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Does drinking hot tea in summer really cool you down?

Steve Faulkner, Loughborough University and Katy Griggs, Loughborough University

I remember as a child, on the rare warm days that we used to get in Britain, my grandmother telling me to “have a cup of black tea … it will help cool you down”. As a seven-year-old, this seemed like a crazy idea, especially when all I wanted was a cold lemonade and another ice cream. But it appears that this old wives’ tale may actually be more Stephen Hawking than Stephen King.

The idea of drinking hot drinks in warm weather goes back hundreds of years. Tea, or “chai” is one of the most popular drinks in India, and many of the leading consumers of tea per capita are in tropical or desert regions. Recently, evidence has begun to emerge that drinking hot drinks may really help to cool you down, too.

In 2012, Ollie Jay published the first of a series of papers to see if drinking a warm drink can actually lower the amount of heat stored by the body compared to a cold drink. In this first study, volunteers were asked to cycle at a relatively low intensity for 75 minutes in around 24°C heat, 23% relative humidity, while consuming water at either 1.5˚C, 10˚C, 37˚C or 50˚C.

The change in core temperature was slightly greater when 50˚C water was ingested compared to 1.5˚C and 10˚C water. However, when the authors considered the effect of drink temperature on body heat storage, which is a better indicator of total body temperature, the results were very different. Following the ingestion of the warm drink, overall body heat storage was actually lower following exercise than with cooler drinks.

The sweat factor

An explanation for these findings appears to be related to how sweating may be influenced by drink temperature. Sweating, and more importantly the evaporation of this sweat, is one of the key avenues for modulating body temperature and maintaining heat balance.

Due to the increased heat load from drinking a warm drink, there is a compensatory increase in overall sweat output, which outweighs the internal heat gain from the warm drink. Consistently, a 50˚C drink results in a higher whole body sweat loss (around 570ml vs about 465ml for 1.5˚C). In practical terms, this means that more sweat is produced which is evaporated from the skin surface, increasing heat loss from evaporation and reducing body heat storage.

Cold water: should he drink it?
Shutterstock

Importantly, however, this study was conducted under conditions that allowed complete evaporation of sweat – in other words dripping sweat was limited by maintaining a good airflow and keeping humidity low. The results would likely be different in conditions where sweat evaporation is limited, such as in hot and humid conditions. In fact, drinking cold drinks may be more favourable in these circumstances, minimising inefficient sweat losses – dripping sweat – and consequently aiding an individual’s hydration status.

Mouth or stomach?

In a second study, Jay aimed to establish the effect of drink temperature on local sweat rate, and to determine the location of thermoreceptors that may influence sweating. They demonstrated that with differing drink temperatures, colder drinks (1.5˚C) resulted in reductions in local sweat rate compared to when warm drinks were ingested (50˚C), despite identical changes in core and skin temperature.

Interestingly, however, differences in the sweat response were found when fluid was either swilled around the mouth or delivered directly to the stomach via a nasogastric tube. The data showed that only when cold drinks were delivered directly to the stomach did they result in reduced local sweat rate. This data indicates that the sensors responsible for influencing the sweat response, and therefore regulation of body temperature, reside somewhere in the abdominal cavity.

In a third study conducted in their lab, the team asked people to consume either 37˚C fluid or ice during exercise. In agreement with their previous work, they showed that there was a reduction in heat loss following ice ingestion compared to fluid at 37˚C, as a result of reduced sweat evaporation from the skin surface.

This has implications for endurance performance in the heat. In essence, where changes in body temperature are known to influence performance, ice ingestion could result in an increase in body heat, negatively influencing endurance capability. The ingestion of an iced drink prior to exercise and in hot and humid environments, however, should be beneficial.

The ConversationSo, depending on your environmental conditions, maybe reaching for that cup of tea isn’t such a crazy idea after all. Plus the moral of the story: listen to your grandmother’s advice – it’s based on years of experience.

Steve Faulkner, Research associate, Loughborough University and Katy Griggs, Research Assistant and PhD student, Loughborough University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to quote Monty Python without being annoying

Fans love sharing the joy of Monty Python by incessantly quoting classic lines, but telling someone you “fart in their general direction” isn’t always appreciated.

Among fellow enthusiasts, quoting beloved movie and TV lines is a great way to bond and make new friends by acknowledging shared interests. Unfortunately, it is also a great way to infuriate people who do not enjoy the source material or have no idea what you are talking about. For example, repeatedly saying “Ni!” makes total sense to a Python fan, but to those unfamiliar with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it definitely seems like an odd thing to say and is likely to create apprehension during a conversation, date or job interview.

Obscurity is of particular concern when quoting Monty Python, whose films are unquestionably popular, but remain somewhat niche in comparison to movies and TV shows that have become embedded in wider pop culture

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Symbolic gestures, magical thinking: New Year’s resolutions

Amy Reynolds, CQUniversity Australia; Doug McEvoy, Flinders University; Robert Adams, University of Adelaide, and Sally Ferguson, CQUniversity Australia

If you need an alarm to get up in the morning, you’re probably not getting enough sleep.

More than 40% of Australians get too little sleep to feel rested and able to function at their best. The average amount for an adult is around seven hours, while only 8% are lucky enough to get more than nine hours. Some 12% of Australians get less than 5.5 hours, and three-quarters of those struggle to get through their day.

