least one sonic boom. This is a shock wave sent out when the sleigh catches up with pressure waves it generates while moving, explains Nigel Weatherill of the University of Wales, Swansea, who helped the Thrust Supersonic Car break the sound barrier in 1997.

Santa, however, does not generate any sonic booms on Christmas Eve. In his book Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins says he has used this fact to disprove the existence of Santa to a six-year-old child. To a biologist this may indeed seem persuasive but, to an aerodynamics engineer, it suggests that Santa has found a way to suppress sonic booms. For example, says Nigel Weatherill, perhaps Santa cancels the peaks and troughs in the shock wave with troughs and peaks of 'antisound' generated by a specialised speaker on his sleigh.

The speed of light is absolute and cannot be exceeded, so we should check that Santa is not breaking cosmic law. The usual figure for the speed of light is 300 million meters per second (984 million feet) which, given that there are 1,000 metres per kilometre (5,280 feet per mile), works out to be 300,000 km (186,000 miles) per second. Santa is comfortably within this limit, travelling at around one-145th of the speed of light - too slow to worry about the implications of Einstein's theory of relativity. This assumes, however, that Santa throws the presents down the chimney while passing overhead. In fact, he stops at each house so that he has to achieve double the speed calculated above (form a standing start, he has to travel the distance between each house in two-10,000ths of a second). That means going from 0 to 4,116 km (2,558 miles) per second in two-10,000ths of a second, an acceleration of 20.5 million kilometres (12.79 million miles) per second per second, or 20.5 billion metres (67.3 billion feet) per second per second.

The acceleration due to gravity is a mere 9.8 metres (32ft) per second per second, so the acceleration of Santa's sleigh is equivalent to about two billion times that caused by the gravitational tug of the Earth. Given that Santa is excessively overweight, say around 200kg (30 stone), the force he will feel is his mass times his acceleration: around 4,000 billion newtons. Even fighter pilots can't cope with accelerations more than a few times that of gravity: they have to use special breathing and so called g-suits to keep the blood in their head. Santa would have to cope with around 2 billion times this acceleration. As the physics professor Lawrence Krauss put it, that would reduce our fat friend to 'chunky salsa'.

Krauss has considered similar problems in his work on the physics of Star Trek. The starship Enterprise gets by with devices called 'inertial dampers' to cushion the forces that Captain Kirk feels in the seat of his pants. Santa has to resort to similar tactics, creating an artificial world within his sleigh in which the reaction force that responds to the accelerating force is cancelled, perhaps by some kind of gravitational field.

There is one other problem Santa has to contend with. His cargo of toys. Assuming that each of the 2,106 million children gets nothing more than a medium -sized construction set (900g or 2lb), he has a load of 1,895 million kg (4212 million lb) to convey. Then there is also his supply of fuel to achieve these huge speeds.

Any way you look at it, Santa has some serious hurdles to overcome.

The US Air Force 48th Fighter Wing claims to use satellite dishes to track Santa on Christmas Eve, with other Air Force Space Command squadrons around the world, to prevent the unnecessary scrambling of interceptor aircraft and ensure the safe arrival of 'the Jolly Old Elf' and all his presents. 'We have some of the most sophisticated equipment in the world. The deep space tracking system was constructed at a cost of over $600 million. Santa is in good hands,' said Tech. Sgt. Ray Duron, Crew Chief of the 5th Space Surveillance Squadron at RAF Feltwell, which coordinates the route of his sleigh with the 1st Command and Control Squadron in Colorado Springs.

Given the extraordinary array of technology already used by Santa, much of which is beyond the capabilities of the US military, this annual 'Santa Track' - which dates back to 1957 - seems unnecessary. Indeed, some might say it is merely a publicity stunt engineered by defence scientists to draw attention away from the vast range of scientific and technological achievements pioneered by Santa to ensure children across the world are not disappointed on Christmas morning.

"The scientific theory of Santa Claus"


Dr. George Johnson

What do reindeer and little children know that we don't? Tonight is Christmas eve, and my daughter Caitlin and I are going to sort out this Santa Claus business once and for all. There was a time, only a few very brief years ago, when all three of my daughters believed in Santa Claus. But, much as I have resisted the process, my daughters have grown older. Christmas has become a less magical if no less loving time, a celebration of family, rich with presents and cheer and hope. Except for my stubborn one, my Caitlin. She who believes in fairies and everyday magic finds it hard to relinquish Santa, her faithful childhood friend. She does not want to give up her childhood, or Santa. She came to me this year and said, "Look, dad, is this true? Is there a Santa?" What is a father to say to a child he loves about letting go of her childhood? What I said was "Look, I'm supposed to be a scientist. Lets test the hypothesis." With grave delight, Caitlin set about helping me formulate a set of testable hypotheses. First, as in most science, comes the library work. It turns out that while St. Nick is an old Christmas tale, people have known about Santa for less than two hundred years. The general public first became aware of him in a book called Knickerbocker's History of New York, written by Washington Irving in 1809. In it Irving describes a rotund fellow in a red coat riding over treetops in a wagon drawn by reindeer bringing gifts to children on Christmas eve. The Dutch word for Saint Nicholas is "SinterKlaas," and in Irving's book the name is pronounced the way a child would, as "Santa Claus." The details were fleshed out fourteen years later, when in 1823 Clement Moore wrote "Twas the night before Christmas..." This then is the data set Caitlin and I had to work with. The core of the theory of Santa Claus is that there is this overweight guy that flies a reindeer-drawn sleigh to every household on Christmas eve, giving presents to children. So what's so hard to believe about that? Caitlin and I discussed this at length, and settled on two testable hypotheses. Accepting any one of them stretches even the credibility of a child who believes in fairies. If they both prove true, then surely Santa must be.

1. Reindeer really know how to fly. The idea of Rudolph and Prancer and all those other reindeer flying through the air runs contrary to any deer we ever saw. Without wings or a rocket-like digestive system, it's hard to see how a reindeer could fly.

2. Santa can get down the chimney. How does a really fat old man slide down narrow chimneys? How does he squeeze through, and why doesn't he get seriously dirty? And what about houses that don't have a fireplace?
The essence of science, as I have often rather pompously explained to my daughters, is testing. To test these two hypotheses, Caitlin and I devised two experiments, to be carried out tonight, on Christmas eve.

1. A flying reindeer detector. If reindeer really fly, drawing Santa's sleigh to our roof, then they would have to pass between two sets of great trees that loom over our house, one at each end. There simply isn't any other way to approach our roof from the air except through the opening between these trees. So up the ladder I went one morning this week, Caitlin gallantly trying to hold the ladder steady. At one end of the house I tie a black thread to a tree limb. Then I toss the spool as hard as I can over the rooftop towards the far side. With a lot of fussing, I manage to fish the thread over, and climbing the ladder at the other end, I draw the thread tight and tie it to a tree branch. On the thread we have hung several tiny bells, designed as decorations but up to the task. Any reindeer that flies over this roof is going to ring our little bells. My tape recorder, turned on at midnight, will serve as our detector.

2. A Santa trap. Our house has several chimneys. To channel Santa's entry to the living room, Caitlin and I have closed the flue in the other chimneys, and crammed a chair into each fireplace so the flu can't be forced open from the outside. In the living room we set our Santa trap. The living room has a big rug extending all the way from the fireplace to the far corner, where the Christmas tree is. We took the rug up, and poured over the floor two large boxes full of crinkly packing material. You know the kind -- sheets of plastic bubbles that go "pop" when you press them. Then we rolled the rug back. As the final touch, we put Caitlin's tape recorder on the mantel over the fire place, nestled inconspicuously among the ornaments. Before we go to bed at midnight, we'll turn it on. If Santa comes down that chimney and goes to that tree, we'll surely hear recorded the "pop, pop" of his passage.

