Comedian. Writer. Biped.

This is my contribution to the book The Atheist's Guide To Christmas. It's extremely silly, and is a parody of pedagogic writing in general, but inspired by Colin Wilson in particular. 

Christmas – A Scientific Overview

‘Christmas’.  It’s one of those words we bandy about confidently every day.  ‘Happy Christmas!’ we shout at children in the street.  We send cards inviting friends to ‘come Christmas with me’.  Anyone lucky enough to find themselves in Cardiff on 29th February has surely joined in with the chorus of A-Christmassing Down the Mound.  But could any of us truly say what the word means?  Tests have suggested that we could not[1].

The scientific history of Christmasology is a rich and fascinating one.  My purpose here is to give an overview accessible to the layman, but not so simplified as to misrepresent the true story.  As ever, it is impossible to please everyone, so I shall take the opportunity to apologise to readers hoping for an in-depth explanation of Barsky’s Chimney Hypothesis; there simply wasn’t room.  Conversely, if a newcomer to the field finds themselves unfamiliar with terms like ‘Sado-Melchiorism’ or ‘tree’, I hope that they will forgive me, and make use of the bibliography to dig deeper into this fascinating seam of study.

The Christmas story with which most of us are familiar begins in 1858, in Berlin, where a young philologist and psychologist, Bernhard Gernhard, began to question whether we all meant the same thing when we said Christmas (the story that his brainwave came in a dream as he slept on a stuffed reindeer is an entertaining one for children, but probably apocryphal).  The thrust of Gernhard’s initial train of enquiry was as follows: 

A)    We all accept that certain things are Christmassier than others. 

B)   We largely agree on what those things are. 

Therefore, he reasoned:

C)   We should be able to quantify ‘Christmassyness’, because Christmassy things should have it in common.

To modern Christmasologists, Gernhard’s initial experiments might seem amusingly naïve, but they are also recognised as germane to the discipline as a whole, and without him the 21st century world would look very different.  The North Pole, for example, would still be a barren, frozen wasteland without the magnificent Yule Hypercollider we take for granted today.

As so often, we learn more from Gernhard’s failures than his successes.  Almost everything we know about the Christmassiness of beards, for example, can be traced to his experiments in the Spring of 1860.   Before then, it was generally considered that beards themselves had a Christmassy quality when viewed from the lap of the beard’s owner.  Gernhard had no initial reason to dissent from this view, but his attempts to measure Bartweihnachtheit threw up some interesting and unexpected problems.

Gernhard’s first experiments involved placing a child at varying distances from the lap of a bearded man, and noting how Christmassy the child reported feeling[2].  Naturally, he expected Christmassiness to increase with proximity; the point of the experiment was to find by how much.  What no one could have expected, though, was that some of the children, even placed directly onto the lap of a bearded man, didn’t feel Christmassy at all.

Gernhard was dumfounded.  He recalibrated his experiments, double-checked the quality of his children[3] and tried again, first approaching the bearded men’s laps at a painfully gradual pace, next practically firing the children at the laps.  Still some of the children reported no Christmas.  Gernhard’s quest seemed to be at a dead end.

It was three weeks before it dawned on Gernhard that the fault might not be with the children.  He was putting together a new team of bearded men[4] when it suddenly occurred to him: what if not all beards are Christmassy?  Some quick thought experiments convinced him that he was onto something: it had been assumed by the Greeks that, say, a sea urchin with a beard isn’t Christmassy because the un-Christmassy nature of the sea urchin cancels out the Christmassiness of the beard.  But no one had ever considered that some beards might not be Christmassy at all!  No one had ever before attempted to imagine something potentially Christmassy with a non-Christmassy beard.  Before 1860, such a thing was literally unimaginable.  Close your eyes for a moment and picture yourself being given a plate of sprouts by a female horse with a blue beard[5], and you might come close to understanding Gernhard’s excitement.

Over the next eight years, Gernhard’s experiments refined and expanded his theories, and in 1868 he published his collected observations in On the Christmassiness of Beards – a true milestone in science, famously referred to by Mark Twain as ‘a Christmas Origin of Species[6]’.  It won him a place in history and the inaugural Templeton Peck Award for Christmas Science.