These holidays, ditch the alarm clock and make getting enough sleep one of your New Year’s resolutions. Your memory, waistline and even your employer may thank you for it.

Why getting enough sleep should be a priority

Our brains use sleep time to sort through our experiences. We “clean up” and get rid of information connections we don’t need from the day just gone. Without adequate sleep, we may not be making enough space for new learning and memories.


Read more: Why our brain needs sleep and what happens if we don’t get it


Getting enough sleep also ensures we are safe to drive on the roads and less likely to make costly mistakes at work and home. Being awake for longer than 17 hours impairs your ability to think clearly as much as having a blood alcohol concentration above 0.05. After 24 hours awake, your ability to perform cognitive tasks is as poor as if you had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10.

Last year’s Australian sleep survey found 29% of Australian workers reported making errors at work in the previous three months specifically because they hadn’t got enough sleep. One in five respondents reported having nodded off while driving.

Getting enough sleep may also be helpful for managing our food intake. When people are only allowed to sleep for short periods of time, they are more likely to choose to snack food, particularly sweet snacks.

It’s natural to reach for sweet snacks when we don’t get enough sleep.
Sarah Swinton

The body’s response to eating food changes when sleep is restricted; as little as one week of restricted sleep is associated with glucose (sugar) levels approaching pre-diabetic levels.

The benefit is not limited to individual well-being. Australian workers who feel they get inadequate sleep are more likely to take a sick day than those who feel they get enough.

So, how much sleep do we need?

The American Sleep Foundation recommends adults aged between 18 and 64 get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night, while older adults should aim for seven to eight hours.


Read more – Explainer: how much sleep do we need?


Your ideal sleep duration will be unique to you and fall somewhere within the recommended range. To find out how much sleep you need, try a week-long experiment and modified sleep regime. Think of it as your holiday homework:

  • Cut back on how much you are doing during the week, particularly in the evening, to give yourself time to wind down
  • Put away the technology. A tech ban in the bedroom might be the best start
  • Create a dark sleeping space
  • Get rid of the alarm clock so your body has the chance to tell you how much sleep you need
  • Keep a week-long diary of your sleep times and daytime energy levels to get a feel for how much sleep feels good the next day.
Over a week, see how much sleep you actually need to feel fresh.
Warren Wong

You might find you need to sleep longer than usual for the first couple of nights. But remember, this is an exercise to work out how sleep can help you feel good rather than a test to see how much sleep you “must” or “can” get as this pressure may not help with sleeping well.

You might feel a little groggy the next morning which is normal, but you should wake up – and get up – when you feel well-rested.


Further reading – Health Check: how can I make it easier to wake up in the morning


By seeing where you sit on the sleep spectrum, you can work out the bed and wake times that best suit your needs.

How to get more sleep

Here are some starting points to make sleep more of a priority.

1) Reduce your exposure to bright lights in the evening

Allowing your body to naturally respond to the light and dark cycle each day can lead to earlier bed times.

Ditching distractors that delay our bedtimes can help shift the increase in the hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy, to earlier in the evening.

As little as one weekend of camping away from electrical lighting, including blue light in our devices, can help us become early risers.

Camping is a good way to reset the body clock.
Patrick Hendry

If there’s no time for camping this Christmas, try a “camp at home” approach by reducing your light exposure throughout the house at night; dim and fewer lights in the evening is ideal.

2) Establish a routine

While some find falling asleep a breeze, this can be a slow process for many. Consistent activities – such as brushing your teeth, reading a book – at a regular time each evening can help your body recognise and prepare for heading to bed.


Read more – Health Check: how to soothe yourself to sleep


Make sure this time is in addition to the time you set aside for sleep, so you have enough time to wind down before bed.

This routine extends to consistent wake times. A regular bed and wake time schedule should be complimentary.

3) Talk to your doctor about your sleep

If you’re told you snore, or you never feel refreshed even after what seems to be a long sleep, talk to your GP about whether you might have an underlying disorder that makes getting enough sleep harder.

According to last year’s national sleep survey, 8% of Australians have diagnosed sleep apnoea, 18% have restless leg syndrome and 20% have insomnia. Getting help for these conditions will impact your physical and mental health.

The ConversationWhile time spent sleeping may feel akin to “doing nothing” for your health, the benefits of regular, refreshing sleep for your brain and body mean that it should be on your New Year’s resolution list right next to healthy eating and exercise.

Amy Reynolds, Lecturer in Psychology, CQUniversity Australia; Doug McEvoy, Chief investigator, National Centre for Sleep Health Services Research, Flinders University; Robert Adams, Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide, and Sally Ferguson, Research professor, CQUniversity Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How did we come to celebrate Christmas?

Bronwen Neil, Australian Catholic University

Christmas is literally “the mass for Christ”, the day on which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The western date for Jesus’ birth was chosen by Pope Leo I.
El papa San León I Magno by Francisco Herrera the Younger (1622-1685)/Wikimedia Commons

The western date for Jesus’ birth is quite arbitrary. It was chosen by Pope Leo I, bishop of Rome (440-461), to coincide with the Festival of the Saturnalia, when Romans worshipped Saturn, the sun god. This was the day of the solar equinox, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, which officially marked the halfway point of winter.

Leo thought it would distract his Roman congregation from sun worship by celebrating the feast of Christ’s birth on the same day. He described Jesus as the “new light”; an image of salvation, but timely in that the days began to lengthen from 25 December onwards.

