Christmas with The Naked Scientists

Presents missing, Santa AFK, how will the team save Christmas?
17 December 2021
Presented by Harrison Lewis
Production by Harrison Lewis.


The Naked Scientists


Ever wondered what it's like behind the scenes at The Naked Scientists? Well, here's your chance! Grab yourself a nice warm mug of cocoa nestle down by the decorated tree and prepare for some festive, but of course, infromative fun. We'll be finding out how to make the perfect snowball, how drunk Santa is come the end of Christmas Eve and whether an artificial tree is better for the environment than its pine counterpart... 

In this episode

xmas tree

03:29 - Buying the perfect Christmas tree

We all want to do our bit for the environment, but how does that extend to buying the Xmas tree?

Buying the perfect Christmas tree

Chris has owned the same plastic tree for the past 20 years. Is that better for the environment than buying a real one each year? There's only one way to find out! Chris went in search of the real deal, a traditional pine Christmas tree to compare with his Xmas relic. Thank goodness he bumped into George to make it a more even debate...

Chris - [decorating]

Chris - "I did actually end up buying George's Christmas tree - he's dropping it off this weekend - because it was nice, and I've never, in all my adult life actually ever had a real one, so I felt the family deserved a treat.

That means I'll own one of about 7 million real Christmas trees cut in the UK every year, most of them grown here. And there's the wrinkle with fake trees: because the majority of those have travelled all the way from China to get here, so they arrive with a much bigger carbon footprint than my locally grown one.

There's also the recycling question; at some point my plastic tree is going to give up the ghost and end up in the bin; there'll therefore be a landfill cost, or even if the material is reused there will still be a carbon cost to that.

My real tree can go, as George said, to the Young Farmers, who turn them into wood chippings and line paths with them; and as they break down they release back into the atmosphere only the CO2 they took up to grow in the first place.

According to the carbon trust a 7ft fake tree, is responsible for about 40kg of greenhouse gas emissions, so you need to use it for at least 10 christmases to be environmentally better off than buying a real one.

BUT - the data from the retail market suggests that my 20 year old plastic tree is a real outlier - most fake trees get used only an average of 4 times before we bin them.

So, the bottom line, it looks like George is right to be a real tree man: unless you hang onto your fake tree for at least a decade, both the planet, your living room and your carbon footprint will all benefit from a real Christmas Tree to celebrate the festive season! Merry Christmas!"


10:08 - Why are Santa's elves small?

You don't imagine lanky Legolas in a pointy hat and stockings at Christmas, so why are Santa's elves so tiny?

Why are Santa's elves small?
Dimitra Fimi, University of Glasgow; Dominic Evangelista, Adelphi University; Manuel Will, University of Tübingen

JRR Tolkien's elves are tall and imposing. JK Rowling's house elves are small but not crafty. So where do Santa's elves fit in with the other elves? Sally Le Page was tasked with getting to the bottom of this magical mystery and she started by finding out more about the origins of the Christmas elves from fantasy literature expert, Dimitra Fimi, from the University of Glasgow...

Dimitra - Definitely from the 1860s and on, we see a lot of images of Santa accompanied by elves who helped him make the toys. So that goes back to traditional beliefs about elves helping people. We have in older times brownies or hobs or hobgoblins: the elves can make things in the traditional belief.

Sally - So you've mentioned hobgoblins and brownies and fairies. Do you think that these are different entities and we are just getting a bit looser in how we are naming them?

Dimitra - They were always looser. So the names have always fluctuated. If anything, today, we more or less stick to elf or fairy and these are the most widespread, the most commonly known ones. So it's actually become less variable.

Sally - That suggests that to look at a biological cause for how they're related to each other and why Christmas elves are small, actually we shouldn't pay too much attention to the English name that we give them.

Dimitra - No, not at all. No. It's about their nature. It's about what they do and what is their role in the way we understand the world around us.

And that means I need to know who the Christmas elves are most closely related to if I want to find out why they're so small and who better to ask than a biologist who specialises in both evolutionary family trees and magical creatures, Dominic Evangelista, from (rather aptly) Adelphi University. And it turns out he has been tackling this very question...

Dominic - I collected all of this data about all of these different kinds of elves and other creatures, which we hypothesised were closely related. This was information on their morphology - so how they look - information on their behaviour. And we have one group in our tree that we call the true elves. These are where the elves from Lord of the Rings like Elrond and Legolas, this is where they go. They're large, tall, very humanoid. We had another grouping, which we can call dwarves, and these are generally less humanoid. Dwarves are obviously shorter than the true elves. And then we had a final grouping in our tree that we call the pixies. This is a new nomenclature, excuse me, gnome-enclature...anyway. The pixies are small, but they have different kind of magical powers than either dwarves or elves.

Sally - For our discussion, the most important grouping are the dwarves. Obviously with dwarves we think of Snow White and the seven dwarves, but you've put Christmas elves in with the dwarves. Can you explain your reasoning behind that?

