12 questions of Christmas

When exactly is Christmas Day? Was there a Star of
Bethlehem? Could Santa deliver gifts to all the
world's children? What are the chances of a White
Christmas? How far has your Christmas dinner
travelled? And do reindeer ever have red noses? 
Published: 24 December 2005 


When exactly is Christmas Day? 
By Robert Verkaik 

No one knows when Jesus was born. Early Christians
tried to calculate the date of Christ's birth based on
the Annunciation, 25 March, the Bible's first account
of when Mary was told she was pregnant. If this is
taken as the conception of Christ, nine months later
it is 25 December. 

But Jewish tradition has it that Jesus was born during
Hanuk-kah, 25 Kislev into the beginning of Tevet. In
the Julian calendar, 25 Kislev would be 25 November. 

Others say Jesus and Mohammed shared the same
birthday. Mohammed was born on the 12th of the Muslim
month of Rabi-ul-awal in the 7th century which this
year was celebrated in April. Muslims use a lunar
calendar, so Mohammed's birthday will eventually fall
in December. Most Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate
Christmas on 7 January. 

Christmas was first celebrated on 25 December in the
5th century in the time of the Constantine, the first
Christian Roman emperor. This date was probably chosen
because the winter solstice and the ancient pagan
Roman midwinter festival called Saturnalia was in
December. The winter solstice is the day with the
shortest time between the sun rising and setting. It
falls between 22 and 25 December. 

Was there a Star of Bethlehem? 

By Cahal Milmo 

Opinion is split on just what the Magi were looking at
when, according to gospel of Matthew, they saw the
star of the king of the Jews in the eastern sky and
set off for Bethlehem. 

Some historians argue that the light is entirely
mythical - part of a series of "stars" that legends of
the time described as heralding a royal birth. 

Astronomers have pored over the question for
centuries, exploring theories that the star was a
comet or a supernova. 

This week a British astronomer, Professor Mike Bode
suggested that what the Three Kings saw was not a star
at all but a "conjunction", the passing of two planets
so close to each other that they appear as a single
light source. Professor Bode calculated that, in June
of 2BC, Jupiter and Venus passed close together and
would have created a bright object. 

Some scholars argue that the date of Christ's birth is
actually June, based on references to his conception.
But even with the conventional December date, Jupiter
appears a strong candidate for the Star of Bethlehem. 

But believers in a second coming may struggle for a
new celestial signal of salvation. Light pollution,
caused by the upward glare of electric lights, is
making it increasingly difficult for earthbound
telescopes to penetrate the heavens. A modern Magi
would probably have to rely on satellites rather than
the firmament to locate an infant saviour. During the
1990s, the area of countryside in the developed world
with completely dark skies reduced by 27 per cent. 

Scientists estimate that less than half of the
population of Europe and parts of the Middle East,
including Israel and the West Bank, will ever see the
Milky Way. 

As a result, most observatories in the Western world
have had to relocate to the much darker southern
hemisphere or what is left of the dark countryside. 

Is a Virgin Birth possible? 

By Jeremy Laurance 

The Christian doctrine of the Virgin Birth is that
Jesus was conceived in his mother's womb without a
human father. The Immaculate Conception took place
when the Holy Spirit "overshadowed" Mary. However,
Christ was not created from nothing, as the church
says he "took his flesh from Mary". The doctrine's
importance to Christianity is that it shows Jesus's
divine and human natures united, paving the way for
all humanity to be united with God. 

In scientific terms, a virgin birth is classed as
parthogenesis - when an embryo grows and develops
without fertilisation by a male. Parthogenesis occurs
in some plants, insects, fish and vertebrate animals
such as lizards. The resulting organism is a clone of
the original because it has an identical genetic
make-up. Parthogenesis does not occur naturally in
humans or other mammals. However, modern scientific
techniques have made it possible to create clones of
mammals, beginning with Dolly the sheep in 1996. It
would in theory be possible to create a child from a
virgin mother whose sole genetic inheritance was from

Was Jesus black? 