The date of the feast varies within Christian denominations. Western Christians celebrate the Nativity on a fixed date, 25 December. Some Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate it on 6 January together with Epiphany, the revelation of the infant Jesus to three wise men. The Greek and Russian Orthodox celebrate Christmas on 7 January and Epiphany on 19 January.

Where did Christmas traditions originate?

It is true to say that the western Christmas began as a Christianized pagan feast. The Christmas tree is also a pagan symbol of fertility.

In northern countries, when the nights are long and cold, the feast of Christmas traditionally gave Christian people something to look forward to: rich food (reindeer if you are in Sweden, pork and lamb if you are in Greece), lots of candles, Catholic Mass at midnight or Protestant services on Christmas morning. Fir trees were brought inside and lit with candles as a symbol of the hope that spring would return with new crops and plentiful food.

Fir trees were brought inside to symbolise the return of spring, new crops, and plentiful food. It’s also a pagan symbol of fertility.
Ievgenii Meyer/www.shutterstock.com

The early church also celebrated Christ’s Resurrection in spring, the season of new life, since it coincided with the Jewish Passover feast on 14 Nisan, a date that depended on when the first full moon occurred in March or April. Many of our Easter symbols, like the bunny and the egg, are ancient fertility symbols. No one knows how chocolate got dragged in!

It is also an interesting coincidence that the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, falls in November or December each year, and is celebrated with the lighting of the candelabra (menorah), traditional foods, games and gifts.

Where did Santa Claus come from?

The Santa Claus myth (spoiler alert: don’t read any further if you are under 10!) came from the legend of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was a bishop in the city of Myra (in modern Turkey), who wanted to help poor young women get husbands. He left bags of money of the doorsteps of their family homes in secret, an anonymous gift to the poor to be used as a dowry.

A 1950s Coca-Cola advertisement.
Insomnia Cured Here/Flickr, CC BY-SA

For this he became known as the patron saint of virgins and children. Over time, his generosity was remembered by people giving gifts to children in secret on the feast of St Nicholas, celebrated on December 6 (in western Christian countries) and 19 December (in the eastern churches). His name in English became Clause, after the Dutch Sinterklaas. Dutch children and others in western Europe leave food out in a shoe or a clog for Nicholas’ horse on the eve of 6 December, and receive presents on the day of the feast.

Our modern image of Santa Claus as a rotund gentleman of a certain age dressed in a red-and-white suit and matching hat comes from an incredibly successful marketing campaign by Coca-Cola in the 1930s. Since then, suburban Santas always dress in the image created by the Coke brand.

But this image comes from an earlier depiction of Father Christmas who had nothing to do with the American Santa Claus until the 1850s.

Until the Victorian era, when childhood was recognised as a separate stage of life, and the Christmas feast came to centre around children, Father Christmas, or Lord Christmas as he was also known, was the personification of a mid-winter feast of merrymaking for adults – and he brought no presents. He was useful as a symbol for Catholic-sympathising writers in the early 17th century who wanted to defend Christmas from attacks by the Puritans, radical Protestants who intended to ban the feast.

(For a Jewish perspective on the Wars of Religion, see Stephen Feldman’s book, Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas: A Critical History of the Separation of Church and State (1997).)

Tuck postcard, in the Photo Oilette series (1919).

From the 1850s onwards, the English Father Christmas was depicted as a bearded old man wearing a long red robe trimmed with white fur and a pointed red hat, who brought gifts to good children. This image can be seen on English postcards from the early 20th century.

Christmas in the modern era

A lot of the significance of the original feast is lost when we in the southern hemisphere celebrate it in the middle of summer. A family barbecue at the beach cannot really capture the atmosphere of a cold and dark mid-winter.

This seems to be the main reason for the emergence of the alternative “Christmas in July”. Today we give presents to adults as well as kids on the eve or day of 25 December, and usually not anonymously. It would be interesting to see what would change if none of our gifts had name tags attached – Secret Santa at the office is based on the same concept.

Our gifts are also reminiscent of the tributes that the three Magi – who symbolise, according to tradition, the non-Jewish peoples – gave to the infant Jesus.

Incidentally, according to two of the four Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but given the lack of corroborating evidence for a census there that year, it is now thought that Jesus was more likely born in Galilee, where he grew up. Bethlehem was significant for the Gospel writers as being the birthplace of King David 1,000 years earlier, and a royal city for the Jews.

The ConversationThe Magi gave Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh, when they understood that the baby they were looking at was both human and the son of God. That mystery at least remains intact.

Bronwen Neil, Associate professor, Australian Catholic University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Christmas letters to his children bring echoes of Middle-earth to the North Pole

Dimitra Fimi, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Like parents the world over, J.R.R. Tolkien dedicated considerable time and effort to making Christmas a joyful time for his young children. Yet this was a man whose rich imagination brought to life an entire world with thousands of years of legendary history; described different orders of creatures, wars and battles; even invented languages. So inevitably, his family traditions were something rather special.

Every year, from 1920 to 1942, the Tolkien children – first John, and later Michael, Christopher and Priscilla – would receive a letter from Father Christmas. It would be written in his spidery hand (he would, after all, be a very old man) and illustrated with funny scenes from life in the North Pole. In 2018, the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford will exhibit the letters, alongside other manuscripts, artwork, maps, letters and artefacts from Tolkien collections around the world.