Dominic - Yeah. That's probably our most interesting finding here. When you think about it, it does make a lot of sense. You mentioned Snow White's seven dwarves, and I think there's a lot of similarities between Snow White's seven dwarves and Christmas elves. They're both very short. They're both kind of cheerful. Well, I guess some of them are cheerful.

Sally - A few are grumpy.

Dominic - Yeah, that's true. At least one. And if we're comparing to other dwarves, like in Lord of the Rings, these are creatures that like to build things; they're very crafty. They're good with their hands. They have have lots of tools. And that is, I think, the main feature of Christmas elves.

Sally - Did they come from an ancestral elf-like creature that was small and then stayed small, or was the ancestral relative of all of these groups tall and Christmas elves have since evolved to be small?

Dominic - This is a good question. Currently with the knowledge that we have presently, the answer to this question is not really known. It could go either way. Every species on Earth, including Christmas elves and the other magical creatures, they are products of both their ancestry and who they originated from and products of their modern adaptations. So it's unclear yet if Christmas elves' form is more adaptive to their current conditions or their form is inherited from their ancestor.

So the question remains are Christmas elves small because they evolved from small dwarves and so it's all just chance, or is there an adaptive advantage to being small? I figured elves are somewhat like humans, so I should speak to someone who has looked at how and why body size has changed in the various human species across the millennia. And that led me, Manuel Will from the University of Tübingen.

Manuel - There's one really cool thing that we could use also for the elves. It's the so-called 'hobbit' from Flores

Sally - Of course!

Manuel - Homo floresiensis, from the island of Flores in Southeast Asia. And that one is really cool not just because it's dubbed 'the Hobbit', which I like a lot, but also it only stood about a bit more than one metre. So these creatures lived on the Earth around a hundred thousand years ago. That's already when our species Homo sapiens existed.

Sally - Do you think that it's possible to know if Christmas elves just evolved from another dwarf-like creature that was small and so are small by chance or whether it was because of an adaptation?

Manuel - I think that's super difficult to disentangle because it's basically unknown, but I would venture for another kind of explanation. It is an adaptive explanation, which I think could explain the small body size in elves and it's so-called 'island dwarfism'. So again, we talk about dwarves here as well, but also about islands. And there's a really cool thing with many animals, not just humans, that when you see them living on isolated islands, there's a cool thing that normally larger-bodied animals when they get to these islands, they get smaller, they 'dwarf', so to speak. That probably has to do with the fact that on these islands, it's much more difficult to get enough food to sustain large bodies, but also at the same time, there's less pressure of predators, so things that might kill and eat you yourself. Normally a good buffer against that is having a large body, but you don't even need that anymore. And funnily enough, that still the most parsimonious explanation for why Homo floresiensis is so small, likely because it's an adaptation to the island living on Flores.

Sally - So the real life hobbits started off a little bit bigger and then became smaller as they evolved isolated on this island?

Manuel - Exactly. Because the current idea about the family tree of Homo floresiensis is that Homo floresiensis is a descendant of Homo erectus, which is much older and much larger. It's not definitely proven, but it's certainly my favourite hypothesis. And it could work for the elves. Where the elves live, that is also a very isolated environment where maybe they don't get enough food from Santa, but certainly there's also no predators there for them, right? So maybe they just don't have to have big bodies.

And I think we've solved it. Comparing Christmas elves to Tolkien's elves turns out to be a red herring and Santa's elves have actually evolved from dwarves, which explains why they're so good at crafting things. And so Father Christmas probably took a small group of dwarves to the North Pole where they were then cut off from mixing with the other dwarf species, and over time they shrank in size due to island dwarfism.


19:20 - How does Santa deal with all that booze?

Children UK - wide leave treats for Santa on Christmas Eve but just how drunk is he after his shift at work?

How does Santa deal with all that booze?
David Nutt, Imperial College London and Carol Vorderman

It must be great to be Santa. On his one work day a year, he is inundated with mince pies, letters and a little tipple to tickle his tastebuds. He couldn't possibly leave the glass full, that would be considered rude after all! So, how much does the Big Man consume on the job? How does alcohol effect our brains? Could an alcohol alternative prevent Santa from feeling that dreaded hangover? Katie King asked Carol Vorderman and David Nutt for help in answering these very important questions....

Katie - My question for CSSSSSS is - how drunk is Santa at the end of Christmas Eve? Hmmm... I'm guessing the simple answer of 'very' won't quite cut it. Being the boozy Brits that we are, let's ask the wonderful British public what they leave about for Santa...

Ewan - Mince pie and brandy.

Rod - A single malt whiskey.

Jill - Tennents lager and fondant fancies.

Ruaridh - Santa always gets sherry.

Phoebe - A glass of sherry and a carrot.