By Robert Verkaik 

This question has preoccupied theologians since at
least the end of the 19th century. What most concede
is that he could not have been a white Caucasian as
depicted in Western iconography. In Revelation he is
said to have hair " like wool" which is used as
evidence to show he was of African descent. The
indigenous people of the Middle East at the time of
Jesus's birth were mostly of African birth. The
existence of Black Madonnas, dark-skinned images of
Jesus's mother, Mary, have also strengthened the case
for Jesus being of non-Caucasian descent. Jesus' male
ancestors trace a line from Shem, the eldest son of
Noah. Anthropologists believe they would have been of
mixed race because of their time spent in captivity in
Egypt and Babylon. The "black/white" argument is
easily settled if one follows the American test of
whether someone is racially "black". Under the "
one-drop rule" if any person has any black ancestors
he or she is considered "black" even if they have pale
skin colour. Under this rule, Mariah Carey, LaToya
Jackson and Jesus would all be classified as " black".

Could Santa deliver gifts to all the world's children
in one night? 

By Cahal Milmo 

Of course he can, with help from Nasa, Einstein and
360,000 reindeer. Scientists have been wrestling with
the feasibility of Santa's job description since the
1850s. The latest thinking is that delivering one
kilogram of presents to the world's 2.1 billion
children (regardless of religious denomination) is
entirely realistic, with a little lateral thinking. 

Scientists at the American space agency, Nasa, reckon
the man from Lapland relies on an antenna that picks
up electromagnetic signals from children's brains to
know what presents they want. Assuming an average of
2.5 children per house Mr Claus must make 842 million
stops tonight to fill his orders. 

By allowing a quarter of a mile between each stop, he
must travel 218 million miles with about a thousandth
of a second to squeeze down each chimney, unload a
stocking, eat a mince pie, swig cooking sherry and get
his sleigh airborne again. To achieve this he must
travel at 1,280 miles per second. Travelling east to
west, he can stretch Christmas Day to 31 hours. 

To have enough presents, Santa's sleigh must carry
400,000 ton of gifts. With the average
non-turbocharged reindeer capable of pulling only
150kg, Father Christmas would need 360,000 reindeer to
heave his vehicle skyward. 

The cavalcade would have a mass of about 500,000 tons
which, at the required speed, would cause each
reindeer to vaporise in a sonic boom flattening every
tree and building within 30 miles. Father Christmas
would have a mass of two million kilograms, causing
him to combust when his reindeer come to their sudden
halt. Piffle. 

First, Einstein's theory of relativity dictates that
the faster an object travels, the slower time appears
to pass. So at the speed he is travelling, .0001 of a
second allows Santa to perform his tasks at leisure
pace. Second, as an expert in quantum physics, Mr
Claus knows wormholes in the fabric of universe allow
him to move instantly from one dimension and place to
another. His sleigh is a time-machine powered by an
unknown fuel which any economy on the world would have
on its Christmas list. 

Is this the season of goodwill? 

By Maxine Frith 

The common perception is that the suicide rate always
goes up over Christmas. But in fact, the number of
people who kill themselves drops by around 7 per cent
during December - although it then rises to its
highest monthly rate in January. 

Despite the reduction in suicides, calls to the
Samaritans increase by 10 per cent between Christmas
and New Year. 

The murder rate also goes up by 4.2 per cent, partly
due to the increase in domestic violence that is
widely reported by police forces. 

More than 8,000 children called the NSPCC or ChildLine
phone lines between Christmas Eve and 4 January last
year to talk about emotional problems and abuse. One
in five people says that the festive period causes
them stress, according to the mental health charity

And of the five million elderly people who live alone
in the UK, one million will spend Christmas Day on
their own. 

A poll by Reader's Digest found that people's greatest
irritation over the Christmas period is the plague of
family grievances that the holiday season engenders. 

More than a third said that they had to deal with
arguments between relatives every year. 

Even events out of the family home are not much better
- half of office parties feature a punch-up and one in
three with an incident of sexual harassment. 

Do you ever get a Silent Night? 