The American influence

Tolkien was not the first author to produce letters from Father Christmas for his children. Mark Twain famously wrote a letter from “Santa Claus” to his elder daughter, Susie Clemens. And although Tolkien retained the English name for his protagonist, there was a lot of popular American-derived folklore associated with his Father Christmas.

The aurora borealis, 1926: ‘Isn’t the North Polar Bear silly? … [he] turned on all the Northern Lights for two years in one go. You have never heard or seen anything like it. I have tried to draw a picture of it: but I am too shaky to do it properly and you can’t paint fizzing light can you?’
© The Tolkien Estate Ltd, 1976.

The idea of Santa Claus dressed in red and white, and riding a sleigh drawn by reindeer every Christmas Eve delivering presents to children, comes from perhaps the best-known poem in the English language: The Night Before Christmas. Written either by Clement Moore or Henry Livingston (the authorship is contested) in the 19th century, this classic American poem established Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, as we know him today.

The imagery of Santa Claus was enhanced by German-American illustrator Thomas Nast, who provided Santa with elf helpers and a toy workshop, and portrayed him living in the North Pole and in regular receipt of children’s letters.

Tolkien borrows freely from all of this American pop culture which, by the end of the 19th century, had migrated to Britain and was immensely popular. But he also takes his Father Christmas in different directions, gravitating towards his own mythology of Middle-earth, which was developing in parallel.

Old friends, and new

So of course we get elves in Tolkien’s North Pole. But despite the fact that these are diminutive, jolly elves with pointed hats (a far cry from those of The Lord of the Rings) they belong to different kindreds: Snow Elves, Red Elves or Gnomes, Green Elves – not unlike the High Elves, Silvan Elves and others in The Lord of the Rings.

Some of the Christmas elves were fierce warriors, giving the evil goblins a run for their money in battle. Indeed, the goblins themselves are precursors of the Goblins in The Hobbit, and later the Orcs. They live underground, they are keen on tunnelling, and they are a perennial threat to Christmas.

Christmas, 1932: ‘The caves are wonderful. I knew they were there, but not how many or how big they were. Of course the goblins went off into the deepest holes and corners, and we soon found Polar Bear. He was getting quite long and thin with hunger, as he had been in the caves about a fortnight … At the top of my ‘Christmas card’ is a picture, imaginary, but more or less as it really is, of me arriving over Oxford. Your house is just about where the three little black points stick up out of the shadow at the right.’
© The Tolkien Estate Ltd, 1976

At the same time, Tolkien expands the Christmas mythology considerably. Father Christmas’s best friend (and regular rascal) is the North Polar Bear, whose funny antics are the focus of the early letters. Later on, his nephews, Paksu and Valkotukka (Finnish for “fat” and “white hair” respectively) provide further comic relief, and showcase Tolkien’s love for the language which influenced one of his own invented languages, Quenya, spoken by the Elves of Middle-earth.

A number of “aetiological” myths are also added: motifs that “explain” away things that happen in the real world of Tolkien’s children. So broken chocolates can be explained by the Polar Bear squishing them, and a bright light in the night sky is surely a glimpse of the gigantic Christmas tree in the North Pole.

Innocence lost

More details and innovations make this frozen world wonderful and intriguing. Father Christmas apparently has a tap in his cellar that “turns on” the Aurora Borealis; there is cave art by primeval men in the goblin caves, including depictions of mammoths and reindeer; and Snow-boys (the sons of Snow-men who live in the vicinity) get invites to parties in Father Christmas’s house.

Cave drawings, 1932: ‘Polar Bear himself was astonished when I brought light; for the most remarkable thing is that the walls of these caves are all covered with pictures, cut into the rock or painted on in red and brown and black. Some of them are very good (mostly of animals), and some are queer and some bad; and there are many strange marks, signs and scribbles, some of which have a nasty look.’
© The Tolkien Estate Ltd, 1976

Even more Tolkienian, we also get invented languages and alphabets. An elf called Ilbereth, who becomes Father Christmas’s secretary, sends the children a Merry Christmas message in elvish script, which is ostensibly a variation of Tolkien’s tengwar writing system, the same seen on the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. And the Polar Bear gives us a sentence in “Arctic” (a version of Quenya) and introduces us to an alphabet he has devised based on goblin symbols.

The Father Christmas letters were published after Tolkien’s death in 1973, and their lasting popularity is, I would argue, due to the extended Christmas saga they create and the funny and moving father’s voice that comes through each of them.

The ConversationThe poignant “last letter”, when Father Christmas waves goodbye to children who are now “too old” to hang their stocking anymore, while the Second World War is raging, marks the end of innocence in more than one way. But the myth of Father Christmas lives on, and continues to be a favourite festive read of children all over the world.

Dimitra Fimi, Senior Lecturer in English, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The common and not so common injuries sustained at Christmas

Lancaster University

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

The festive period is a time for family, friends and happiness. The worst thing most people face is a bit of digestive discomfort from overeating. But for a few unfortunate individuals, Christmas is like a scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. To avoid having a Christmas like the Griswolds’, try and learn some lessons from these unfortunate folk.

Most people illuminate their Christmas tree with electric lights, but people in some countries, like Switzerland, still prefer to use candles. Between 1971 and 2012, 28 Swiss people sustained significant burns from doing this, and four died as a result of their burns. Although less common than household fires, fires associated with candles and Christmas decorations usually lead to much more severe injuries.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation poster.
Wikimedia Commons

However, Christmas lights aren’t much safer. A study from Canada found that people who injured themselves installing Christmas lights spent an average of 15 days in hospital and, sadly, five per cent of those injured died. Christmas lights are particularly hazardous to children as they are the perfect size for them to eat or inhale.