Alan - Mince pies, carrots and milk.

Graham - Santa loves a Jim Beam in my house.

Sam - Some Somerset cider for Father Christmas.

Nico - Rich tea biscuits, milk, and the remote control for the tele whilst he was having his biscuits.

Katie - So on my list the main culprits are sherry, whiskey, the odd can of beer and some milk. Okay, now time for some maths and who better else to help me out than the one and only Christmas Carol, Carol Vorderman. Hi Carol, so I've been tasked with a question, can you help me please?

Carol - I absolutely can. I've looked up how many million households in Britain have children in them. There are 5 million of those households. Based on your superb research Katie, I've cut it proportionately. Let's say two fifths give Santa sherry, one fifth whiskey, one fifth beer and one fifth milk.

Katie - The milk's not gonna have much of an effect i don't think.

Carol - Not even warmed up. I always give him sherry, you know, dry sherry. He told me once, FACT, that he prefers sherry to whiskey.

Katie - Did he?

Carol - I'm just putting it out there. So sherry comes in at 20% alcohol strength, whiskey at 40%, not surprisingly and beer at 4%. Don't argue! Others will say, 'other beers are available at higher strengths'. I'm saying 4% as it makes my numbers a lot easier. Then obviously a serving size... 50 millilitres. It's quite generous.

Katie - That is generous, lucky Santa!

Carol - But then you see on Christmas Eve people are feeling generous.

Katie - A generous time of year, 50 ml for Santa.

Carol - Yes, 50 ml. The beer? I'm going with a small bottle.

Katie - I can't imagine Santa would want to drink a pint at each stop.

Carol - Well, that's a lot.

Katie - That's too much.

Carol - So, I'm giving him a small bottle of beer.

Katie - A small bottle for Santa.

Carol - But healthy proportions of sherry and whiskey. So if we multiply all of those up, a serving of sherry for Santa will be one unit of alcohol, whiskey - two units of alcohol and the beer - one and a half units of alcohol. What we find is the total number of alcoholic units given to Santa in the form of sherry was 2 million units.

Katie - 2 million?

Carol - Yeah, 2 million. Whiskey, it's another 2 million units, boom. And the beer? One and a half million units. So let's add them all up - two plus two plus one and a half is five and a half million units of alcohol given to Santa on Christmas Eve just when he arrives and then leaves Britain.

Katie - Thanks for your help Carol! I can't believe Santa is drinking a whopping five point five million units of alcohol from the UK alone. Let's hope the milk is enough to line that stomach. Hmm, not so sure. What I really want to know is, what is happening chemically when Santa is drinking alcohol. David Nutt-cracker from Imperial College, London is going to tell us a bit more.

David - Well, the first thing he gets is a taste and the smell. Then the alcohol flows down through his mouth and his esophagus into his stomach and gets absorbed into the blood and then goes into the liver. In the liver, alcohol is broken down into something called acetaldehyde, and that then flows around the body and causes the redness that Santa's famous for in his cheeks.

Katie - Let's be fair, red cheeks aren't the first thing that come to mind when I think about the effects of alcohol. Tell us David, how does booze affect our brains?

David - The key is when the ethanol gets into the brain. It starts to increase the activity of GABA. Now, GABA is the brain's main calming inhibitory transmitter. When you increase the effects of GABA, then you begin to feel calm yourself and more sociable. I guess that's where his 'ho, ho ho' comes from.

Katie - How much alcohol do we need to drink to activate the GABA system?

David - Well the first few molecules of alcohol going into the brain start to turn on the GABA system. It's by and large, the first two or three units of alcohol. They are largely working to increase the effects of GABA to get you into the party mood, so to speak.

Katie - Yeah, Christmas spirit!

David - That's exactly right.

Katie - If Santa drinks all of this sherry, and he's got thousands of glasses in his system, what happens then?

David - Well, let's hope he doesn't get that many unless he's extraordinary tolerant, but what begins to happen is your blood alcohol level rises, then alcohol starts to block the glutamate receptors in the brain. Now glutamate is the neurotransmitter that is critical for keeping you awake and for laying down memories. When you block those glutamate receptors, you start to forget things and that's a big problem for Santa as he might not remember where he has got to go for the next child.

Katie - He might forget some presents!

David - Indeed he might and then he might potentially even forget how to get home and get lost and who knows where he might end up.

Katie - Rudolph to the rescue we hope. If Santa is made up of a similar composition to us, how big would his liver need to be to break down all of this alcohol that he is consuming in that one night?

David - Well, you know, one does wonder what's inside that abdomen of his. You know, let's hope it is a really big liver, so he can cope with all the free drinks that people give him.

Katie - Let's hope so. Interestingly, David Nutt has developed an alcohol alternative called Sentia that stimulates the GABA system, which makes us feel relaxed without blocking the glutamate system. So we can still walk in a straight line afterwards. I asked David what would happen to Santa if we switched out sherry for his alcohol alternative?