What Gernhard had achieved was a complete shift in the scientific concensus, akin to the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics or the Wang theory of Bendy Numbers.  Christmassiness was no longer seen as an essential quality pertaining to an object, but understood as the subtle function of a series of variables.  On The Christmassiness of Beards not only taught us that white beards are more Christmassy than black ones, but also that this Christmassiness can be decreased by the addition of sunglasses or Chineseness, or increased by jolliness or sitting in a cave[7].  Not for nothing is the nineteenth century known as The Christmas Century.  From being a sideline interest, the pursuit of a few moneyed eccentrics, Christmasology now took its rightful place as a ‘proper’ scientific discipline, sitting proudly alongside Biology, Space Physics and Clap-o-metry.

One might be forgiven for thinking that Christmasology took a back seat to War in the first half of the 20th century, but on at least one occasion in 1914, the opposite is true, when soldiers in the trenches ceased fire so that keen amateurs on both sides could examine a Christmas that had landed in No Man’s Land.  Still, war and its aftermath took its toll, and when the Second World War began, making hideous sense of the name of the First World War, many Christmasologists were put to work cracking the Enigma Code or helping build the Atomic Bomb.

The second half of the twentieth century saw Christmasology explode as a discipline, diversifying into sub-fields like Geochristmasology and Medicochristmasology[8], and even sub-sub-fields like Dermachristmasology[9].  Of these, perhaps the most interesting from the historical point of view is Christmasozoology.

Huge strides have been made in the last 50 years in understanding the intricate relationship between Christmas and nature.  Barsky’s Chimney Hypothesis, too complex and difficult to go into here, or indeed anywhere, proved the missing piece of the puzzle when it came to discovering the evolutionary advantages gained by reindeer that spend part of the year on roofs.  For his integration of BCH into Reindeer Game Theory, Christmasomathematician George Maynard Carol was rightly awarded 1968’s Templeton Peck Award.

Even more exciting were the discoveries of the 1970s, still known as The Christmas Decade.  By now it was accepted that Christmas occurred in nature, and that certain animals (reindeer, camels, oxen – especially with assen) are naturally more Christmassy than others (sharks, minotaurs, robots[10]).  But in 1974, Carol George and her husband George showed that it was possible to intervene and artificially elevate the Christmassiness of an animal.

The Maynard effect, as it is now known (Carol called it after her middle name), is observed if one compares a robin with some mice.  Robins, as is well known, have an unusually high level of natural Yule – far higher than a mouse.  In fact, even a hundred mice are not as Christmassy as a robin.  What the Georges demonstrated, though, is that you can approach robin-like Yule levels with only about 14 mice by dressing them in tiny waistcoats.

The Georges’ work was greeted with interest, but not, at first, overwhelm.  For one thing, they were still measuring Yule levels in the Modernized Gernhard Method – essentially, asking children how Christmassy the test subject made them feel, then adjusting statistically for orphans.  This was no indictment of their experiments; the MG method was the best available at the time, but it made the scientific community reluctant to greet new Christmas research with anything but a cautious welcome.

Then, in 1978, something incredible happened: Donald Maygeorge invented the Christmasometer.

Maygeorge, a naval engineer by background with only a layman’s knowledge of Christmasology, was tinkering about with some naval tinsel in his shed one dull 1978 afternoon, when an idea suddenly hit him.  And it was an idea that

…had he been named Newton, would have made him the second most famous Newton[11] in science.[12]

What Maygeorge suddenly realised, and what no one else had thought of, was breathtakingly simple: by taking a Van Rijd detector (the main component of a clap-o-meter), isolating its feedback loop and replacing the Fenchurch plate with a Bethlehem coil[13], you suddenly have a Van Rijd detector that works with tinsel instead of compère’s rouge, and uses the tinsel to boost its own output wave as a square of the tinsel’s Yule levels.  A child could have thought of it!  Suddenly we lived in a world that had a way of measuring Christmas.  Aristotle had been right.