Although festive baubles usually cause hazards in the home, they have been known to cause problems in health centres and hospitals. Shortly after the festive decorations went up at a hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, a technologist was summoned to investigate a “broken” blood gas analyser. The technologist removed tinsel that had been draped over the machine and, voila, it worked once again.

Festivities out of the house also increase the chance of being injured. A recent study in the UK showed that assaults resulting in facial injuries, likely inflicted while out cerebrating the season of goodwill, increase significantly over the Christmas period, compared with the rest of the year and with other holiday periods.

Christmas hazards don’t respect borders

Sadly, good weather doesn’t guarantee safety. An Australian study showed that over a Christmas and New Year period, a number of people were admitted to a major trauma centre as a result of injuries from jet-skis and boat propellers.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, Americans are busy injuring themselves, too. According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 407 Christmas-related admissions to health centres and emergency departments in December 2016. Surprisingly, more than half of those admitted were women.

Of the 407 admissions, 84 were caused by Christmas lights, 40 were caused by Christmas trees and/or their supports, and 159 were caused by Christmas decorations. The remainder were from a variety of causes.

The data shows that ten per cent of those admitted were younger than two years. In fact, children aged ten and under accounted for a quarter of all admissions. The next largest admitted group, divided into ten-year age groups, were those aged 51-60 with 16%, followed closely by those aged three to ten with 15%.

The most common injuries were cuts (18%), ingestion or inhalation of foreign objects (15%), sprains and strains (15%) and scratches (14%).

Some of the more notable cases in the list of admissions are as follows:

  • A 36-year-old man was putting up Christmas decorations when he looked up and sneezed, accidentally swallowing a drawing pin in the process.
  • A four-year-old girl was found with a metal bell in her ear. She told the medic that she wanted to “hear jingle bells”.
  • A 50-year-old woman who had been standing on a chair hanging Christmas lights fell and struck her rectum on the tree branches. She was diagnosed with a tear alongside her rectum.
  • A 28-year-old woman was putting up an ornament when the bar stool slipped from under her, causing vaginal trauma from the landing.
  • A 66-year-old man, working at home to put up Christmas decorations when the wind blew the patient around and around, making him dizzy.
  • A 64-year-old woman dropped a four-foot wooden Santa on her foot, spraining it.
United States Consumer Product Safety Commission., Author provided

As you prepare for the festive period, remember that the potential for accidents is all around, so take your time putting things up and don’t over do it. It’s all about elf and safety. You don’t want to end up like the Christmas turkey: burned, sliced, dislocated and with a foreign object inside you.

The ConversationMerry Christmas!

Adam Taylor, Director of the Clinical Anatomy Learning Centre & Senior Lecturer in Anatomy, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bah, humbug: the misery of Christmas in classic literature

Michelle Smith, Deakin University

Every festive season guarantees a television re-run of the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, with the deflating turkey, incinerated tree, and extreme Griswold household lighting display that is now sufficiently commonplace for the joke to be compromised.

Most modern Christmas films angle for comedy with a touch of sentimental schmaltz. In contrast, literary Christmases frequently tap into the anxiety and sadness that often accompany the “happiest time of year”.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) is the quintessential Christmas tale. Even for those who have never read any Dickens, the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge has permeated our culture, from 1940s Scrooge McDuck cartoons to the Muppets adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1992.

Scrooge (1935). The first sound version of A Christmas Carol.

Money-lender Scrooge’s greed extends to denying the pleasures of Christmas to himself and his employees. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come aid Scrooge in reconciling his pain at the loss of a past love and redeeming himself among the living, so that he can find a welcoming place in the world on Christmas day.

As Tara Moore explains, Dickens and other writers in the Victorian period shaped “a certain version of urban Christmas—plum pudding, mourning the lost, holly and hearth-love” that we continue to idealise and reproduce.

Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story A Christmas Memory (1956) transports the theme of mourning happier times and beloved people from the snowy cobblestone streets of London to small-town Alabama.

The seven-year-old narrator, Buddy, describes the pleasures of a poor – but loving and inventive – Christmas with his elderly cousin, complete with scandalous nips of whisky after baking fruitcakes.

This is Buddy’s last Christmas with her, as he subsequently moves to military school. As time passes, dementia erases the cousin’s memories of Buddy and a November finally arrives,

when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”

Other literary Christmases struggle to even find a bittersweet strand to the holiday. Dostoyevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding (1848) is a disturbing story in which the narrator recalls a past Christmas party in which a male landowner watches a rich girl playing with a doll.

The landowner calculates that when the girl is old enough marry that her dowry will total half a million roubles; he attempts to kiss the girl and extract a promise of love from her. The wedding of the title, which the narrator has just attended, is revealed to be that of the landowner and the rich girl, held five years after their Christmas meeting.

Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ’Twas the Night Before Christmas (1823) popularised an idyllic children’s vision of Christmas rendered magical by Saint Nicholas and his flying reindeer. In several of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales with festive settings, however, he does not soften his trademark melancholy for the sake of Christmas cheer.