1. A flying reindeer detector. If reindeer really fly, drawing Santa's sleigh to our roof, then they would have to pass between two sets of great trees that loom over our house, one at each end. There simply isn't any other way to approach our roof from the air except through the opening between these trees. So up the ladder I went one morning this week, Caitlin gallantly trying to hold the ladder steady. At one end of the house I tie a black thread to a tree limb. Then I toss the spool as hard as I can over the rooftop towards the far side. With a lot of fussing, I manage to fish the thread over, and climbing the ladder at the other end, I draw the thread tight and tie it to a tree branch. On the thread we have hung several tiny bells, designed as decorations but up to the task. Any reindeer that flies over this roof is going to ring our little bells. My tape recorder, turned on at midnight, will serve as our detector.

2. A Santa trap. Our house has several chimneys. To channel Santa's entry to the living room, Caitlin and I have closed the flue in the other chimneys, and crammed a chair into each fireplace so the flu can't be forced open from the outside. In the living room we set our Santa trap. The living room has a big rug extending all the way from the fireplace to the far corner, where the Christmas tree is. We took the rug up, and poured over the floor two large boxes full of crinkly packing material. You know the kind -- sheets of plastic bubbles that go "pop" when you press them. Then we rolled the rug back. As the final touch, we put Caitlin's tape recorder on the mantel over the fire place, nestled inconspicuously among the ornaments. Before we go to bed at midnight, we'll turn it on. If Santa comes down that chimney and goes to that tree, we'll surely hear recorded the "pop, pop" of his passage.

"Santa 'Fat But Fit,' Gettysburg College Prof Says"

While his belly may jiggle like a bowl full of jelly, Santa Claus is actually in remarkable health, according to Gettysburg College health and exercise sciences Prof. Dan Drury. "If you put Santa through an extensive battery of physical assessments, you would not believe your findings. He is actually in great shape and an electrocardiograph stress tests would reveal the heart of a marathon runner," Drury said. Drury suggests that Santa trains all year by carrying huge sacks of toys up and down stairs, a form of aerobic exercise. This functional approach to building muscle and stamina is unorthodox to say the least, yet is effective in building the muscular endurance necessary for serious gift delivery, Drury said. "Despite the fact that he suffers from a genetic propensity to store fat in the abdominal region, his circulatory system is a fine-tuned machine," Drury said. "Recent reports from the Cooper Institute for Aerobics and Fitness in Dallas have confirmed that it's better to be fat and fit than to be thin and sedentary. But don't let Santa's diet fool you. People often think Santa survives on cookies and milk. The truth is that Santa maintains a balanced diet for most of the year and only splurges around the holidays," Drury said. "He takes numerous supplements and eats five or six small meals each day. This approach keeps his cholesterol and triglycerides in check while keeping him in top shape for his grueling training regimen." Rest assured that Santa's health is intact and will be around for many Christmases to come.

In an exclusive interview with Science@NASA, Santa discusses his plans for Christmas on future space colonies.

On Christmas Eve, the Jolly Old Elf will brush the fireplace ash out of his beard, don his famous red suit, and begin the serious work of delivering presents all over the world. It's a job he's done in the same way for a long, long time, but times may be changing. As humans and space probes travel to other worlds, the possibility of Christmas on other planets can no longer be ignored, and the prospect of delivering presents throughout the solar system is, well, turning Santa's hair white.

In an exclusive interview, Science@NASA visited Santa Claus at his secret North Pole workshop. He took a break from final preparations to talk about how he'll maintain his legendary delivery system as humankind inhabits other worlds.

"The Moon won't be too much of a challenge," Santa told us. "I figure the lunar colonies will keep Earth time, so I'll just add them to my route. The reindeer will gripe about having to put on spacesuits, but we'll get used to it."

"Mars is going to start to stretch us a bit. See, it takes 687 days to go around the Sun. That's about two of our Earth years. So every other year I'll have two Christmas runs to make, the Earth-Moon run and the Mars run. We'll really have to 'haul Rudolph,' as the reindeer are fond of saying. Fortunately, a Martian day is 37 minutes longer than an Earth day, so we can still do our usual overnight delivery. Some of the planets have much shorter days than Earth! One thing that will help is NASA's new 3D maps of Mars. It's hard to get lost with that kind of data! ... Excuse me a moment."

One of the senior elves was asking about overtime to complete a special batch of toys.

"I worry about the elves," Santa continued. "They count on a slack period to fix the factory and invent new toys for next year. I'll have to hire more helpers if we're going to service the Moon and Mars, too."

What about the other planets?

"Well, I've given them some thought", explained Santa. "Take Venus, for example. It's a tough environment - high temperatures, and a thick, choking carbon dioxide atmosphere. Plus, the clouds are made of sulfuric acid. Talk about air pollution. Venus circles the sun every 224 days, so Christmas will come about every eight Earth months. That's a little more often than we're used to here on Earth, but it'll be easy to deliver all the presents in one night. Venus's day is 243 times longer than ours. I'll have all the time in the world - their world - to deliver. Everyone gets their presents on the same day, no matter when I deliver. Ho, ho, ho! It also spins the wrong way, I hope that doesn't make the reindeer sick!"

"Now, the closest planet to the Sun is Mercury," he went on, wagging his finger. Santa really knew a lot about the solar system.

"You'd think that Mercury would be the hottest planet, but Venus is actually a little warmer because of the greenhouse effect in its carbon dioxide atmosphere. That's not to say Mercury isn't hot -- it's scorching! Daytime temperatures reach 500 degrees C. The appealing thing about Mercury, at least for the kids, is that the planet's year is just 88 Earth days long. Imagine that! Christmas every 88 days. It's a bit too often if you ask me, but that's gravity for you."

Santa paused for a moment.

"Jupiter's the big challenge. If we actually build colonies on that planet, I'll have less than 10 hours to deliver everything. Nine hours and 55 minutes, to be exact. The giant planet is 11 times wider than Earth, but it rotates more than twice as fast!"

"Jupiter doesn't have a solid surface, so any future colonies will probably be suspended in the clouds. Jupiter's atmosphere is made of hydrogen, helium, methane, and ammonia. It's pretty toxic but not nearly as bad as Venus's atmosphere. We'll need special protective suits for both planets, which is bad news because the reindeer hate wearing anything besides bells."

"Jupiter is so far away I think I'll turn Europa, the third largest moon, into a branch office. It's entirely covered with ice, just like the North Pole here on Earth, so the elves would feel right at home."

"Of course we'll probably steer clear of Europa's neighbor Io," continued Santa. "Did you catch the latest Galileo images? Superheated lava pools, volcanoes erupting all over. It's not exactly the North Pole, if you know what I mean. Actually there is some snow on Io but it's all made of smelly sulfur compounds."

Santa paused again to initial some requisitions for spare parts for the sled.

"You know, it's a shame that Saturn is so far away," he went on wistfully. "What a lovely planet.... I'd love to cruise around those rings in my sleigh. But it's 9.5 times farther from the sun than Earth. It'll be a while before we have colonies out there," he opined.

"Uranus and Neptune are just the same. Pretty planets, nice gas giants, but very far away. Uranus has some pretty nasty storms, by the way -- have you seen those Space Telescope pictures?" he asked. "Mrs Claus says they're even better than the Weather Channel!"

"Now just suppose I was way out there at Uranus delivering toys, and I was ready to fly home. Uranus is 19 times farther from the sun than our planet. Do you realize it'll take almost 7 hours for me to radio a message back home? I always send Mrs. Claus a message to start warming up the hot cocoa, just before I head back to the North Pole. Why, I'll be home before the message arrives!" he exclaimed.

Did that mean that Santa can travel faster than light? Wouldn't that violate the laws of physics? Before we could pursue this amazing revelation, the Jolly Old Elf's face brightened, and he went on:

"Pluto... now that's the one that really interests me. It's the most distant planet by far, 39 times farther from the Sun than Earth. It takes 247 Earth years to go around the Sun just once. Think of it -- only one Christmas every 247 years! Plenty of time to retool between holidays. And the Plutonian day lasts six Earth days and 18 hours. I could really take my time delivering gifts. Not that it would take long anyway. Pluto's the tiniest planet in the solar system. Why, some people claim it's not a planet at all. Silly, that's what I say...of course it's a planet!"

