Imperial College London

Can Reindeer Fly? Lecture explores the science of Christmas

Santa Claus

Christmas demonstration lecture takes an unusual look at the origins of Christmas - <em>News</em>

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Wednesday 12 December 2007
By Naomi Weston

The origins of Christmas, from the star of Bethlehem to the virgin birth and Santa Claus and his flying reindeer, were explored in the annual Christmas demonstration lecture at Imperial College London on Thursday 6 December.

Science Editor of the Daily Telegraph, Roger Highfield, gave a light-hearted and unusual perspective on the Christmas story. He explored varying theories that exist surrounding the aspects of the Christmas story from how do we guarantee a white Christmas to where does Santa Claus live?

Roger HighfieldRoger Highfield argued that the primal origins of Christmas actually go back much further than the birth of Jesus. “Forty thousand years ago, primitive man was worried about the sun disappearing. They came up with rituals and symbols to make sure the sun would return every day including evergreen, holly and mistletoe which all flourished without sunlight,” said Roger Highfield.

He also explored the theories surrounding the star or Bethlehem and what it could have been. "One idea was that it was a comet,” he explained, “another idea was that it could have been a supernova, an exploding star."

He went onto address our experience of Christmas today starting with how we can guarantee a white Christmas. "Either you can head for higher polar latitudes, such as Scandinavia or the Himalayas or if we make Ireland more mountainous to stop warm air coming in from Atlantic and then demolish it, you will have snow," he explained.

He also explored the scientific theories surrounding who is Santa Claus. "Before 1930s in popular culture he was a green elf, a sombre Saint Nicholas, but this all changed in 1931. Coca Cola adverts gave Santa a makeover with a red coat and surrounded by children and reindeer," said Roger Highfield.

He added: "But where is Santa Claus right now? Evidence suggests Santa’s grotto lies among Mediterranean olive groves on Gamila, a little island off Turkey. Twelfth century Venetian sea farers called it the Island of Saint Nicholas and it became a religious site dedicated to the saint. He became linked with Christmas because his saint’s day lies on the 6 December."

Roger Highfield concluded by asking whether reindeer can fly. Could Santa actually get round every household in the world in one night? He examined the alternative explanation of teleporting Santa around the world to make sure he reached everyone.

Over 300 people attended the lecture including pupils from schools and colleges in the London area.

Watch the lecture at Christmas Lecture

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