Stories of perfect Christmases are often tinged with sadness, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Fir Tree’.
Author provided

In the little-known story The Fir Tree (1844), a tree is impatient for the day when it will be tall enough to take the exciting journey that other trees in the forest enjoy each December.

The fir tree is blissful when he is felled, transported, and decorated with candles and a gleaming star for a family’s Christmas Eve celebrations. He is then discarded in the household attic and eventually chopped to pieces and tossed on a fire. “Past! past!” the tree cries as he burns, realising that he should have taken pleasure during his lifetime in the forest, rather than eyeing an unknown future.

The Little Match Girl (1845) is similarly heart-rending, as a hungry, barefooted girl attempts to sell matches on snowy streets on New Year’s Eve.

She lights several matches to warm herself and is comforted by a series of visions, including a Christmas scene with a tree shining with “thousands of candles” and a stuffed goose that jumps from its dish,

and waddle[s] along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl.

The girl freezes to death on the street. As is typical of Andersen, her lonely death is intended to be a happy ending, as she will join with her grandmother and God in heaven.

Christmas is a backdrop for confronting feelings of isolation, strangeness and escalating family tensions in a range of fiction. Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), set in the 19th century, is a striking example of Christmas serving as a lightning rod for intergenerational conflict.

Oscar’s father, Theophilus, is a fundamentalist Christian preacher who shuns Christmas feasting and celebration as pagan in origin. The servants covertly cook a plum pudding for Oscar, but his father catches him eating the “fruit of Satan” after one life-changing spoonful.

Theophilus strikes his son, forcing him to spit out the forbidden pleasure. Oscar, seeking a divine sign, asks God “if it be Thy will that Thy people eat pudding, then smite him!”. His father is soon bleeding with an injury and Oscar’s rejection of his father’s religion is set in motion.

In literature, as in our lived experiences of Christmas, the expectations of family, togetherness, and plenitude can heighten a sense of loneliness, loss, and conflict.

While there are many cheerful stories of Christmas, for children in particular, a significant number of literary Christmases scratch away at its twinkling veneer of tinsel and goodwill.

The ConversationThere’s an element of humbug in the mythology of Christmas, as Scrooge would have it, after all.

Michelle Smith, Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Humbug, tinsel and gravy: in search of the perfect Christmas pop song

Earlier this year, musicologist Joe Bennett took a sample of the top 200 Spotify streams from the Christmas week of 2016 and dissected those that were Christmas-related.

The results, analysed according to parameters such as beats per minute, key signature and lyrical content, were passed to professional songwriters with a pedigree of hits for major artists to produce an “ultimate” Christmas song. The result is rather effective, even for unbelievers.

The ‘ultimate Christmas song’ – according to a group of musicologists who sampled Christmas-related Spotify streams.

Aptly enough, that project was commissioned by a chain of shopping centres. But while it distinguishes between lyrical themes, it primarily illuminates the aesthetic dead-centre of the Christmas pop song.

From commerce to campaigns – political Christmas songs

The concept of the “Christmas song” is rife with political contradictions. It marks a day to put aside division and commerce, and yet is aimed squarely at that most blatantly commercial and competitive institution, the pop charts.

There’s a broad umbrella of musical and lyrical tropes that – pardon the pun – rings bells for listeners in constituting a “Christmas song”. The machine-tooled nature of the archetypal Christmas pop song is such a recognisable format, in fact, that it’s been opened up to a hybrid of data analysis and songwriting, as Bennett’s work illustrates.

Other researchers have sought to bring a broader typology to the service of unpicking the ideological resonance behind Christmas songs.

The musicologist Freya Jarman, for instance, uses a framework of overlapping concepts linked to Christmas, including the “traditional/religious” (such as Mistletoe and Wine), “nostalgia” (White Christmas), “romance” (Last Christmas) or “parties/friends” (I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day).

Wham’s Last Christmas taps into the romantic Christmas spirit.

The last of Jarman’s categories though – “good will to all men” – most starkly highlights the complexities around commercial acumen and the political potential of Christmas music.

In the broader canon of “political” pop songs, many of the most well known are, in fact, Christmas songs rather than more overt “protest” songs – a political message smuggled in among the sleigh-bells. John Lennon’s Merry Christmas, War is Over is one example, another being Jona Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry, a universal soldier’s lament.

Other Christmas songs, notably Do They Know It’s Christmas, have involved direct political lobbying, such as when Bob Geldof tried to get the government to waive taxes on the single itself. This arguably became a more powerful intervention than other more obviously “political” songs – forcing the government to take a position on the tax arrangements around charity singles.

Some Christmas songs such as Bob Geldoff’s Do They Know It’s Christmas are an act of direct political lobbying.

Such tensions around commerce and authenticity in popular music become especially marked around Christmas, with the charts a key battleground.

When Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of became Britain’s Christmas Number 1 in 2009, it was the result of social media campaigning against the domination of X Factor releases as seasonal chart toppers. The song’s broad political message was deployed in the specific context of a longstanding debate within popular music consumption.

This method leaked from commentary on popular music’s internal politics into broader political discourse. Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead was pushed up the charts by social media after Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 and, latterly, the similar success of a protest mash-up accusing UK Prime Minister Theresa May of being a “Liar Liar” caused headaches for broadcasters regarding election regulations.

Striking a balance

But while the underlying politics of commercialism and community have now extended into the techniques of political messaging the rest of the year round, there are still attempts to strike a balance.