"Pluto's got real possibilities," he warmed to his theme. "I say we've got to hurry up with planetary exploration. Mars tomorrow, then Jupiter and onward to Pluto! Once we get to Pluto, I might just set up shop there and the human race can keep my calendar. Christmas once every 247 years. That might make things a bit easier - I'm not as young as I once was...." Santa looked thoughtful.

Christmas only once every 247 years? Was Santa serious? Suddenly an impish smile crossed his face. "Now how many children would stand for Christmas once every 247 years?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye. "I suppose we'll just have to keep doing it once a year as always."

Just then Mrs. Claus quietly appeared from the kitchen and thrust a bag of cookies into our hands.

"You really must go, dears," she said. "He has a long night ahead of him, after all." We went to the front door and bade our farewells. The stars shone brightly in the clear Arctic sky. As we turned to our dog sleds to begin our journey home, we heard Santa's voice boom from within: "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"


The December 11th issue of Fermi News seeks to answer the perennial question of how Santa Claus can, in the course of a single night, deliver gifts to each of the world's 2 billion children. Even if a full-scale quantum computer were to work out the optimum course plan St. Nick must still cover a flight path of some 160 million km and stop at 800 million homes along the way. How does he do it? By traveling at close to the speed of light, of course, which, incidentally, also explains why (thanks to time dilation) Santa never seems to age. The Fermi News article helpfully addresses such questions as to how it is that the fat fellow can fit into Lorentz-contracted chimneys in the first place and how one can determine the color of the Doppler-shifted light emitted by Rudolph-the-rednosed-reindeer at sleigh velocities approaching the speed of light.


Yep, the technical term for the study of how reindeer fly.

Santa's answer:

Not all reindeer can fly, everyone knows that. So how do my reindeer fly? Well they are a rare breed indeed, but I have a team of elves that are dedicated to finding reindeer that are capable of what some call, the gas-bang theory.

This type of reindeer is so hard to find and that is why I've had the same reindeer for almost 179 years now. It also takes close to 350 years to train a reindeer, so you won't see any new ones for a long time because it takes a lot of work mastering gas-bang skills. So what are gas-bang skills?

Well the reindeer is capable of converting the gas generated from eating a lot of beans and cauliflower into a lighter gas than the oxygen found in the air. When this happens, it actually allows the reindeer to float, and the lighter the gas, the higher it can fly. And the reindeer that have been properly trained are able to control this gas properly so that it can safely fly at different altitudes.

As for steering, a combination of head movements and the unique shape of the hooves, allow the reindeer to guide my sleigh effectively.

And that's how my reindeer fly every Christmas Eve!

Did you ever wonder why the North Pole was chosen by ole Santa?

"Santa Claus at the North Pole"



Smith: "At the north pole you would see an endless horizon of chunks of floating ice. . .
It's a very boring terrain. "


Smith: " The north pole sits in the middle of the arctic ocean, the ocean most of the time
is basically full of ice.. . chunks of floating ice. . . this sea ice kind of grinds and crunches and floats around and moves with the ocean currents. "


Smith: "Its not the coldest place on earth. . . I think the average winter temperature
would be anoutn minus 30 farnehit. . .we have days that cold in chicago."


"Its extremely difficult to get there in any way, there's no land so there's no airports, the
fact that its choked with ice means its impossible for ships to get ther. . .there's no particular reason to go there. its one of thos places that sta off limits to everybody."


(sfx: santa song. . . )

Santa's Sleigh?

Direct from the man himself:

This knowledge has been top-secret for many centuries now, but I will let you in on some secrets. I am releasing some of this information for those sceptics who make me a subject of scientific debate.

For some people, knowing these truths won't be enough. My only response is that believing is seeing. That said, here's how it all works: Many people believe that because of the speed at which I must travel to deliver all the presents on time, I would burn up in the atmosphere. But you'll notice, I don't have problems with heat, after all, I'm always going down hot chimneys and fireplaces. To conquer these challenges, I use a combination of magic and an ion-shield of charged particles held together by a magnetic field, which surrounds my entire sleigh.

Astronomers agree that December has some of the most spectacular meteor showers, and it's no coincidence that the bulk of these shooting stars are witnessed on Christmas Eve. So if you see a shooting star at Christmas, make sure you think of me!

Ever wonder how Santa succeeds in dropping down a chimney and goes back up? The 1960's made a lot to do about pressing the side of his nose and "up he went". Nevertheless, this article offers some insight into the issue...maybe an answer? Hope there is no roaring fire.

The physics of Santa and the chimney: playful insights into a Christmas "mystery".

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...

So begins the familiar 19th century poem about Santa's visit to a household where…

...the children were nestled all snug in their beds
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.

For children and adults alike, this classic story invokes the magic of the Santa Claus legend. This holiday season, a Harvard University professor invites us to imagine one aspect of the story as a mystery waiting to be solved by the laws of physics.

The mystery is how Santa gets up and down each chimney. According to the fable, Santa parks his sleigh at every house, goes down the chimney, and delivers presents under the Christmas tree for the good boys and girls of the house. According to the poem-a definitive source for Santa facts-the trip down the chimney is described as something of a free-fall:

...Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound...

"If the typical household chimney is 30 feet tall, simply dropping down the chimney would be dangerous," points out Dudley Herschbach, a Harvard professor who finds this poem a fun way of illustrating science ideas in everyday terms. More than 350 Yuletides ago, Herschbach tells us, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei examined the motion of bodies falling under the constant acceleration of gravity. From Galileo's results, Herschbach says, one can calculate that in free-fall, Santa's descent would take about 1.4 seconds. "He'd hit the hearth at about 30 miles per hour," says Herschbach.

"So we can plausibly assume that Santa probably slides down a rope tethered to his sleigh on the rooftop," Herschbach concludes.

From the poem, we know that Santa is "chubby and plump," with a "little round belly that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly."

This gives Herschbach another clue on how Santa moderates his fall. "No doubt, by bumping his tummy on the bricks during descent he would further brake his downward plunge, while rappelling down his tether like a mountain climber," he says.

Going back up the chimney offers a much more challenging physics problem, says Herschbach. Santa could just climb, hauling himself hand over hand with his rope. But for such a chubby fellow that would be slow and strenuous, and much too demanding in view of his incredibly busy schedule. Even if Santa could leap like Michael Jordan, a quick jump up the chimney is also not feasible. With no room for a running approach, the jump would have to be from a standing start and the world record for a vertical high jump is only a few feet.

"To exceed that, and reach 30 feet, Santa would have to have means to blast off like a human rocket," Herschbach says.

Herschbach's simple calculations show that, in order to exit in a second or so, he would have to be subjected to uncomfortably strong forces. "Santa would emerge not merely tattered but fractured," says Herschbach.

Surely "laying his finger aside of his nose" is a telling clue, says Herschbach.

Santa's ascension can be understood through an intricate chain of events, according to Herschbach. "We can infer that in his cap he has a little electrical device, of a kind that would have delighted electricity pioneer Benjamin Franklin," he says. "The device evidently must be triggered by his finger, perhaps by interrupting a faint light beam near his glowing cheek. That would generate a photoelectric signal, by means elucidated in 1905 by Albert Einstein."

"The device could then send a radio signal to activate a winch on the sleigh, thereby winding up Santa's tether and enabling him effortlessly in the air."

Christmas Trees and Ornaments

It is from Germany that we today get many of our customs, songs, images of Santa, pine trees and European hand blow glass ornaments.

How these traditions traveled to England is interesting. Queen Victoria often visited relatives in Germany in the town of Coburg and while there she fell in love with a young Prince Albert. After they got married they returned to England to raise their family.

The tree that Price Albert provided his family was admired by all in England. This tree was decorated in the finest of hand blown glass ornaments. Since everyone liked the Queen they copied her Christmas customs including the Christmas tree and ornaments.

A. F.W. Woolworth brought the glass ornament tradition to the United States in 1890. From 1870's to 1930's, Germans made the finest molds for making ornaments with nearly 5,000 different molds at the time. At the turn of the century there were over one hundred small cottage glass blowing workshops in Europe. Today only two respected German factory teams are capable of producing ornaments to the precise specifications of the Christopher Radko collection.

