The science of christmas

We’ve been very busy over the last few weeks testing lots of fun Christmas Science Experiments. You might spot some old favourites, but we’ve got lots of new ideas as well, including a collection of Elf STEM Challenges which have entertained us for hours!

Don’t forget to check out our FREE Christmas Science Ebookwhich contains 12 printable Christmas themed experiments and our fantastic DIY science kit ideas too!

We also have a science advent calendar to help you count down to Christmas.

The Science of Christmas

Christmas Science in the kitchen

Learn about filtering with this gorgeous apple cider recipe.

The Science of Christmas Spiced Apple Cider – Image taken from Snackable Science

We had lots of fun making these lovely mint flavoured chocolate leavesand learning about changes of state at the same time.

Try some hot chocolate science. Where will marshmallows melt the fastest?

This bowl made from peppermint sweets would be a great way to learn about changes of state, but do be careful with the hot candy.

Design and build a gingerbread house and test to see how strong it is.

The Science of Christmas

How about some yummy peppermint creams, these would be great to give out to friends as a little gift.

Test different thicknesses of icing sugar and create marshmallow snowmen.

The Science of Christmas

We also made a Christmas peppermint lolly, by growing sugar crystals. This is a bit messy and sticky, but if you can get it to work the end result is brilliant.

The Science of Christmas

Christmas Science Experiments – Christmas Chemistry

How about setting up a fizzy elf lab ?

The Science of Christmas

How about a making a fizzing Christmas tree or gingerbread men? We made ours using the same method as these fizzing rocks.

The Science of Christmas

Our Grinch slime is sure to be a hit.

The Science of Christmas

Try to dissolve a candy caneusing different liquids.

In the playroom

Make some jumping snowmen or christmas trees using static electricity.

Can you make a Christmas themed magnet or marble maze?

The Science of Christmas

  • We had a lot of fun with our Christmas themed shadow puppet.
  • Or you could have some fun exploring magnetism with this Christmas tree or how about an Olaf?
  • Can you design a pulley to help the elves?

The Science of Christmas

How about a Christmas themed cartesian diver?

Christmas Creations

These tinkering trees are adorable from Left Brain Craft Brain.

How about making some symmetrical Christmas trees?

This magnetic present trail was fun too, we put some paperclips inside a matchbox, then wrapped it up, before using the magnet wand to move the present around the board. A giant version of this would be great fun too.

Make a Christmas themed Optical Illusion – printable coming soon

Christmas Activities Outside

The Physics of Christmas


  • The Physics of Christmas

    From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey

    Little, Brown and Company

  • Read the Review
  • There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz

    Christmas is a time for the crunch of snow,
spiced wine, and tinseled trees. Christmas is a time for
giving, meeting friends, and feasting. Christmas is a time for
carols, family gatherings, gaudy greeting cards, and all the jollity
of the seasonal spirit.

Christmas is also a time for science.

    Chemists are hard at work in the Christmas kitchen. Experts
on thermodynamics have drafted equations to help us
cook turkeys to perfection, scanners have scrutinized steaming
plum puddings, and pharmacologists have traced the
baroque metabolic pathways of the brain to explain why
chocolates can be so addictive.

    Meteorologists study every aspect of the snow cycle that
provides a seasonal sprinkling, from the seeding of an ice
crystal high in the sky to the traces of past Christmases
buried deep in the snowpack.

    Climatologists are plundering this record to help predict
white Christmases far into the future. A handful are even
concocting outlandish schemes to guarantee that each and
every Christmas is white.

    Psychologists tease out the hidden agenda of the Christmas
card and what it reveals about our social status. The
same goes for presents.

The price, the nature of the gift, and
even the way it is wrapped say a great deal about the giver
and his or her relationship with the recipient.

All the while,
anthropologists hunt for the foundation of the celebration in
pagan rituals that took place before the birth of Christ, during
long winter nights when our ancestors feared that the
sun would never return.

    The origins of the holiday in the darkness of prehistory
emphasize perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Christmas:
everyone's invited. The seasonal message of hope and
charity is a message for all — Christians, Jews, Hindus,
Moslems, Buddhists, and, yes, even scientists and engineers.

    I have been investigating the science of Christmas for
more than a decade.

When I first began to take an interest in
the subject, I was unprepared for the breadth and depth of
the insights that would eventually emerge.

Take those flying
reindeer, Santa's red and white color scheme, and his jolly
disposition, for example. They are all probably linked to the
use of a hallucinogenic toadstool in ancient rituals.

    I can add that Santa was born with a genetic propensity to
become obese and now suffers from diabetes. He does not
live at the North Pole, preferring the warmth of an island off
the coast of Turkey. There, panting at his side, you will find
Rosie — not Rudolph — the reindeer.