David - He would feel mellow, he would feel relaxed but he wouldn't run the risk of forgetting where he's gotta go next and falling off his sledge and disappearing down the wrong chimney.

Katie - That's what we should be doing, we should give Santa your alcohol alternative rather than sherry just so that there's no risk.

David - Well, you can never say no, but certainly you could reduce his risk. That's a really interesting idea. I wonder if... I can do that! Yeah, I have my botanical drink, I could put that out for Santa and see if he likes it.

Katie - Definitely, you can ask for some feedback.

David - Well, he never gives you feedback, he just eats the pie and his reindeer seem to eat the carrots, but he never replies to my letter.

Katie - He doesn't respond to my letters either, so let's not worry about that one. Thank you to Christmas Carol and David Nutt-cracker for helping me answer the question of - how drunk is Santa at the end of Christmas Eve? My answer is simple - he must be a very, merry soul. Happy Christmas!

a snowball impact

27:01 - What makes snow stick?

Unpacking the science behind the perfectly packed snowball

What makes snow stick?
Gareth Rees and Becky Dell, University of Cambridge

It doesn't matter where you are or how old you might be, when it snows, there's always a great temptation to go outside and have a snowball fight. But some snow just doesn't cut it. Either it's too powdery to hold together, or it's so hard that it could be classified as a weapon. To clear up this conundrum, Tricia Smith spoke to Gareth Rees and Becky Dell, in search of the science behind that satisfying splat...

Tricia - I visited the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge to find out what makes snow stick.

Gareth - Snow is a mixture of ice in the form of pretty small crystals, and air, and nearly always some liquid water as well.

Tricia - Does snow always have a little bit of water in it or can it sometimes exist without water?

Gareth - This is not completely known at the moment, I think. But what we suspect is true is that there is always a tiny bit of liquid water in snow. If the temperature of the snow is not too far below zero Celsius, say down to minus five minus ten, then there can be a noticeable amount of water, maybe 1%.

Tricia - So why is it that some snow will pack down when I, when I squeeze it and some won't?

Gareth - The main difference between kinds of snow that will compress into a nice snowball, the kind that you can throw satisfactorily and the kind that doesn't, that just stays as powder and falls apart again, is really its temperature. The powdery stuff is too cold. What you want to happen when you make a snowball is that you want to weld the ice crystals together. And the way you do that is you apply some pressure to the snowball, you squeeze it with your hands. Ice is unusual as a material in that when you apply pressure to it, its melting point actually decreases. So it melts a little bit when you squeeze it and the water, then refreezes when you take the pressure off, so when you stop squeezing the snowball, but now what you've got is ice crystals that have been welded to each other by more ice. So the thing becomes mechanically stronger than it was. So it's a little bit denser and quite a lot stronger, so it won't fall apart immediately.

Tricia - When I was at university, I was shown an experiment where they hung a metal wire on a cube of ice and they hung weights off each end. And what happened was the wire passed through the block of ice, but it didn't leave a gap. There was ice left behind as well. So can you explain that experiment to me?

Gareth - That experiment is usually called regelation, that just means refreezing, and it's really a good model of what happens when you make a snowball. The weighted wire is applying pressure to the ice and that succeeds in melting the ice. But above the wire, the pressure is lower again, so the water refreezes to ice. So what happens is that there is a little area of melted ice below the wire, but reformed ice above the wire. So the wire just travels down through the ice refreezing behind it, as it goes. And then eventually the wire drops out at the bottom, but the ice hasn't been cut into two.

Tricia - One of the interesting properties of snow, or of water and ice, is that ice floats on water. So are those things related?

Gareth - Yes, these things are related. What happens in ice, is that the water molecules, the H2O molecules, they arrange themselves in a very specific way. The forces between the molecules are very strong. So they have a very fixed idea about how to arrange themselves, and it's actually quite open. If you melt it into water, the average distance between the molecules actually decreases. So water is more dense than ice, and that's the reason why ice floats in water. And it's also the reason why the melting point of ice decreases when you squeeze it, because you're trying to force it into a smaller volume and it can do that by turning into water.

Tricia - Where in the world would we find snow that is the best for making snowballs?

Gareth - It would need to be somewhere not too cold. So I wouldn't go to the middle of Antarctica to have a snowball fight. I think we'd just find powder snow there. I think you'd want to be somewhere on the edges of regions that tended to get a lot of snow, edges of mountain ranges, fringes of cold regions.

Tricia - Who'd have thought a snowball fight in Antarctica might not be the best idea. Well, just to be sure, I reached out to my friend, who's in Antarctica right now. She agreed to go outside, make a snowball and let us know how it went.