During the hayday of turn of the century ornament making, almost all ornaments were made in Lauscha, a small town nested in the Thuringian mountains. After the war, however, glass ornament production declined. Many of the craftsmen left for West Germany. Quantity rather than quality, was the Communist management philosophy. Some old molds fell into disrepair and many others were left to collect dust or were lost.

In the 1960's it was fashionable to have an Aluminum tree and all the same shape and color ornaments. Many threw away the old ornaments from Germany.

It was in the 1980's that Christopher Radko brought back the old art of making the glass ornaments for all to enjoy.

King Tut never saw a Christmas tree, but he would have understood the tradition which traces back long before the first Christmas, says David Robson, Extension Educator, Horticulture with the Springfield Extension Center.

The Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrive, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life's triumph over death.

The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a fest called Saturnalia in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. They decorated their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. They gave coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps to light one's journey through life.

Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals. The Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and place evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.

Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. Our modern Christmas tree evolved from these early traditions.

Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. One crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ's birth.

The Christmas tree tradition most likely came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio, adds Robson.

But the custom spread slowly. The Puritans banned Christmas in New England. Even as late as 1851, a Cleveland minister nearly lost his job because he allowed a tree in his church. Schools in Boston stayed open on Christmas Day through 1870, and sometimes expelled students who stayed home.

The Christmas tree market was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal.

Christmas tree farms sprang up during the depression. Nurserymen couldn't sell their evergreens for landscaping, so they cut them for Christmas trees. Cultivated trees were preferred because they have a more symmetrical shape then wild ones.

Six species account for about 90 percent of the nation's Christmas tree trade. Scotch pine ranks first, comprising about 40 percent of the market, followed by Douglas fir which accounts for about 35 percent. The other big sellers are noble fir, white pine, balsam fir and white spruce.

Did a celebration around a Christmas tree on a bitter cold Christmas Eve at Trenton, New Jersey, turn the tide for Colonial forces in 1776? According to legend, Hessian mercenaries were so reminded of home by a candlelit evergreen tree that they abandoned their guardposts to eat, drink and be merry. Washington attached that night and defeated them.

The Christmas tree has gone through a long process of development rich in many legends, says David Robson, Extension Educator, Horticulture, with the Springfield Extension Center.

Some historians trace the lighted Christmas tree to Martin Luther. He attached lighted candles to a small evergreen tree, trying to simulate the reflections of the starlit heaven -- the heaven that looked down over Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve.

Until about 1700, the use of Christmas trees appears to have been confined to the Rhine River District. From 1700 on, when lights were accepted as part of the decorations, the Christmas tree was well on its way to becoming a tradition in Germany. Then the tradition crossed the Atlantic with the Hessian soldiers.

Some people trace the origin of the Christmas tree to an earlier period. Even before the Christian era, trees and boughs were used for ceremonials. Egyptians, in celebrating the winter solstice -- the shortest day of the year -- brought green date palms into their homes as a symbol of "life triumphant over death". When the Romans observed the feast of saturn, part of the ceremony was the raising of an evergreen bough. The early Scandinavians were said to have paid homage to the fir tree.

To the Druids, sprigs of evergreen holly in the house meant eternal life; while to the Norsemen, they symbolized the revival of the sun god Balder. To those inclined toward superstition, branches of evergreens placed over the door kept out witches, ghosts, evil spirits and the like.

This use does not mean that our Christmas tree custom evolved solely from paganism, any more than did some of the present-day use of sighed in various religious rituals.

Trees and branches can be made purposeful as well as symbolic. The Christmas tree is a symbol of a living Christmas spirit and brings into our lives a pleasant aroma of the forest. The fact that balsam fir twigs, more than any other evergreen twigs, resemble crosses may have had much to do with the early popularity of balsam fir used as Christmas.

The customary "Christmas stocking"--never knew this: What a delightful tale and significance of an orange placed in the toe of a sock.

In this political season polls and focus groups seem to be all the rage. It is a trend that isn't lost on us here at the North Pole. Before the season we get letters asking for all kinds of things. After the season, we get letters telling us how well we did. Based upon all that feedback, we make changes from season to season. If last year's letters are to be believed the biggest thing Santa can improve upon is the Christmas stocking.

Of course, most folks don't really understand the Christmas stocking.

Many just greedily hang the stocking without thought, although the adage says to do so "with care". Just hang that baby and hope this year's sugarplums will fit inside of it. The stocking is often the last thing looked at on Christmas morning. Compared to the dazzling tree and the array of Christmas splendor spread beneath it the stocking looks plain and anti-climatic. The stocking just can't get any respect.

The Christmas stocking was the first great icon of the season. Before there was a Christmas tree, the only place Santa put any gifts was in a Christmas stocking. That meant gifts were small and intimate in nature.

It began as the legend of Santa was still budding, nearly 2000 years ago.

There lived a man who had three daughters. They were poor. As the eldest daughter came of marrying age her father actually contemplated selling her into slavery because he could not provide a dowry for her to marry. In order to marry, the customs of the times dictated that a woman's family had to provide a dowry - a sum of money or article of value that could be presented to the groom as a token of loyalty and as a means of helping the new family to become financially viable.

Santa heard about his man's dilemma and could not stand the thought of the daughter's future in servitude. So, doing what Santa does, he delivered one fateful Christmas a gift of gold to solve the issue. Legend has it that he tossed the gold up over the roof and it went down the chimney, where it landed in the girl's stocking to be discovered on Christmas morning.

Personally, I think Santa just put it there himself. I've seen the man throw and he's not that good of a shot.

Some say it was a bag of gold, others say it was a ball of gold. This single act of giving from so long ago helps to explain why Santa these days will sometimes put an orange in the toe of a stocking. It is symbolic of the gold given as a saving gift so long ago.

Now that you know that story, does that change the way you view what is in your Christmas stocking?
I hope it does. Santa actually puts a lot of thought into the stuff of stockings.

For believers in Santa everywhere, the Christmas stocking is special beyond words. It is not merely a place for Santa to cram more stuff. It is a conduit. It is a means of personal, quick communication with Santa Claus.

Last Christmas, one of the brighter elves in the Public Relations Department put out a suggestion that kids everywhere should write Santa a note of appreciation and stick it in their stockings on Christmas Eve. Millions did so - and Santa was touched beyond measure, saying to Mrs. Claus upon his return home that he had had the best Christmas ever.

Well-meaning and grateful kids have done so for centuries. In some countries, leaving a note or a drawing for Santa is as big a tradition as leaving out the cookies and the milk.

For those of you who take the time to write letters, on behalf of the employees in Santa's post office and indeed for all of us at the North Pole, I thank you. If we can do things better, we certainly want to know about it. But on some things, we need a better understanding. The Christmas stocking is one of those things. Good things come in small packages…and small packages fit nicely in a stocking.

Mistletoe...the saviour for nerds and nerdettes at Christmas time.

"Mistletoe a Christmas poem"


Walter de la Mare

Sitting under the mistletoe (Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen - and kissed me there.

Okay, what's with the mistletoe?

"What Does Mistletoe Have To Do With Christmas?"