    I was at first puzzled by how Santa could fly in any
weather, circle the globe on Christmas Eve, carry millions
and millions of presents, and make all those rooftop landings
with pinpoint accuracy. The answer lies in his unprecedented
research resources and expertise across a range of fields,
spanning genetic engineering, computing, nanotechnology,
and quantum gravity.

    My experience of writing this book undermines the idea
that the materialist insights of science destroy our capacity to
wonder, leaving the world a more boring and predictable

For me, the very reverse is true. I can still remember
the day when, as a child, I first became convinced that Santa
did not exist.

Now, by refracting the Santa myth through the
prism of science, he seems more real than ever.

    I believe that science and technology can even shed a little
light on a deeper question: where did Christmas come
from in the first place? Peel back the wallpaper of centuries,
and you will find that the festival is an amalgam of influences — German,
Dutch, English, American, and other traditions,
both religious and pagan — that emerged over the

    Even today, the traditional Christmas hoopla is far from a
homogeneous phenomenon, taking place alongside Kwanzaa,
an African-American harvest holiday, and the eight-day
Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. Together they constitute
the annual celebration.

    Part of the reason winter festivities went global can be
found 150 years ago, at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution.

It was then that “Christ's Mass” (Cristes maesse in Old
English), the church service that celebrates the birth of Jesus
Christ, along with a wealth of other traditions, entered the
scientific age of mass communications, transport, and other

    This collision between ancient tradition and the age of
science and technology was particularly significant in Victorian
Britain, where, during a single decade, there was a striking
coincidence of events of significance for science, the
annual celebrations, and this book.

    The 1840s saw a dizzying rate of change in society due to
efforts across a proliferating range of disciplines. In the
world of science, there were Darwin's ideas on natural selection,
Joule's work on thermodynamics, and Faraday's studies
of magnetism, light, and electricity.

    In the sister disciplines of engineering and technology,
there were developments in factories, machine tools, and information

Babbage was hard at work on his difference
engine, and a web of telegraph lines spread across the
nation. All the while the old certainties seemed to have been
squashed flat by the steam hammer, steamboat, and steam

The resulting turmoil in society made the traditional
Christmas message of charity more relevant than ever.

    Emerging communications technologies, from speedy
railways to the telegraph, paved the way for that message to
be disseminated and homogenized for mass consumption,
forging much of what we think of today as the traditional

    The tumultuous 1840s also saw an important token of the
rising influence of science: the birth of a specific label for the
burgeoning army of individuals at work in this field.

Whewell, a polymath who was a Fellow of the Royal Society,
coined the word scientist in earnest in his two-volume book
The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences.

The word was of dubious
legitimacy in philological terms, a hybrid of Latin and
Greek, and was attacked (wrongly) as “an American barbarous
trisyllable.” But the pressure to put a name to this increasingly
influential group was overwhelming.

    That same decade saw the introduction to Britain of one
component of the German Christmas that remains very
much a part of the celebrations today. Queen Victoria and
Prince Albert set up a Christmas tree for the first time in
Windsor Castle in 1840.

She recorded that this German custom
quite affected dear Albert, who turned pale and had
tears in his eyes! Eight years later they appeared beside the
tree in the Illustrated London News, one of the magazines
established that decade to exploit advances in illustration

This would become one of the most famous
nineteenth-century Christmas scenes of all.

    At the same time that scientist was born and Albert gazed
upon his tree, an eminent and extraordinary individual,
Henry Cole, decided to reduce the burden of writing Christmas
greetings letters by taking advantage of another development
he had had a hand in: the introduction of the penny
post in 1840.

    His invention, the first Christmas card, was published in
1843 and cost a shilling, the equivalent of a day's wages for a
laborer. After two decades the price fell dramatically thanks
to one of the technological innovations of the day, cheap
color lithography, and Christmas cards entered the mass

    Cole regarded the card as the folk art of the Industrial
Revolution, and it ultimately became the greatest popularizer
of now-standard Christmas iconography, with designs
ranging from bizarre characters with pudding heads to mannequins
in period costume, as well as the more conventional
mistletoe, robins, holly, and fireside scenes. Not only were
the cards printed on paper, but they were also gilded, frosted,
and dressed with satin or fringed silk. Some were even made
to squeak.

    Through the evolution of one of the card's most familiar
characters, it is possible, in the wake of the pioneering contributions
of Cole, Prince Albert, and Whewell, to trace the
influence of scientists, engineers, and technologists on our
way of life. I am, of course, referring to the many depictions
of that fat man with the white beard.

    A silk-fringed card published in 1888 reveals how, by then,
Santa had resorted to the latest communications technology
to improve links with his market.

The figure shown on the
card seems to be engaged in what can only be described as a
conference call, listening to the simultaneous demands for
presents from an assortment of children.