Becky - My name's Becky Dell, and I'm a glaciologist working at the University of Cambridge. Currently, I'm in Antarctica on Alexander Island, living in Fossil Bluff hut, working on George VI ice shelf. Luckily it was pretty snowy this morning, so the snow is now fairly wet and malleable. However, a couple of days ago, it was much drier here, and it was almost too powdery to form a snowball. I'm going to try and make a snowball now, and I'll talk you through what happens.

Snowball - <snowball noises>

Becky - I'm not going to lie, the snow's actually pretty tough. It's formed a ball pretty quickly, but it's a fairly angular jagged ball, and I'm having to apply quite a lot of pressure. So rather than a ball, I'd call this... a cube. I've made a snow cube. No one to throw it at though, because they're all inside having a cup of coffee. So I'm going to go and join them.

Tricia - I'm not sure I'd want to be hit by a snow cube... sounds painful. So there you have it. Leave the skiing for the mountain tops because the snow in the valley is much more likely to weld together into the perfect snowball. Before I left, Gareth had one more, very important piece of advice for me.

Gareth - The very best snow for a snowball is the snow that's right next to you, because that's when you want to make a snowball. So if it snows in your garden, use that snow.

Santa's reindeer flying around the globe

34:18 - How many carrots do Santa's reindeer eat?

We leave carrots out for reindeer on Christmas Eve, but is it enough food for them to get around the globe?

How many carrots do Santa's reindeer eat?
Gabriela Wagner, Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research

All of us here at The Naked Scientists leave a carrot out for rudolf (and the other reindeer). But how many carrots would those hardworking reindeer require to circumnavigate the globe? Otis Kingsman catches up with Gabriela Wagner from the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research, she's no stranger to speculating over Santa's handsome and furry helpers...

Gabriela - Hi, this is Gabi Wagner. I work at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research and I research reindeer husbandry.

Otis - Hello, my name is Otis from The Naked Scientists. I need your help to figure out how many carrots Rudolph needs to eat in order to circumnavigate the whole globe in one night.

Gabriela - Well, magical flying reindeer may be a bit difficult to get hold of.

Otis - So what you're saying is we'd have a better answer if we could test it?

Gabriela - Theoretically, yes.

Otis - Okay then. Time to steal a reindeer.

Gabriela - I'm sorry, what was that?

Otis - Let's grab one and meet Gabi in Norway.

Gabriela - I hope he won't be too long. What's that? In the sky, it looks like it's heading straight towards me.

Reindeer - [crashes]

Gabriela - Are you okay?

Otis - I'm ok. I found us a reindeer to rest with. Apparently he's owned by a Vix? En? That's what it says on the name tag.

Gabriela - That's not what I was expecting, but when is science ever something you can accurately predict? This is interesting. Usually only females have antlers in winter, but this is a male. He's castrated of course, otherwise he would already have lost his antlers about a month ago.

Otis - I think he's built to pull sledges.

Gabriela - That would explain why he is so tame. He didn't beat you up that badly.

Otis - He's bigger than I imagined. How heavy is he?

Gabriela - He's 140 kilos. He is in very good condition. He must have had some Christmas food to weigh that much at this time of year.

Otis - Ok, but back to the main question. How many carrots would it take for him to get all the way around the world?

Gabriela - Obviously he couldn't circumnavigate the earth at the equator. He can't sweat after all, and he can't lose any heat with that fur. He has a thick coat of under-wool and thicker longer hairs, called 'guard hair'. Not only can he trap air between the hair of his coat, but each one of the guard hairs is hollow. In addition, that gives him superb insulation against the cold.

Otis - I was wondering why he didn't seem phased by the cold.

Gabriela - -40°C is no problem. But anything above 5°C would be a challenge and he'd have to massively increase his metabolic rate to get rid of the heat.

Otis - Is that the only feature they have to survive cold temperatures?

Gabriela - Reindeer have special noses, which they used to save energy. They have scrolled structures in their nose. It's a bit like a heat pump and they can use the extra surface to warm up the cold outside air in winter. When it's too hot or when they work hard, they have to pant like dogs. We couldn't get him to walk anywhere along the equator; he'd die of heat stroke.

Otis - So does that mean they're mostly situated in colder countries?

Gabriela - You can find them in Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, Northern America in Greenland. You can even find them in Iceland and Scotland.

Otis - That's a lot of places. Did they just walk there?

Gabriela - Walking on frozen ground or snow is of course no problem. Their feet act like snow shoes. That's why they're so good at pulling sledges. They can also use their hooves like chisels to dig for food under the snow. Most importantly for us, their feet can also act as paddles. Reindeer are very powerful swimmers. The hollow hair of their fur acts also like a built-in buoyancy aid. That means rivers and fjords are not a problem along the route. The oceans however, are, so we just have to assume he could take a terrestrial route for our calculations.

Otis - On the flight over here, the reindeer was galloping in the air, so it stands to reason that it will require the same amount of energy.