Frank H. Tainter

Not many generations ago, before the advent of television and home entertainment centers, neighbors and relatives frequently visited each other for fellowship and did so especially during the holidays. A common custom at Christmas-time was for the homemaker to place a sprig of mistletoe above a door frame or hang it from the ceiling of the dwelling. During the frequent get-togethers, any female who lingered there was fair game for a harmless kiss from nearby males. During the Yule season, mistletoe plants were sold in the market place and were as plentiful there as holly and the other widely used Christmas greenery. Today, greenery is still much used, but the use of mistletoe is seldom practiced even though almost everyone has heard of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. In an era of televised and widely accepted sexual freedom such a custom seems sweetly quaint and naive and perhaps is not sophisticated enough to survive our modern moral standards. Mistletoes are flowering plants (angiosperms) that obtain their nutrition by living on and parasitizing other plants. This relationship was observed across the European continent by ancient peoples who were so impressed with these plants that the mistletoe became interwoven into legends, myths, and religious beliefs. It will be my purpose to acquaint the reader with the historic origins of some of these customs, especially with those on the European continent, and why they have survived to some extent to the present day. What Are Mistletoes? Mistletoes are parasitic plants that directly derive all or most of their nutrition from other flowering plants during most or all of their life cycle. There are approximately 3,000 parasitic angiosperms in 15 plant families, and almost all are dicotyledonous. Although many parasitic plants contain functional chlorophyll, they depend on their plant hosts for most, or at least some, of their carbon requirements and for all of their other nutrient and water needs. By parasitizing other higher plants, they have a competitive advantage over many other forms of life because they do not have to compete in soil for their water and nutrient needs. The mistletoes originated in the tropics, where soils are typically poor in nutrition and competition within the soil between plants and microorganisms is fierce. At the end of the last Pleistocene glaciation event of 18,000 years ago, there was an active northward and southward migration and evolution of some of the mistletoes. The group of parasitic plants collectively known as the mistletoes are contained in four families, but only two of these, the Viscaceae and Loranthaceae, are of widespread importance. The family Loranthaceae is large and contains at least nine genera, most of which are abundant in the tropics. Most species have large, showy flowers and attack a variety of tree hosts. The family Viscaceae contains several genera, but only Phoradendron and Viscum are important in the legends and myths relating to the mistletoes. On the European continent Viscum album was the major species with which primitive man interacted and which formed the basis for many myths, legends, and religious beliefs. This may have been because the mistletoe plant grew on oak trees, which were revered by many early European tribes, or because it retained its leaves in autumn when the oaks defoliated. When fresh, its leaves had a yellowish-green color, and its stems were a yellowish color. After it was cut and dried, the plant developed a golden yellow hue. In the southern half of the U. S., where the European mistletoe does not occur, Phoradendron spp. are the common leafy mistletoe. They are very similar in appearance to the European mistletoe. Species of Arceuthobium are known as dwarf mistletoes because of their lack of leaves and reduced visible growth habit. They were of much less importance in the mistletoe legends, partially because they were relatively inconspicuous, and also because they were not present to any great extent on the European continent. They were abundant on the North American continent, but were of only minor importance in folklore as Europeans settled in northeastern North America. With the native American people, mistletoe seems to have been more important for its pharmaceutical properties than for its role in folklore. History As ancient European people interacted with their environment and began to reason why certain things were the way they were, they developed an intense interest in trees. Possibly because of the many amenities derived from trees, and especially the oaks, trees came to be worshiped by these early Europeans. This eventually led to another Christmas ritual that has survived almost to the present, along with the seasonal ritual use of mistletoe. As part of a series of rituals, they burned logs around the time of the winter solstice. After conversion of the people to Christianity, the tradition of burning logs was changed to begin early on Christmas eve. A log was to be kept burning all night, and this culminated in a great celebration on Christmas morning. This yuletide custom of burning the Yule log was widely practiced until only a few decades ago, and probably ceased with the advent of centralized heating. The decline in the use of mistletoe probably was due to other factors. Although the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (370 to 270 BC) described the common European leafy mistletoe, it was Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 BC) who wrote detailed descriptions of the attitude of some people toward the mistletoe. He recorded the widely held belief that whatever grew on the sacred oak was sent from heaven and, since mistletoe was only occasionally found on the oak, it was indeed cause for celebration when it was encountered. Pliny also recorded the belief that the mistletoe in winter contained the life of the oak after it had lost its leaves the preceding autumn. It was believed that the mistletoe plant was protected in some mystical sense from injury or harm. If it was cut from the oak, it retained some of these mystical powers, which could be channeled as healing powers. However, if it touched the ground after it was harvested, its healing powers would be lost. While mistletoe played an important part in some later Greek and Nordic myths and legends, its relationship with the ancient Celts, who lived in ancient Gaul, Britain, and Ireland, is one of the earliest known examples of the importance of mistletoe. The Druids, who were the priests of a Celtic religious order, regarded the leafy mistletoes as having mystical properties and worshiped them. This belief in mystical properties was due, at least in part, to the fact that mistletoes often grew on the branches of the revered oak tree. In the autumn, as the length of the day decreased, religious significance was focused on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the entire year. The people observed that the mistletoe plants growing on the oaks retained their leaves while at the same time the oaks lost theirs. During the winter, the golden boughs of the mistletoe plant, with its yellow-green leaves and large white berries, seemed to be a remarkable phenomenon, and thus, the mistletoe plant was believed to have mystical properties. The Druids also had a ceremony at Midsummer Eve which involved cutting a mistletoe plant from an oak tree with a golden sickle to initiate a ceremony in which animals and human beings were slain and burned. When the Celts were later Christianized, they may have found it difficult to completely abandon their respect for the mistletoe plant, and it somehow became incorporated into a supposedly harmless custom which the early Christian church overlooked, even though it was widely practiced by its members. While a feeling of veneration for mistletoe was widely shared by early European peoples, it was the Greeks who incorporated mistletoe into some of their myths and legends. The "Golden Bough" of Virgil's hero, Aeneas, was in fact mistletoe (5). Aeneas was arbitrarily chosen by the Latin poets to be the mythical progenitor of the Roman people. It was Aeneas' wish to visit hell, but on his way there he first had to pass through a vast and gloomy forest. Two doves guided him to a tree bearing a mistletoe plant. He took the golden bough, and with its flickering light he was able to pass through the forest. When he emerged from the forest and showed the bough to the reluctant ferryman at the river Styx, both were immediately transported to the nether world. Such was the power of the mistletoe plant! Another popular myth that involved mistletoe was that of the Norse god Balder. The myth held that the heavenly bodies, which included the gods, were created fresh every day. Odin, Balder's father, tried to help prolong Balder's life beyond that day and extracted a promise from all living beings not to harm him. However, he overlooked the mistletoe, and during archery practice, a rival gave an arrow made from a twig of mistletoe to Balder=s blind brother who accidentally shot Balder and killed him. This doesn't make too much sense to us today, but it probably made good logic at that time within the constraints of a myth. Probably as a result of trial and error, mistletoe plants were also found to have certain medicinal properties, and knowledge of these characteristics undoubtedly contributed to the mystical nature of mistletoe. In the ancient language of the Druids, mistletoe meant "all-healing." Some attributes were undoubtedly based in truth. However, others were certainly based on faulty reasoning. For example as late as 1900, an interesting use of mistletoe was for the treatment of epilepsy, which two millennia earlier was documented by Pliny. The rationale was that since mistletoe was rooted in the branch of a tree, and could not possibly fall to the ground, so too, an epileptic who took a decoction of mistletoe or carried it in his pocket could not possibly fall to the ground. A good review of pharmaceutical and other uses of mistletoes is given in Gill and Hawksworth. From the Middle Ages to the last century, the literature is filled with examples of different uses for mistletoe plants, especially among rural people. It was cut, tied in