Only the previous
decade, Alexander Graham Bell had patented the telephone
that made it all possible.

    By the 1890s Santa had decided to give up his sleigh and
reindeer, preferring to haul his gifts around by “the new
monstrosity from France,” the automobile.

As a result of the
development of the internal combustion engine, the silent
night, holy night now throbs to the sound of traffic.

stillness of the snowy landscape shown on so many Christmas
cards is marred by the groan of the snowplow and the
susurrus of chains on wheels. The search for the Bethlehem
star is now obscured by a haze of photochemical smog.

    Another newfangled device, the wireless, appears on one
1929 Christmas card, which features a Santa apparently mesmerized
by the crackling message it is receiving over the
ether: “You're in my Christmas circuit / And on the waves of
thought / A Happy Christmas and New Year / To you is
gladly brought.” Radio would become the first mass medium
to reinforce the tendency for Christmas to be a festival held
behind closed doors.

    When Santa reached for a cool soda pop in a Coca-Cola
advertisement that appeared during the Christmas season of
1937, he was again a technological pioneer. The source of his
refreshment was a refrigerator, even though iceboxes were
still being used by most American households that year.

    Santa can now be found in cyberspace. The last time I
checked, there were hundreds of Santa home pages for children's
e-mail. Digitized images of Santa now scud about the
web of international computer networks every Christmas.

    One day these images may even supplant the traditional
Christmas card. However, I believe that an e-mailed Santa,
spouting digital “ho, hos” and seasonal greetings, would still
honor the spirit in which Henry Cole first dreamed up the
card — as a practical way to marry mass communications
and art.

    Cole would be amazed and gratified by the extent to
which his little invention has caught on today. The significance
of the 1840s does not end there, however. As Cole sent
out his first cards, the greatest and most influential of all
Christmas books made its first appearance in a crimson and
gold binding.

    A Christmas Carol was published by Chapman and Hall on
December 19, 1843. By Christmas Eve it had sold six thousand
copies, the most successful publication that season.
Within two months eight pirated theatrical productions had
been staged.

    The genesis of this work of popular genius dates back to
around 1840 and Dickens's correspondence with the philanthropist
Lord Ashley.

Dickens was horrified by the impact
on society of the age of machines, notably the appalling conditions
endured by children working in coal mines and factories.

He started work on the book to make a sledgehammer
blow against these evils of the industrial age.

    One newspaper described the book as “sublime.” Thackeray
said that it was a “national benefit.” Lord Jeffrey told
Dickens that it had “prompted more positive acts of beneficence
than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals
in Christendom since Christmas 1842.”

    Thus the 1840s saw a striking convergence: the first scientist,
the tree, the card, and the Christmas book to top all
Christmas books.

A century and a half later, science is still
altering the very nature and fabric of the celebrations through
the introduction of new technology, whether cloned Christmas
trees, the Internet, or those infuriating cards that play
carols over and over again.

  1.     And so on to the science of Christmas.
  2. (C) 1998 Roger Highfield All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-316-36611-0
  3. The Science of Christmas

12 Christmas activities in the science classroom

The Science of Christmas

  • So how do you keep their minds engaged on the subject, yet tie it in with the seasonally influenced lack of concentration in class?
  • We’ve come up with a range of websites and activities that should come in useful to provide stimulation, enrichment and entertainment before the school holidays, whilst retaining a modicum of scientific learning.
  • We’d also welcome your comments to share other resources or activities that you have used or found useful.

12 ideas for a scientific Christmas class

Christmas tree buzzer game

A great idea to get students to use what they know about electrical currents from Snapshot Science. Pupils use the templates and materials to build a fun game.  It’s showing its age with the requirement of a film canister (this may spark a discussion as to what one of these is!), an alternative may be a small yoghurt or cream pot.

The Holly Leaf Miner investigation

The Holly Leaf Miner investigation.  The British Ecological Society has a number of investigations in this fieldwork booklet, page 40 outlines Ilkley Grammar School’s investigation into the Holly Leaf Miner.  An interesting way to get the class outside in the school grounds.

Christmas lights parallel and series circuits

Why do the lights of a Christmas tree not work if one of the bulbs is blown? Use this question as a great way to demonstrate practical electricity in real terms… and maybe get all your Christmas lights sorted to go up on the tree!  The pupils could be encouraged to bring in their own faulty Christmas lights to fix and test?  Another way of demonstrating how science affects us in all sorts of real life activities.

Hold the front page

A  fun scientific history lesson here, to help understand the progression of scientific endeavours through a calendar of The Sun’s front pages. Inspiration courtesy of our own Lynne Cooper and The Sun.

Firstly produce a list of selected front pages (12?) without dates from the website .