From that Spring in 1978 – still known as The Year of Christmas – the whole realm of Christmasology had changed.  Not only was there now an accurate way of measuring Christmas, but another implication soon dawned on the Christmas world.  The Sezniak hypothesis had to all intents and purposes been proved: there must be a Christmas Particle.

Over thirty years on, we know more about Christmas than our ancestors ever dreamed possible.  We have identified the Christmassiest colour in the spectrum[14]; we know which is the most Christmassy planet in the Solar System (it’s Earth[15]); our computers have calculated the human name most redolent of Christmas[16] and anyone can tell a genuine caroller from a singing mugger or ‘wassailant’ at the flick of a switch.  But do we really understand what we mean when we say, “Christmas”?  As I indicated before, it appears not[17].  But we shall soon.

The last step on this remarkable journey must be the Christmas Particle.  The Sezniak Yulion is the final part of the puzzle that began with Gernhard’s naïve beardwork.  Once identified, the Christmas mystery will be solved.  The quantum event triggered by putting a waistcoat on a mouse, a scarf round an obelisk of snow or a white beard on a fat, laughing man will at long last be understood.  Man will be able to look robin in the eye and say, truthfully, “I know you.”

The Yule Hypercollider, to be activated at the North Pole in just a few short weeks (at the time of writing) is the key to this final step.  Those who understand Christmas rather better than the hysterical doom-mongers have thankfully overruled early objections that it might destroy the world.  Some of the technical difficulties, such as the disembodied, screaming voices, the mysterious faces in the sky or the strange behaviour of animals[18] have delayed, but mercifully not stopped, the Hypercollider’s progress, and on December 25th I hope you will join with me, and with all mankind as we look North with bated breath and wonder in awe as the Christmas story finally comes to an end.


[1]  Pennheisner, 1954.  See also, ‘Have We Forgotten To Remember Not To Forget That We Never Knew The True Meaning of Christmas?’ Daily Mail, Dec 12th, 1999-present.

[2] No really accurate way of measuring Christmasiness was developed until the 1970s, and Gernhard’s results are riddled with false positives from children approaching a birthday, wearing new jumpers, etc.  It was also not yet understood that orphans have a naturally high level of Yule, a factor that today’s researchers adjust for statistically.

[3]A true product of his time, Gernhard’s first thought was that some of the children might be ghosts, but close questioning of the parents ruled this out.

[4] The original bearded men were mainly orthodox Jews and it was felt that a fresh batch might make the experiment more pleasant to conduct.  Gernhard’s notebooks record that “the Jews are becoming irritable”, and the atmosphere worsened by week two, when the purpose of the experiments was explained to them.

[5] Not a white beard, as that will make the image Christmassy.

[6] Not to be confused with the Tim Allen comedy movie of the same name.

[7] As an aside to demonstrate a real-world application of Christmasology, the cave variable dogged Osama bin Laden throughout his later years.  No matter how threatening his rhetoric, once his beard had started to grey the image of him in a cave would make viewers of his videos feel Christmassy – almost the exact opposite of his intention.

[8] Not to be confused with Christmasomedicology, which is a branch of medicine.

[9] Not to be confused with Christmasodermatology, which is a sub-field of Christmasomedicology.

[10] Except Christmas robots, of course.

[11] Probably after Isaac Newton.

[12] I Smell Christmas: The Donald MayGeorge Story by Colin Harper

[13] Even a common Walsh repressor will do.

[14] Wenceslas Green, which lies halfway between red and white.

[15] Although Neptune is a very close second, for reasons that puzzle Christmastronomers.

[16] It is Hapsail Turkey Scarfnice, a computer-designed name expected to be as popular as ‘Andrew’ by the year 2023.

[17] Pennheisner, 1954.  See also, ‘Have We Forgotten To Remember Not To Forget That We Never Knew The True Meaning of Christmas?’ Daily Mail, Dec 12th, 1999-present.  See also the present article.

[18] To take two examples, the stag that somehow managed to get into the office of the chief engineer, intone the word, ‘No,’ then burst into flame, and the penguins which took flight and appear to have left Earth’s atmosphere, can both probably be explained by unusual electromagnetic fields around the collider.