bunches, and hung in front of cottages to scare away passing demons. It was hung over doors of stables to protect horses and cattle against witchcraft. In Sweden, it was kept in houses to prevent fire. It Italy it was believed to be able to extinguish fire. It was widely held to be a universal healer. As a potion it would make barren animals conceive. Even Pliny had known it was a cure for epilepsy, and that it could be used to promote conception. It healed ulcers if chewed. In Wales it was thought that, if placed under a pillow, mistletoe would induce dreams of omen. There were various customs in several countries that utilized mistletoe plants in rituals to find treasure. Collectively, these customs prove that mistletoe had a profound effect on people's lives and imaginations. When Christianity became widespread in Europe after the 3rd century AD, the religious or mystical respect for the mistletoe plant was integrated to an extent into the new religion. In some way that is not presently understood, this may have led to the widespread custom of kissing under the mistletoe plant during the Christmas season, possibly relating to the belief in the effects on fertility and conception. The earliest documented case of kissing under the mistletoe dates from 16th century England, a custom that was apparently very popular at that time. Much less is known about early historical aspects of the dwarf mistletoes. Because the plants of the dwarf mistletoes were small in size and not very abundant on the European continent, there is no record that ancient peoples of this region took any interest in the dwarf mistletoes. Although there are several species of dwarf mistletoes (Arceuthobium) in the European, Asian, and African continents, their most extensive development occurred in Central and North America, where there are over 3 dozen species of dwarf mistletoes. One of the smallest and most evolutionarily advanced species is Arceuthobium pusillum, which is found mainly in the spruce forests of eastern Canada and the eastern United States. The leafy mistletoes do not occur there because it is too cold in winter. However, even though the leafy mistletoes were not found there, Fernald states that the women of the St. John and St. Lawrence River valleys wore sprigs of dwarf mistletoe in their hair while attending dances, following the European custom of women wearing leafy mistletoe in their hair, long before this species of dwarf mistletoe was known to science. Biology of Mistletoe Most parasitic higher plants use a similar process of infection. Upon germination, a root-like structure, called a radicle, emerges from the germinated seed and grows along the branch surface by a process known as thigmotropism. When it encounters an irregularity in the bark, the radicle will produce a swelling called a holdfast. A cementing substance may be secreted to bind the holdfast to the bark. A wedge-shaped structure, called a penetration peg, then forms to penetrate into the cortex of the host. Once established in the host's cortex, an intimate connection forms between phloem and xylem cells of the mistletoe and the phloem and xylem cells of the host, and the mistletoe plant then absorbs nutrients and water. These connections form structures called sinkers. One year or more after the mistletoe plant has infected the host, it will begin to produce the foliar parts of the plant. The mistletoe plant grows larger, producing a branched, golden-colored woody stem and yellow-green to dark green leathery leaves. The chlorophyll of leafy mistletoes is functional and photosynthesis is sufficient to supply all of their carbon needs. In mid-autumn small, round, pearl-like berries form, and these enlarge to maturity in early winter. After they are mature, birds eat the berries and the seeds are carried away to begin new infections or the berries simply break off the plant and fall to lower branches to initiate new infections on the same tree or on understory vegetation. Leafy mistletoe plants are perennial and remain alive within their respective host until the tree host, or the branch upon which it is established, dies. Since the leafy mistletoes can photosynthesize enough carbon to meet their needs, they only need to extract water, and whatever mineral nutrients the water contains, from their hosts. Thus, while they are obligate parasites in that they can only live and reproduce on a living host, they do not necessarily cause a debilitating nutritional drain on the host. A single infection on one branch, or only a few infections on an otherwise vigorously growing tree, seems to cause no noticeable harm to the tree. Often, though, that portion of a branch beyond the point of a single infection may become stunted in growth and even die prematurely. Multiple infections, sometimes dozens or even hundreds on a single tree, may produce a significant stress to the host tree that can either kill it outright or create stressful conditions attractive to secondary disease pests and insects that then cause premature death. Seed dissemination of the leafy mistletoes is largely passive. The leafy mistletoes have a single-seeded berry which, when mature, contains viscin, a watery-sticky substance. Some local dissemination results when mature seeds are washed downward onto lower branches. Most distant dissemination occurs when birds feed on mistletoe berries or seeds. The seeds then either pass uninjured through the bird's digestive system or they adhere to the bird's plumage and feet and are removed during preening. Thus, dispersal of the seeds occurs wherever the bird defecates or preens its foliage. The vsicin coating of each seed consists of numerous slender, spring-like cells that are embedded in a mucilaginous substance. Following dispersal, these viscin cells wrap around irregularities on the bark and help to glue the seed in place until it germinates and initiates a new infection. In Europe viscin was long used for the manufacture of birdlime, a sticky substance used to trap birds. Infection by leafy mistletoes produces a slight, spindle-shaped swelling on the host at the infection site. If one makes a cross section through the swelling, the mistletoe tissues (mostly sinkers) will be a bright yellow-green or green in color and are easily distinguished from host tissues. The dark yellow-green to green woody stems are rather coarse in appearance and with relatively smooth but somewhat wrinkled bark. The leafy mistletoes are generally not considered a serious enough threat to warrant the need for control measures. Exceptions might include fruit orchards, intensively managed plantations, or historically valuable or visually important specimen trees. In North America, the range of leafy mistletoes does not extend north of a line drawn across the United States from approximately Oregon to New Jersey, as they are susceptible to freezing temperatures. There are about a dozen species of Phoradendron in the U.S. They occur mostly on hardwood tree species, but some also occur on juniper, cypress, and incense cedar. Phoradendron flavescens attacks pecans in Florida, citrus in Texas, and walnuts and persimmons in California. Phoradendron juniperinum libocedri and P. bolleanum pauciflorum cause significant losses on incense cedar and white fir in California. Today, leafy mistletoes are commonly encountered on many urban and forest hardwood tree species. In a well-documented case, the famous horticulturist, Luther Burbank, imported the common European mistletoe into California in the early 1900s, and it has subsequently spread into the surrounding landscape on 24 species including willow, alder, poplar, elm, mountain ash, crabapple, and pear. In its native Europe, this mistletoe also attacks apple, almond, cherry, pine, fir, and poplar in parks, orchards, forests, and plantations. Physical removal by cutting out infections of leafy mistletoes is certainly warranted in some situations. Care must be taken to remove all of the infection in the branch, as any living mistletoe tissues that remain are capable of regenerating into whole plants. The cut branches do not have to be burned or destroyed because the mistletoe plants die quickly. Some experimentation with herbicides suggests that these might be of value in less intensively managed forest situations, but are probably not economically justified. A quarantine of infected plant materials would not seem to be difficult, as the mistletoes require living hosts in order to survive for extended periods of time in forms other than as seeds. The eradication of mistletoes around nurseries should ensure mistletoe-free seedlings. On the other hand, during the last century growth of mistletoe was encouraged in the western United States so that the foliage could be used as a supplemental cattle feed during especially harsh winters and coincidentally to harvest and sell during the Christmas season. In some gardens and arboreta mistletoe is propagated as a valued horticultural oddity. Today, most of the mystical aspects of the mistletoes are not celebrated. Certainly we have a more realistic understanding of their pharmaceutical and medicinal properties. However, I think that most of the interest in them is based on their unique parasitic nature, perhaps similar to that observed in ancient times. But, our modern interest is based on the physiology of this parasitic nature in many different host-parasite interactions and the complex series of events during their evolution which resulted in their formation and development. Let us hope, though, that the old custom of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas time is not lost. Short information on the organics of Christmas: Mistletoe, Frankincense, and Myrrh Mistletoe [Tyramine]: A "vasopressor" but kissing your favorite under the Mistletoe would raise your blood pressure naturally. Tyramine is a strong, poisonous alkaloid. "Mistletoe berries contain toxic amines and proteins which cause gastroenteritis when ingested, unpleasant and often fatal. One of the glycoproteins found in mistletoe is classified as a lectin. Lectins can cause cells to agglutinate (adhere) or undergo mitosis and transformation. Uncontrolled lectin activity in the body is lethal, the person dying from massive antigen-antibody reaction.