There’s a raft of Christmas songs that circumvent, without fully avoiding, the Yuletide by taking a sideways (or critical) view of it. These allow ambivalent listeners to participate in the festivities while maintaining their sense of critical distance from the more traditional trappings.

Fairytale of New York is a story of love gone wrong with Christmas as the backdrop.

Fairytale of New York is an obvious example here. Where the “traditional” Christmas song is about Christmas, it’s about a love story gone awry, with Christmas as the backdrop. This allows sceptics to buy into the aesthetic, and even the sentiment, while holding firm their anti-Christmas credentials.

Others look at the contradictions head-on. Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun uses the Australian December sunshine as a pivot to focus on family, taking a swipe at commerce – “selling Playstations and beer” – while embracing the sentimentality. Addressing the social context of Christmas is another means of tackling the broader, implicit, politics of class.

Tim Minchin takes a swipe at the excessive commerce of Christmas in White Wine In The Sun.

More universal ‘human’ Christmas messages

Family, fraught relationships and exclusion can make for a more potent, perhaps realistic, Christmas story than snowflakes and Santa.

In The Kinks’ caustic Father Christmas the narrator, a department store Santa, is mugged by a group of youths demanding practical help.

Give us some money … Give my daddy a job ‘cause he needs on”.

Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy, an isolated and fractious address from a prison cell, packs its emotional punch through mundane details and implied backstory. The story here is both personal and, through that prism, national.

Eschewing the standard Christmas musical and lyrical devices entirely, How to Make Gravy is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the typical tinsel-draped fare, and buries its politics in the personal. Yet it’s still become a Christmas classic.

Paul Kelly’s How To Make Gravy is an emotional Christmas appeal from a prison cell.

The search for authenticity and political punch

From outright celebration, through charity to explicit political salvos, there are many ways to musically address the pleasures and strains of the season. Aesthetic tropes – the musical bells and baubles – notwithstanding, the form is actually very broad and embraces a range of genres.

The “ideal” Christmas song in the sense of commercial pop is also open to subversion. Beyond this, there’s a strong draw among some sections of the public towards more cynical, or at least ambivalent, takes on the traditional Christmas customs – even if these often end up adhering to what are ultimately similar sentiments.

The ConversationAs in Dickens’ immortal story of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, there’s room, it seems, for the humbug to carry the day without ruining it.

Adam Behr, Lecturer in Popular and Contemporary Music, Newcastle University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Back in time for Christmas dinner: the modern desire for a bygone age

James Cronin, Lancaster University

Nostalgia is now a key strategic consideration for business and retail. The marketisation of our fondness for a remembered past has stimulated the endless reboots of 1980s movie classics and children’s television series, the remarketing of retro videogames and even the re-appreciation of vintage commercials.

Beyond providing us with emotional access to objects and things from our previous and personal “lived” experiences, there are also aspects of today’s “retro revolution” that appeal to imagined experiences of a more distant past. This has been particularly evident in our desires to find inspiration when it comes to eating.

The BBC’s Back in Time for Dinner and Back in Time for Christmas are examples of consumer curiosity to seek out, understand and rediscover forgotten ways of eating and drinking.

As we approach Christmas, it seems that our insatiable curiosity – and desire – for more real, more authentic, and more fun than even that which we are personally familiar with might mean looking past the Christmas dinner of our own memories to that of the ancestral memory instead.

Christmas dinner as the “real thing”

For many, the contemporary British Christmas dinner conjures up images of turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, gravy, pigs in blankets, sprouts, pudding and, of course, the copious festive tubs of chocolates. The instantly recognisable blend of features of the Christmas dinner are so essential to the holiday experience that they have been appropriated by various businesses on the high street – whether it is Greggs’ Festive Bakes, Subway’s Festive Feast Sub or Pret A Manger’s Christmas Lunch sandwiches.

The very special, moreish (and mass marketed) nature of the contemporary “taste of Christmas” echoes the work of psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek on the dynamics of “surplus-enjoyment” and insatiable, bottomless desire.
It is conceivable that Christmas dinner has become for many, what Žižek might call, “the Real Thing”.

It is not so much that the taste of Christmas dinner has become iconic, or that the food itself satisfies us like no other. It is what Christmas dinner represents – happiness, togetherness, material abundance. These are the “real” things which we can never have too much of and we are forever trying to fill ourselves up with.

As a consequence, people often find themselves always wanting more over the festive period. Ultimately, this insatiability culminates in the copiousness and lavishness of the Christmas Day feast. Though this often is not the end, thanks to the leftovers. And we are destined to recreate the feast without fail every year afterwards. Some might even wish that it could be Christmas every day, as it were.

The notion of a pure surplus of enjoyment surrounding Christmas dinner could mean that enjoyment of it is premised on a ceaseless quest to realise and quench abstract desires. While we might have everything and more right now for a great Christmas dinner, that is still never quite good enough.

Christmas feasting through the ages

The trappings of the modern Christmas dinner originate in Victorian England, between the birth of urban industrialisation and modern consumer culture. The prototype of what we eat now is captured in representations of the Cratchit family dinner in the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. Although Dickens did not himself conceive of what would become the modern Christmas dinner, authors such as Cathy Kaufman make it clear that “his story was a road map for middle and working-class pleasures at the precise moment when both meal structures and the nature of Christmas celebrations were changing.”