Gabriela - They have been documented to walk up to 5,500km or 3,410 miles in a year. Now travelling on Christmas foods, that's special reindeer pellets for you, with about 11,000 kilojoules of digestible energy per kg of food. Our big boy here working hard, would need about 5kg of food a day. He is after all a ruminant who needs a lot of rest to digest his food. At an average walking distance of about 25km or 15 miles a day, he would need about 640 days to circumnavigate the Arctic circle to cover the caloric needs with only about 1,700 kilojoules in a kg of carrots, we need about 20.4 tons of carrots.

Otis - Let's scale that up. If we base our calculations off the fact that the Earth is 40,075km in circumference, and that Santa would need to travel across the sea from country to country. I've estimated that the distance Rudolph would need to travel to be 160,000km. Of course this doesn't factor in the distance between each street and each city, but based off this, how many carrots would a reindeer need to eat?

Gabriela - If this reindeer was to circumnavigate the whole globe he'd need 204 tons of carrots or 40,080,000 carrots. I hate to break the news to you, but reindeer don't eat carrots. He can't bite the carrots as he hasn't got the teeth for that.

Otis - But tradition states you leave a carrot for the reindeer. I can't believe I stole this reindeer for nothing.

Gabriela - You stole the reindeer. How? And from where?

Otis - I just found one in the North Pole. It was standing next to this, rather large man with a white beard dressed in red.

Santa - So it was you who stole my poor reindeer.

Otis - Wait. No, please. It was all in the name of science. I swear.

Santa - I'm going to put you in a ho-ho-holding cell.

Otis - Nooooooo.

Christmas musician

40:43 - WHAM; How to make a Christmas hit!

Our favourite Christmas songs are dusted off year after year. What makes it so hard to join the festive ranks?

WHAM; How to make a Christmas hit!
Daniel Müllensiefen, Goldsmiths University of London, Ian Cross, University of Cambridge, Conrad Godfrey, Sound Hypothesis

Whether you're a fan of Slade or The Progues, the fact remains, that during this time of year many of us will listen to the same songs we played last year, and the year before that... and the year before that! Harry Lewis set out to see if he could get to the bottom of why novel Christmas music struggles to make it into the charts... 

Daniel - I would wonder whether you could answer this question empirically, with science and empirical evidence. One thing that you would have to do is define a Christmas song or a Christmas hit as you put it. Does it need to be commercially successful? Do you want to measure that by its position in the charts or the revenue it generates during a certain period. Then the second question is, does Elton John or Ed Sheeran, qualify as potential music for Christmas just because it's released at the end of November, or do you really mean Christmas music in terms of it has a Christmas theme?

Harry - Looks like I'm gonna need a hand. Luckily, Ian Cross emeritus professor of music and science at Cambridge University agreed to meet me at West Road Concert Hall to iron out the creases.

Ian - Good you could operationalise as effective in removing money from people's wallets. What it is about a song that does that is variety of things. It's the structure of the song, but it's also what it is up against what competition is up against. New Christmas songs have a real problem because they're up against an intense amount of competition from the songs that are trotted out year after year after year and flourish for the Christmas period.

Harry - And competition is further exacerbated by the length of the festive period.

Daniel - A summer hit can be popular in the Northern hemisphere during say June and September. The same song can be a summer hit and popular in the Southern hemisphere in other months. This is different to Christmas, which means that you have a lot of competition in these say six or seven weeks around Christmas.

Harry - That's not all.

Ian - In this country it's getting dark, it's getting miserable. It turns out that when it gets dark and miserable, we tend to prefer music that is not very arousing, often calm or melancholic. On the other hand, as it gets lighter, we tend to prefer music that is more arousing, more urgent, more intense. Now, Christmas is happening at the same time across the globe. Here it's getting cold and miserable in Australia. It's doing the opposite. It's getting sunny. Admittedly, it is bizarre to have Christmas on the beach in the 18 hour day sunshine.

Harry - This is something you've tried and tested.

Ian - It is, it's, it's very odd. Yes, but the same music is likely to pervade the environment. It might be that Slade's 'And here it is Merry Christmas' is a little more popular in Australia than it might be in the UK, simply because it's very upbeat, very arousing and it fits with the long days in Australia.

Harry - Firstly, a Christmas hit has to Christmassy and I'm not gonna be moved on that. Okay. I think the best thing I can do is catch up with a rather talented friend of mine. It's time to take a look at those popular Christmas hits and see what I can learn. Conrad Godfrey. He's a musician, YouTube curator transcriber, and he also sings in a barber shop quartet called Sound Hypothesis, they're are current UK national champions, you know, as you do.

Harry - Merry Christmas Conrad.

Conrad - Merry Christmas, Harry, come on in.

Harry - Thanks very much. Where's the piano?

Conrad - Through here.

Harry - Conrad tells me that a lot of popular Christmas music employs a compositional technique known as chromaticism. I better let him explain this one, eh?