Frankincense: Harmless, dried resin from the genus Boswellia tree and basically used as incense. It can still be purchased.

Myrrh: A resin as is Frankincense and it was used as an anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, and as a tonic. Basic continuant is myrrholic acid with a host of many other chemicals. It was incidentally also used in embalming.

And, here are three more plants associated with Christmas:

Christmas Cactus
Scientific name(s): various Schlumbergera (Zygocactus) species or cultivated hybrids, especially Schlumbergera x buckleyi Plant family: Cactaceae-Cactus family Other common names: Orchid Cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii, photo by Reid Moran The Christmas Cactus is a succulent perennial which lacks spines and is native to the South American tropics of Brazil. Like many tropical cacti, this holiday favorite is an epiphyte, which means it lives on other plants. Unlike a parasitic plant that obtains nutrients from its host, epiphytes just use their host as substrate, a place to live. The genus (Schlumbergera) to which the Christmas Cactus belongs is one of the most widely cultivated and enjoyed groups of cacti in the world. They have been extensively hybridized by artificial means in order to produce a wide range of different colored flowers, including magenta, white, pink, salmon, and orange. The closely related Thanksgiving Cactus or Crab Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata, syn. Zygocactus trucata) is also common in horticulture and may even be one of the parent species of the hybrid Christmas Cactus. The showy flowers produced by these cacti are pollinated in nature by birds. Do Christmas Cacti have leaves? The green, flattened, leaf-like structures that make up the majority of a Christmas Cactus are actually modified stem segments called cladodes. The stems of our local species of prickly-pears or nopals (Opuntia spp.) are also called cladodes since they too are flattened and leaf-like. In most cacti, the leaves have been modified into spines which have many different functions for the plant, or as in the Christmas Cactus, the leaves and spines are absent. What does day length and darkness have to do with holiday flowers? Various plant species require cues from the environment to regulate the timing of certain events, like flowering. This mechanism called photoperiodism occurs when plants initiate flowering or other activities in response to relative lengths of daylight and darkness. In winter, the days get shorter and the nights get longer. This is a very important indicator to some plant species, e.g., Christmas Cactus, Poinsettia, and some Chrysanthemum species, to stimulate them to start flowering. In these species it is actually the longer period of darkness, not the brevity of light, that seems to be important in helping them to recognize their appropriate flowering times. Commercial growers have been able to manipulate flowering times by artificially changing light regimes in greenhouse settings in order to induce plants to flower at a particular time of the year, e.g., Poinsettias in bloom during the holidays. Although many of our favorite holiday flowers are "short-day" plants since they require at least 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness to stimulate flowering, it should be noted that some plants are "day-neutral" and are capable of flowering regardless of the amount of light (or darkness) they receive each day. In these species, flowering is controlled by other factors.

Plant family: Aquifoliaceae (Holly family) Other common names: American Holly, English Holly, Christmas Holly Holly is a plant frequently utilized to "deck our halls" during the holiday season. The boughs used to decorate typically are cuttings from any evergreen trees or shrubs in the genus Ilex. The most common holly species used are Ilex opaca from the eastern United States and Ilex aquifolium from Eurasia. Both species have spiny-margined, evergreen leaves, and usually exhibit red berries. Are male or female holly plants most often used in holiday decorating? If you are decorating with holly that has red berries, then you are using pistillate "female" plants. Many holly species are dioecious, which means that staminate "male" and pistillate "female" reproductive organs are separated on different individual plants. This sexual condition (dioecy) with individual plants bearing separate sexes promotes cross-fertilization, or outcrossing, which increases the genetic variability of the species but usually at the cost of lower seed-setting efficiency. Dioecy also prevents isolated individuals from reproducing on their own most of the time. Therefore, in most cases it is necessary that male and female plants grow in close proximity, or no red berries will be produced on the female plants for use during the holidays. The Desert-Holly (Atriplex hymenelytra) that commonly grows in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and in northeastern Baja California is not closely related to the holly (Ilex spp.) used during the holiday season. Although their common names suggest a close relationship, the name refers to its sharply-toothed leaves. Desert-Holly is a saltbush in the Chenopodiaceae (Goosefoot family) that is actually more closely related to beets (Beta vulgaris) and pickleweeds (Salicornia spp.) than to the evergreen decorative holly. In the Cape region of Baja California Sur, there is a species of holly (Ilex californica) that can be found naturally occurring in the Sierra de la Laguna.

Scientific name: Euphorbia pulcherrima Plant family: Euphorbiaceae (Spurge family) Other common names: Christmas Flower, Cuetlayochitl (by the Aztecs), Lobster Flower, Flame-Leaf Flower, Flor de Noche Buena ("Flower of the Holy Night," i.e., Christmas Eve) The plant that is responsible for the majority of commercial plant sales during the holiday season in our region is the Poinsettia. This species is a perennial shrub with white milky sap that can grow up to six feet (2m) tall and is native to Mexico. The Poinsettia is usually classified in the genus Euphorbia subgenus Poinsettia, although some taxonomists recognize this subgenus at the generic level so you might occasionally see the scientific name as Poinsettia pulcherrima. Although Euphorbia pulcherrima is not native to our region, in the southern part of Baja California Sur there is another closely related species (Euphorbia cyathophora) that looks somewhat similar to the cultivated Poinsettia by having reddish-colored bracts surrounding the flowers. This weedy species commonly occurs in the eastern and central United States, Mexico, and Central America. Euphorbia misera, photo courtesy of Norm Roberts The Poinsettia is named in honor of Joel Robert Poinsett, an American ambassador to Mexico who introduced this plant species to the United States in the 1820s by bringing cuttings from Mexico back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Although Poinsettias are used now mainly for decoration, the sap has been used by some cultures to control fevers, and the floral bracts were once used to make a reddish dye. In order to induce this plant species to flower, at least a few weeks of more than 12 hours of darkness each day are required. Therefore, commercial growers have to "fool" the plant in greenhouse conditions by artificially manipulating the length of daylight and darkness periods in order to get the plants in a flowering state during our holiday season. A flower or not a flower? That is the question... Flowers are not always as they appear to be. Generally, we tend to think of pretty blooms as individual flowers, no matter what their size. However, sometimes what appears to be a single flower may actually be a grouping of smaller flowers that together look like an individual flower. Some of the best examples of this arrangement exist in the Asteraceae (Compositae), the Sunflower or Daisy family. Some composite "flowers" actually have two different types of flowers making them up. For example, if you think of what a common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) looks like, the yellow outer petal-like structures are each individual flowers called ray flowers, and the many brown structures in the center are also individual flowers called disk flowers. So the next time that you start pulling off "petals" of a daisy and chanting "he loves me, he loves me not," realize that you are actually pulling off individual flowers and not petals, as you may have thought. This same general concept can also be encountered in Poinsettias, but it is even a bit more derived. The most conspicuous parts of the Poinsettia "flower" are brightly colored (usually red) bracts, which are actually modified leaves. In the center of these circles of bracts are several smaller greenish structures that are grouped together. Each one of these structures, called a cyathium or pseudanthium, is actually a small grouping of individual flowers that lack petals and have only one sex (staminate = male or pistillate = female). Therefore, unlike most composite flowers, individual flowers in Euphorbia species do not have their own petals. It should be noted that not all Poinsettias have red bracts. Different cultivated varieties of Poinsettias have varying bract colors including pink, white, or green.

With no integration of the religious significance other than "tis the season", it is interesting to discover the event associated with the birth of the historical Jesus--the alleged "Star of Bethlehem". Real or an addition to add to the story? Sorting out the verifiable facts and the historical time span is a bit complex. It is known that King Herod ["Herod the Great"] fits into this time slot and King Herod was even mentioned in Matthew. Now [debatable] King Herod died sometime in 4 B.C. Scholarly research has even placed King Herod's death at 1 B.C.. I'll leave all of that the historical and theological scholars for it gets quite complex when consulting documented historical references and interpretations.

This is the only Biblical reference found in Matthew--Luke mentions nothing about the "star". [Note: Both books were written 80-90 years after the event.]

Matthew 2:1--2:

"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.""

Matthew 2:7--10:

"Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy."

Okay, now to the astronomical ideas. Again, we are dealing with a culture over two thousand years old and definitions and attitudes towards astronomy was different. Such is the definition of a star which could mean a meteor, comet, or the conjunction of planets. However you look at it, it was bright. Comets can be ruled out for they were associated with bad events--not a good thing with the positive aspects of a Jewish messiah. Meteors move too fast and short of duration. So, what's left? Planet conjunctions. It just so happens that there were two events [planet conjunctions] that happened within that time span: Triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces in 7 B.C. and near-conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in Pisces in February 6 B.C.. These would produce a bright fixture in the heavens. And the Jews placed a lot of astrological significance in the events of Saturn and Jupiter. The first planet conjunction happened around 7 B.C. in May when the Babylonian "Wise Men" [astronomers/astrologers of the highest rank] may have begun their sojourn. The second planet conjunction happened a few months later in September when the Wise Men were visiting King Herod and set his paranoia into motion with their revelation that a new king was at hand. Stories get twisted for the actual number of "Magi" was never given at first and later stated as three. Their status changed too. And, they were ignorant of the ethnicity of the "new king". Nevertheless, and despite the historical speculations, it is quite possible that the "Star of Bethlehem" was a conjunction of several planets.