  1. Get the pupils to put the front pages into possible date order, earliest first.
  2. Then group the pages (into threes) and split the pupils into teams to find out more about their front page/pages either from the site or other websites.
  3. Pupils are then asked to Post-it note the date order for the front pages as  a class. Or do something brilliant on your interactive white board so kids can move around the  front pages.
  4. In true 12 day of Christmas fashion get the teams to give a one minute jingle (including everyone in the team) singing back information on the front page that they have been researching! In date order of course!

Can be as long or as short as required there are 60 front pages on the site all have more information and some have video clips and of course that are put into date order!

Make your own real snow

With predictions of a white Christmas receding for this winter here is an opportunity to turn this around and make your own real snow.  This page also has some interesting notes about how ski resorts plan and make their own snow, so a good opportunity to relate science to a real world application.

Christmas chromatography – deck the halls

Explained: The science behind Christmas

Christmas is a heady brew of family, religion, myth, spectacle, presents, cooking, stress and the supernatural. We cast a scientific eye over what can often be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.

Gift giving:

Present giving is an ancient behaviour that predates Christmas – which may explain why the apparently-benevolent act of handing someone a gift is driven by a deeply ingrained evolutionary-conditioned selfishness.

“Gift giving goes back to a long time before Christmas and it’s always done with some expectation. You don’t just give a gift for no reason, you do it because you expect something back in return,” says Kimberley Hockings, a lecturer in biosciences at the University of Exeter.

“Gift giving goes back to a long time before Christmas and it’s always done with some expectation”

Kimberley Hockings

“Even a present from Santa is tied to good behaviour – if you’re bad, you don’t get anything. The reasons are varied in humans because there are so many cultures that do things in different ways.

  • There doesn’t necessarily have to be a gift in return – it could be about love, affection, or social bonding,” she adds.
  • But humans only account for a tiny proportion of global present giving, since creatures across the animal kingdom – insects in particular – are constantly bearing gifts.
  • But the reasons for this are typically much more straightforward, with the male giving the female a present – normally in the form of food – to increase his chances of “mating access”, says Dr Hockings.

Photo: Getty

The Virgin Birth:

With the exception of Mary, virgin births, or parthenogenesis, have not historically been observed in humans or mammals – although the development of IVF techniques in which an egg is fertilised by sperm outside the body, has changed that in recent years.

But elsewhere in the animal kingdom parthenogenesis is far more common.

Insects do it all the time – notably some species of bees and wasps – while in 2006 scientists observed two separate cases of isolated female Komodo dragons producing offspring without fertilisation by a male. This suggests the female of the species can switch between sexual and asexual reproduction depending on the availability of males.

Boa constrictors have also been known to reproduce without a male while at least one species of lizard, the New Mexico whiptail, has no males at all in its population.

Star of Bethlehem:

Leaving aside divine occurrences, there are four explanations for the transient bright “star”.

A bright meteor: This would capture the attention, but it would be too transient to guide the three wise men on a long journey to the Roman province of Judea.

Can Reindeer Fly?

An extensively revised edition of a light-hearted scientific look at the rituals and icons of Christmas from such questions as the thermodynamics involved in cooking a turkey to the likely celestial candidates for the Star of Bethlehem and what happens to us physically when we over-indulge in alcohol. And there's a new chapter on how religion can help your entire life.

An irresistible stocking-filler: a hilarious romp through the science of Christmas.

A lighted-hearted scientific look at the rituals and icons of Christmas.

How does snow form? Why are we always depressed after Christmas? How does Santa manage to deliver all those presents in one night? (He has, in fact, little over two ten-thousandths of a second to get between each of the 842 million households he must visit.

) This book contains information on how drugs might make us see flying reindeer, how pollution is affecting the shape of Christmas trees and the intriguing correlation between the length of our Christmas card list and brain size.

Roger Highfield was the Science Editor of the DAILY TELEGRAPH and is now the Editor of the NEW SCIENTIST. He broadcasts frequently on radio and television.

The science behind Christmas – Science and Engineering

Departments Research impact and institutes UOM life 20th December 2017

There’re just days to go until Christmas and we bet you’ve already mentally checked out even if you’re still keeping up the pretence of focusing on anything that’s not Yuletide-related.

Not us though. Here at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, we wanted to look at the science behind some of our greatest Christmas traditions and beliefs. And as is usually the case, we found that rather than remove the magic, science only adds to the wonder of the season.

He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice

First up, in these days of smartphone calendars and automated reminders, is there a way to make it easier for Santa to work out what presents he needs? Riza Batista-Navarro, a lecturer in text mining at the School of Computer Science, believes there is.

One of Santa’s key jobs is to find out what each child wants for Christmas so he can ensure there’s enough being produced by the elves’ workshop. Once the letters start arriving in early December, those elves may have to rush to build all the toys in time.

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