Conrad - Chromaticism meaning the colour that you get when you introduce, if we're talking about the keyboard, it's going beyond the white notes and into the black notes to put it simply. White Christmas, for example, how does that go? It goes, I'm dreaming of a White Christmas. It goes completely out of key and explores loads of different kind of terrain.

Harry - Is that normal for popular music? This exploration of the keyboard?

Conrad - No, I would say it depends on what you're talking about. If we take a song like Justin Bieber's mistletoe, that's an example of a Christmas song that I would say actually is basically a pop song. I'd say one of the reasons for that is because it's not using a lot of this jazzy influence. It's just using very simple four chord progressions and the melodies staying very tonal. By simply for the chords he's playing, you could add in what, in the jazz world they call upper extension. Do something like this perhaps, make it a bit more Christmasy. Right.? It's the most beautiful time of the year, lights fill the streets spreading so much cheer, I should be playing in the winter snow...

Harry - Funny how that drums up nostalgia. It does, it feels more Christmasy to me.

Conrad - Yeah. Right, it does. It's sixties, fifties inspired orchestral sounds really, where there's so much hidden complexity. There's lots going on and you don't really notice this when you're listening to the song, all those complexities, all those complex key changes and rich jazzy voicings are hidden. I think that's what those nostalgic styles did so well. There's this other theme that I've noticed in some of these Christmasy songs when I was doing a bit of research that I don't really think I've heard anyone comment on, but it's actually this kind of trick of using descending major scale to evoke the sound of church bells on Christmas day. I think that songs, for example, like walking in a Winter Wonderland is the same thing, and have yourself a Merry little Christmas as well.

Harry - It's pulling on these themes that we associate as well with nostalgia with Christmas.

Conrad - I think you see that in quite a lot of arrangements. You should look out for that one, the descending scale to evoke the bells.

Harry - Conrad gave me some final advice. If you aren't gonna use his techniques, you're gonna need to throw in a lot of jingle bells or reference to this time of year instead, a little bit like Justin Bieber's mistletoe. I think what I'm learning is that tradition really plays on nostalgia. That certainly seems to be the case for Christmas music.

Ian - Now, there's interesting effect of what happens when you're exposed to music continuously, initially your preference for it increases, then it probably decreases because you've been overexposed.

Harry - Does that mean that when I was younger, I might love something by Boney M, but over the years that's gonna start to decrease and I might start to dislike the Christmas music that I did as a youngster.

Ian - That's possible. There's also another effect, which is that we tend to form quite intense affective attachments to the music that we heard in early teenage years when we were forming our identity. And that attachment to that music tends to persist, irrespective one might almost say, of quality.

Father and son with Christmas Tree

48:34 - Why do we feel nostalgic at Christmas?

We may get a sentimental feeling when we hear voices singing, but what causes us to reminisce?

Why do we feel nostalgic at Christmas?
Jacod Juhl, University of Southampton & Dean Burnett, Neuroscience Author

It's beginning to look a lot like Chrismas - toys in every store, holly on the door. But aside from the decorations and the lights and the gifts we see, the holiday season also stimulates a unique feeling. A sense of nostalgia for Christmas' past. Julia Ravey spoke to nostalgia psychologist, Jacob Juhl, and neuroscientist and author, Dean Burnett, to get to the bottom of why we reflect back every December... 

Julia - I'm out and about in Cambridge, and it is definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas. There are beautiful decorations everywhere, twinkling lights, people out and about shopping. But for me, it isn't just about the decorations, or the music, or the food. It's about that feeling of nostalgia Christmas brings. Why is it that we look longingly back to the past? I'm hoping nostalgia psychologist, Jacob Juhl can help me understand more about what this feeling is.

Jacob - If you look nostalgia up in the dictionary, it's going to say that nostalgia is a sentimental longing, and wistful affection for the past. When people are nostalgic, they tend to reflect fondly on aspects of the past. They tend to reflect on certain time periods like high school, or primary school, or college, or university, or young adulthood, but almost always, they're surrounded by close others. So, close friends or close family, and nostalgia is largely a positive emotional experience, but sometimes it does, contain, I guess what I always say is, a tinge of sadness. However, the negativity or this little bit of sadness in nostalgia is almost always outweighed by the positive experience of nostalgia.

Julia - And does nostalgia serve a purpose for us?

Jacob - From a psychological perspective, it does serve a purpose for us. Some things that often trigger nostalgia are negative experiences. One big trigger of nostalgia is feeling lonely. When people are alone, they don't have a close sense of support, at least immediately with them, and they tend to feel nostalgic in response to this. Research has shown that nostalgia actually, in turn, boosts a sense of social connectedness with other people. Similarly, when people feel that life is meaningless or perhaps they're bored, that triggers a sense of nostalgia and nostalgia in turn increases a sense of meaning in life. Therefore, its primary purpose is to help people cope with negativity and provoke more positivity.