Toys? Consider the old days in Finland--batteries not needed.

Käpylehmä (plural: Käpylehmät), or "cone cows", were traditional homemade toys in Finland. Cone cows were made by children using material found in nature. The most common design is a spruce or pine cone with sticks for legs, which can easily be attached by forcing them between the cone scales. Playing with cone cows usually involved building an animal enclosure from sticks. For the most part, cone cows have been displaced by manufactured toys, at least in affluent countries.

Miracle on 34th Street

Bad logic, but a great story Santa's authenticity is in doubt and winds up in a New York court. How do you prove with authority, accepted by all, of Santa's genuine status? The sharp attorney has the idea of making an appeal to authority. [That right there is an informal fallacy.] The lawyer appeals to an institution that we trust and consider a fountain of authority--the United States Government. Yes, the Unites States Government--ultimate sources of validity next to God. And what part of the government will offer credence. Why of course, the United States Postal Service. Why them? The vein of reasons is that millions of children send Santa letters and it is the function of the United States Post Office to deliver the same and in essence recognize Santa's postal address. Convoluted logic, but, nevertheless, concludes the authenticity of Santa by a bona fide branch of the United States Government. Case closed. Any questions? Before you ask, remember the "coal" threat.

A little more serious...history of Santa


Santa Claus hasn't always looked like the jolly old fellow we know today. Like so many other American traditions, he's a product of the great American melting pot - a blend of many different cultures and customs. His earliest ancestors date back to pre-Christian days, when sky-riding gods ruled the earth. The mythological characters Odin, Thor, and Saturn gave us the basis for many of Santa's distinctive characteristics.

But the most influential figure in the shaping of today's generous as loving Santa Claus was a real man. St. Nicholas of Myra (now Turkey), a fourth century bishop. As a champion of children and the needy, he was legendary for his kindness and generosity.


In a well known story illustrating St, Nicholas' benevolence, we find two of the basic principles of the holiday spirit - giving to others and helping the less fortunate - as well as the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace.

According to this legend, there were three Italian maidens whose families had fallen on hard times. Because their father could not afford the dowries necessary for them to marry, he was considering selling one of his daughters into slavery to get dowries for the other two. When the good saint heard of the family's plight, he went to their home late one night and anonymously tossed three bags of gold down the chimney. Miraculously, a bag fell into each of the sisters stockings, were hanging by the fire to dry. His kindhearted gift made it possible for all three sisters to marry.

A variation of this story is that as each girl was ready to wed, St. Nicholas came in the middle of the night when no one could see him and tossed a bag of gold through an open window into her stocking. The idea of gifts being delivered through an open window may have begun as a way to explain how Santa enters homes that have no chimney.


Because of his wisdom and sensitivity, many groups claimed St. Nicholas as their patron saint. Children, orphans, sailors, and even thieves often prayed to the compassionate saint for guidance and protection. Entire countries, including Russia and Greece, also adopted him as their patron saint, as well as students and pawnbrokers.

Throughout his life, St. Nicholas tried to help others while inspiring the to imitate his virtues. Legends of his unselfish giving spread all over Northern Europe, and accounts of his heroic deeds blended with regional folklore. Eventually, the image of the stately saint was transformed onto an almost mystical being, one known for rewarding the good and punishing the bad.

The date of his death, December 6th, was commemorated with an annual feast, which gradually came to mark the beginning of the medieval Christmas season. On St. Nicholas' Eve, youngsters would set out food for the saint, straw for his horses and schnapps for his attendant. The next morning, obedient children awoke to find their gifts replaced with sweets and toys, found their offering untouched , along with a rod or a bundle of switched. St. Nicholas' Day is still observed in many countries, and gifts are exchanged in honor of the spirit of brotherhood and charity that he embodied.


After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the feasting and veneration of Catholic saints were banned. But people had become accustomed to the annual visit from their gift-giving saint and didn't want to forget the purpose of the holiday. So in some countries, the festivities of St. Nicholas' Day were merged with Christmas celebrations, and although the gift-bearer took on new, non-religious forms, he still reflected the saints generous spirit.

In Germany, he appeared as Weihnachtsmann, in England as Father Christmas, and in France, as Pèrè Noël, who left small gifts in the children's shoes.

In the areas where St. Nicholas was still portrayed as the gift-bearer, a host of other characters developed to be his assistants. Two of his most well-known helpers were Knecht Ruprecht and the Belsnickle. Depending on the local tradition, they were either attendants to St. Nicholas or gift-bears themselves, but in all cases, both were fearsome characters, brandishing rods and switches. It was not only their dusty to reward good children but also to reprove children who were naughty and couldn't recite their prayers.

Knecht Ruprecht (meaning Servant Rupert) was also by other names such as Black Peter (so called because he delivered the presents down the chimney for St. Nicholas and became blackened with soot).

In some places, the images, of Knecht Ruprecht and St. Nicholas merged to form Ru Klaus (meaning Rough Nicholas - so named because of his rugged appearance), Aschen Klaus (meaning Ash Nicholas - because he carried a sack of ashes as well as a bundle of switches), and Pelznickle (meaning Furry Nicholas - referring to his fur clad appearance).

Not all of St. Nicholas' companions were frightening. In fact, the Christkindl (meaning Christ Child) was thought to accompany him in many countries. Often portrayed by a fair-haired young girl, this angelic figure was sometimes the gift-bearer too.


Immigrants to the New World brought along their various beliefs when they crossed the Atlantic. The Scandinavians introduced gift-giving elves, the Germans brought not only their Belsnickle and Chistkindle but also their decorated trees and the Irish contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of placing a lighted candle in the window.

In the 1600's, the Dutch presented Sinterklaas (meaning St. Nicholas) to the colonies. In their excitement, many English-speaking children uttered the name so quickly that Sinterklaas sounded like Santy Claus. After years of mispronunciation, the name evolved into Santa Claus.

In 1808, American author Washington Irving created a new version of old St. Nick. This one rode over the treetops in a horse drawn wagon "dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites." In his satire, Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad brimmed hat. Also, the familiar phrase, "...laying his finger beside his nose...," first appeared in Irving's story.

That phrase was used again in 1822 in the now-classic poem by Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," more commonly know as "The Night Before Christmas." His verse gave an Arctic flavor to Santa's image when he substituted eight tiny reindeer and a sleigh for Irving's horse and wagon. It is Moore's description of Santa that we most often think of today: "He had a broad face, and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly."

Up to this point, Santa's physical appearance and the color of his suit were open to individual interpretation. Then in 1863, Thomas Nast, a German immigrant, gave us a visual image of the cheerful giver that was to later become widely accepted.

When Nast was asked to illustrate Moore's charming verse for a book of children's poems, he gave us a softer, kinder Santa who was still old but appeared less stern than the ecclesiastical St. Nicholas. He dressed his elfin figure in red and endowed him with human characteristics. Most important of all, Nast gave Santa a home at the North Pole. For twenty-three years, his annual drawings in Harpers Weekly magazine allowed Americans to peek into the magical world of Santa Claus and set the stage for the shaping of today's merry gentleman.

Artist Haddon Sundblom added the final touches to Santa's modern image. Beginning in 1931, his billboard and other advertisements for Coca Cola-Cola featured a portly, grandfatherly Santa with human proportions and a ruddy complexion. Sunblom's exuberant, twinkle-eyed Santa firmly fixed the gift-giver's image in the public mind.

St. Nicholas' evolution into today's happy, larger-than-life Santa Claus is a wonderful example of the blending of countless beliefs and practices from around the world. This benevolent figure encompasses all the goodness and innocence of childhood. And because goodness is his very essence, in every kindness we do, Santa will always be remembered.

Some books:

Can Reindeer Fly?: The Science of Christmas

Roger Highfield

ISBN: 0753813661

The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey

Roger Highfield

ISBN: 0316366951

Snow Crystals

Wilson A. Bentley

ISBN: 0844616605

And so this comes to an end.
Be not a Scrooge and share whatever you have to offer,
for this special spirit comes but once a year...
and then we do it again.

Hope you enjoyed a little Santa and Christmas fun...


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