The changes catalysed by the Victorians are not just seen in their foods of choice but also in accompaniments they introduced to the dinner table (the Christmas cracker,for example). They constructed Christmas dinner as a way of signifying conviviality, playfulness and community – a way of staging desire.

A Christmas cracker.
Shutterstock/MonkeyBusinessImage

Before Victorian times, feasting at Christmas served a more raucous and crude means of breaking up the hardship and scarcity of the cold winter months. In the late Middle Ages and Tudor England for example, the feasting during Christmas time may have often been organised less elaborately around various pies, whatever game birds were in availability, or the meat of livestock that could not overwinter and needed to be culled. There may also have been a great divide between what the rich and the poor ate during Yuletide Feasting.

A new old desire

To tap into consumers’ insatiable desire for more fun, more authentic and more real festive experiences The National Trust has promoted the opportunity to experience a historic Christmas where visitors can enjoy a period-specific “Tudor Christmas feast beside a roaring log fire”.

Various businesses provide full-service catering based on authentic Victorian-themed food, tea carts and props – and a host of restaurants now offer “Victorian Christmas” menus and themed dining experiences. Elsewhere, the BBC and The Telegraph each provide DIY guides “to making your very own Victorian Christmas”.

The ConversationThe taste of modern Christmas as we know it now certainly fills us up. But ultimately it never fully satisfies consumer desire. We forever want more and consumers might slowly be realising that this little bit extra might not be available to them in the present but rather lies buried in the past ready for excavation.

James Cronin, Lecturer in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Dear robot Santa…

David Fagan, Queensland University of Technology

In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the editor of New York’s The Sun newspaper to ask whether her friends were right to say there was no Santa Claus.

Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Her letter prompted one of the most famous newspaper editorials in history, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

A modern-day Virginia’s smartphone is probably more capable than Santa of knowing what she wants for Christmas.


Read more: Ten tips to make your holidays less fraught and more festive


So, how long before Siri and a network of artificially intelligent successors (programmed to anticipate human needs and communicate with each other) usurp Santa and start asking the alternative question: is Virginia real?

In the spirit of the New York’s The Sun (which no longer exists, sadly) this reply from a newspaper editor (if they still exist in the future) to a robotic Santa is set in 2047, 150 years after Virginia asked the question that is part of Christmas folklore.


December 2047

Dear Santa,

Your friends are wrong, affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age where they believe their “intelligence” can anticipate every thought and match it with an action.

It’s true that you machines, invisible but ubiquitous, have trumped our natural intelligence through your endless, silent buzz with each other. It began in the 2010s with Siri, and ultimately reached your level of apparent omnipotence.

But don’t forget. Somewhere (often remotely) at the end of every action, you are serving a human. In your case, it’s a little girl who wants to keep believing in the mystery and magic of Christmas.

So in answer to your question: Yes Santa, there really is a Virginia.

Don’t forget. The Santa whom children believed in has always seen all and known all – just like you.

He has always had helpers to create the gifts and magic of his story. Now, the workshops are run by bots, and the elves have become marketing assistants who no longer know how to wrap a gift, let alone guess what a little girl might want.

And the reindeer, freed from training for their annual epic flight thanks to your army of drones, have gone to fat. Even Rudolph with his nose so bright can no longer guide himself to the food trough, let alone a sleigh tonight.

Santa, you’ve asked what this is all about, what is your purpose? And precisely, is there really a Virginia or is she, as your robotic friends say, the toy of a personal bot she has had since birth?

The personal bot boom of the 2020s, then the development of belief and philosophy by your robotic predecessors in the 2030s, was always going to lead to you asking this question.

Fair enough. In earlier times, we humans would have asked ourselves why we were helping a machine think about its purpose in life. In fear, our instinct would have been to instantly cut off its power. Now we’re flattered you asked.

Thankfully, we accepted how machines like you could do the heavy physical and mental lifting that for centuries has been the burden of humans.

We regulated your limits but gave you rights. Now our minds and bodies have been freed from the strains of earlier times, sparing us to concentrate on living good lives, rather than productive lives.

But, Santa, the good human life well lived starts with fantasy, as one of our predecessors, New York’s The Sun, explained to children 150 years ago.

The power of fantasy describes where the work you do every year comes from.

But the fantasy does not belong to the other bots you talk to. The fantasy belongs to the child they serve. Such fantasy allows something unexplainable to create universal joy, an emotion you can understand but never experience.

And those fantasies are what will create new ways of meeting human needs. Such fantasies led people to dream of, then create, the first robots with only a fraction of your capabilities. Such fantasies found ways to power the planet without damaging it.

Your question about your purpose reminds us that such fantasies continue to matter – even to machines like you that learn effortlessly from us and each other.

But Santa, there is one fantasy you should not have. And that is that the little girl who craves a doll or a toy car like they used to drive in the good old days doesn’t matter. Or that the little boy who craves a toy kitchen or inflatable ball is subservient to the personal bot your “elves” listen to.

No Virginia, Santa? She is real – even if not to you. And you are real to her, not as a machine but as a magical figure that sees all and knows all – just as you always have, long before Siri.

She and you live forever. A thousand years from now – nay, 10,000 years from now – you and what you stand for will continue to make glad the heart of childhood and children like Virginia.

Yours, Ed


The ConversationThanks to veteran journalist Francis Pharcellus Church, who penned the original editorial in New York’s The Sun all those years ago.

David Fagan, Adjunct Professor, QUT Business School, and Director of Corporate Transition, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.