Julia - Does nostalgia alter our perception of the past?

Jacob - Almost definitely. When people reflect nostalgically on the past, they view it through rose tinted glasses. Oftentimes seeing it necessarily more positive than it was. And we all know that our memories, generally speaking, are susceptible to a lot of biases. So I'm guessing that when people reflect nostalgically in the past, they tend to give it a bit of a positive spin.

Julia - I was listening to Christmas songs the other day, and I noticed just how many of them referenced the past. "You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear", "Last Christmas, I gave you my heart", "Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore". So what is it about Christmas or the a holiday season in particular that has us all reminiscing? Neuroscientist and author,Dean Burnett, is definitely the right person to ask.

Dean - Our strongest memories will come from our childhood. When we are developing, our childhood experiences tend to be the most formative. And it's not logical. A lot of the things our brain prioritises when it comes to experiences are emotion. Strong, emotional memories will usually override objectively useful ones. And when you're a child, what is more emotionally stimulating than Christmas? You're not in school anymore, you've got time off, you're with your family all the time. You get given loads of presents and there's lots of colourful things everywhere, and music that you can dance to. There are lots of treats. When you're a kid, Christmas is an extremely powerful experience. Especially when you're younger and maybe don't understand, 'all I know is when I see trees and baubles, I get lots of good stuff, so I must remember this - this is clearly quite indicative of good times ahead'. When you grow up, and you hear this particular piece of Christmas music for example, you associate that with all those good times. When you hear it again, those memories come flooding back as it's triggering the connections.

Julia - Christmas in a way - because I feel like every year we have the same music, the same food, we normally interact with the same people - it's a bit like a Groundhog day. We experience all of the same cues. Is that a big influence over triggering memories of the past?

Dean - Yes. If you think of it like a crossword puzzle when you're trying to fill in the blanks, but half of them are already done, then it's a lot easier to recognise the words. When you surround yourself with the usual cues of Christmas, it makes the existing memories linked to Christmas much easy to trigger. It doesn't take much to fire them up.

Julia - Dean talking about the familiar things around us at Christmas got me thinking about all the things that we have in our family home. And we get them out every single year. And actually today is a very important day because my family are putting up the Christmas tree.

Michelle - That's the doorbell. The Christmas tree has just arrived!

Julia - As I'm very sadly, not at home at the minute, my mum (Michelle) and sister (Rosanna) gave me a tour of all the decorations they'd put up so far.

Michelle - We have the lovely tree in the hall.

Julia - The snowmen are looking a little bit worse for wear, I'm not going to lie.

Michelle - I think it's all the buildup of sellotape. We've got the Santas on the fireplace. And again, one of the Santas actually lost a foot.

Julia - How long have we had them? 20 years?

Michelle - A long, long time.

Julia - How many cribs do we have in that house?

Michelle - At least 10. I haven't got them all out.

Rosanna - We've got that lovely one that we made out of ice lolly sticks. That's going up tomorrow.

Julia - I know the Angel Gabriel looked really angry because I did that one with a red pen.

Michelle - A lot of them look like they've been decapitated now, but every year I rebalanced them. Here is the Christmas Robin - that's a new one. I couldn't resist, but I'm beginning to regret it now because I've still got half a room full of decorations to put up. We've been working on it all weekend, but almost there.

Julia - All right. See you soon. Can't wait to see you next week for Christmas.

Michelle/Rosanna - Bye!

Julia - Essentially my home turns into a Christmas grotto every year and we keep hold of all of the things that are important to us, even if they are broken. So Dean, why is it that we cling onto these traditions?

Dean - We are very social species, and one example of a thing we need is a sense of control. The ability to know this is the routine. This is how it works. It's reassuring to say, we know Christmas goes "ABCD" - that's how it happens. You stick to that because that is your routine. We don't like to play around with established patterns. If you go into something as important as Christmas, which you are extremely emotionally invested in, you want as much control and certainty as you can. So we stick to the traditions, we stick to the routines, and we prioritise them. And when other people tell you do something different that's a no - that upsets our system. Having traditions is reassuring for the brain in a subconscious way for so many reasons.

Julia - And Jacob, what is it about traditions that makes us feel nostalgic?

Jacob - Traditions are important to us largely because they give us a sense of meaning in life and that along with kind of all the sentiment, all of the social connectedness really helps heighten the accessibility of the memories, making it a good thing to be nostalgic about.

Julia - It seems like our need for stability in the form of traditions and the importance of Christmas solidified in our early years makes us reminisce more around the holiday season. We whip out the same music, deccies, see the same people. It's almost like a time machine back to Christmas' past, giving us that nostalgic feeling. On that note, my hot chocolate is all ready, mince pie is warm, and it is time to put on my favourite Christmas film, which I've watched every December for the past 20 years. It takes me back...


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