By John Kerr 18/12/2016

As the big day approaches, there is no shortage of scientists turning their inquisitive minds to the mysteries of Christmas.

In the spirit of the festive season, Sciblogs brings you a tinsel entwined ‘wrap-up’ of Noel-related research.

Naughty or nice? Not so important for Santa

Santa pays a visit to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children . Source: BelfastLive.
Santa pays a visit to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. Source: BelfastLive.

To kick off, new (real) research published in the BMJ dispels the myth that Santa Claus rewards children based on how nice or naughty they have been in the previous year.

Researchers surveyed every UK hospital with a paediatric ward to find out if ‘Santa’ had visited during Christmas 2015. They then correlated this with rates of absenteeism from primary school, conviction rates in young people (aged 10-17 years), distance from hospital to North Pole (as the reindeer flies), and socioeconomic deprivation.

Santa Claus visited most of the paediatric wards in all four countries: 89% in England, 100% in Northern Ireland, 93% in Scotland, and 92% in Wales.

The odds of him not visiting, however, were significantly higher for paediatric wards in areas of higher socioeconomic deprivation. In contrast, there was no correlation with school absenteeism, conviction rates, or distance to the North Pole. The authors write:

It has long been thought that Santa Claus gives presents to nice but not naughty children. This is the first study, to our knowledge, to dispel the myth that Santa visits children based on behaviour and suggests socioeconomic deprivation plays a greater role in determining a visit. It raises important ethical dilemmas, such as whether children should be told and what should be done about Santa.

Santa Claus has an incredibly tough job to ensure that all the nice children receive presents. Undoubtedly deeper socioeconomic factors are at play, even impacting Santa Claus’s abilities to reach out to every child. Whether his contract needs to be reviewed or local Santas employed in “hard to reach” areas, all we want is for every child to be happy this Christmas

The BMJ is well known for its Christmas special edition which each year presents very real – yet slightly tongue-in-cheek – research with a Christmas twist. Other studies published in the Christmas issue this year include an investigation into the smell of a Christmas table staple, asparagus, the diminishing physical boost of playing Pokemon Go and the health benefits of good cheer.

Santa myths and child psychology (warning: contains spoilers)

Keeping kids in the dark on Santa’s true identity could have life-long ramifications for the parent-child relationship, warns a new study. The Guardian reports:

In an article published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, two psychologists have raised the spectre of children’s moral compass being permanently thrown off-kilter by what is normally considered a magical part of the Christmas tradition.

The darker reality, the authors suggest, is that lying to children, even about something fun and frivolous, could undermine their trust in their parents and leave them open to “abject disappointment” when they eventually discover that magic is not real.

Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author, said: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”


Reindeer are shrinking. Warmer winters mean more rain. The rain falls on snow, where it freezes, thus locking-out the reindeer from the food beneath the snow. As a result, the reindeer starve, aborting their calves or giving birth to much lighter young. Credit: Andreas Gradin.
Reindeer are shrinking. Warmer winters mean more rain. The rain falls on snow, where it freezes, thus locking-out the reindeer from the food beneath the snow. As a result, the reindeer starve, aborting their calves or giving birth to much lighter young. Credit: Andreas Gradin.

Reindeer shrinking in the heat

While parents ponder the ethics of Santa, the future isn’t shaping up well for Santa’s steadfast helpers – reindeer. According to new research presented at the British Ecological Society annual meeting:

Ecologists from the James Hutton Institute, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and Norwegian University of Life Sciences have worked in the high Arctic since 1994, measuring and weighing the reindeer. Each winter they catch, mark and measure 10-month-old calves, returning each year to recapture them and track their size and weight as adults.

The survey shows that over 16 years, the adult reindeers’ weight declined by 12% — from 55kg for those born in 1994 to just over 48kg for those born in 2010.

The researchers suggest that warmer temperatures lead to increased breeding numbers in summer, but wet winters result in ice cover over much of the grasslands and therefore more competition for food. All of which could spell disaster for this iconic Christmas species, they warn: “The implications are that there may well be more smaller reindeer in the Arctic in the coming decades but possibly at risk of catastrophic die-offs because of increased ice on the ground.”

And more…

Christmas turkeys might be a thing of the past as scientists predict (for the millionth time) that lab-grown meat is just around the corner.

Meanwhile marketing expert Cathrine Jansson-Boyd has provided a breakdown on the tear-jerking psychology of Christmas advertising

Computer scientists have orchestrated a (barely coherent) Christmas pop song written by artificial intelligence.

The mystery of how Father Christmas can deliver presents to 700 million children in one night, fit down the chimney and arrive without being seen or heard has been ‘solved’ by a physicist at the University of Exeter, using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

A study by the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology has shed light on the huge gender bias in science and tech gifts for children findings such toys often only listed as ‘for boys.’

Stuck on finding the right gift? The authors behind an investigation into the psychology of gift-giving have some simple advice for buying the best presents: ‘simply ask people what they want.’

If you still haven’t had you fill of Christmas-y research cheer, you could have look through Massey University’s Top Ten Christmas tips. Psychologists, nutritionists and health experts give their advice for surviving the holidays – both mentally and physically.

And finally: even though it came out two years ago, Steve Pointing and Allan Blackman’s ‘Science of Christmas’ AUT University video still remains a hit:


These studies help us to better understand Christmas, but there still remains many unanswered questions. As usual, more research is needed. Have a merry Christmas!