By Cahal Milmo 

Only on the pages of a carol sheet and in the depths
of galaxies. 

The silence to which the hymn refers can only be found
in a vacuum and, since human existence is difficult
inside a Hoover, the only place where true silence can
be found is space. 

The result is the strange paradox that silence has no
sound. For example, when sci-fi films excite their
audiences with the familiar roar of a rocket blasting
between the planets, they are lying - there is nothing
to be heard between the stars and planets. The
impossibility of silence is all the more perplexing
because humanity is in increasingly dire need of it,
or at least a bit more peace and quiet. 

Experts believe that the high sound levels of modern
society not only damage the human ear but also
contribute to stress. 

The European Environmental Agency calculated earlier
this year that 450 million people, some 65 per cent of
the population in Europe, are regularly exposed to
noise levels of 55 decibels and above - the level
shown to generate annoyance. 

About 115 million experience 65dB and above, suffering
an increased risk of high blood pressure, and 10
million are exposed to 75dB or more - a level known to
generate high levels of stress. 

The Health and Safety Executive says that a third of
workers in noisy jobs will permanently damage their

What are the chances of a White Christmas? 

By Cahal Milmo 

Bookies yesterday put the odds of London receiving the
requisite single flake of snow on the roof of a
weather bureau in the capital that would make it a
white Christmas at 5/2. 

Officially, meteorologists put the chances of snow
nationwide on Christmas Day at "very unlikely",
although, by the middle of next week, there is a 60
per cent chance that southern England will be under
several centimetres of the fluffy stuff. 

The long-term outlook is somewhat different. Enjoy any
December snow while you can for the white Christmas
bonanza for turf accountants, who tend to profit to
the tune of 1m from the lack of snow, is likely to be
a quirk of history. 

London has only had six white Christmases since 1957
and thanks to humanity's talent for producing carbon
dioxide, the Dickensian festive scene will remain only
on greetings cards. 

Climatologists this week predicted that global warming
would make snow in December a thing of the past for
all of Britain apart from its highest mountains and
more northerly climes. 

Scientists at the Met Office calculate that winters
will be up to 30 per cent wetter within a generation,
with an average rise in temperature of up to 3.5C by
2080. A Met Office spokeswoman said: "We won't see the
effects immediately but the trend is that snow levels
will drastically fall over the next century." 

Is Christmas bad for the environment? 

Martin Hickman 

Yes. People consume far more at Christmas than at
other times of the year. 

Gifts are made at factories that use lots of energy
and contribute to global warming. Finite and
diminishing natural resources such as metals go into
them. In particular, plastics use a high amount of
oil, yet these goods are often poor quality and
disposable, something especially so for toys at

Transporting these products to the shops results in
more energy use and pollution. 

Intensive food production to sate our festive appetite
discourages wildlife and allows pesticides to leach
into streams and rivers. 

About three million tons of rubbish will build up in
our homes, yet barely a quarter will be recycled. The
remainder will be incinerated or dumped in landfill,
both of which cast out pollutants. Friends of the
Earth believe that this Christmas is likely to
generate a record amount of waste because each year we
buy more and more presents and food. 

The only bright spot environmentally is that while we
are stuffing our mouths with food or ripping open our
presents (wrapped with disposable paper), we are not
jumping into our cars and spewing pollution from the
exhaust pipes. Or working in factories to supply goods
for the next Christmas. 

How far has your Christmas dinner travelled? 

By Maxine Frith 

According to the Soil Association, most of the meat
and vegetables on the average Christmas dinner plate
will be cheap imports. The turkey may have come from
Norfolk, but your carrots are likely to have come from
Morocco, the crackers from China and the Brussels
sprouts from the Netherlands. When you add in cabernet
sauvignon from Chile, cranberries from the US and
runner beans from Guatemala and assorted goods, the
total "food miles" bill comes to 43,674. The Soil
Association estimates that 12 British farmers are
going out of business every day because they cannot
compete with cut-price foreign goods. 

The transportation by air of 200g of Chilean grapes
will generate 1.5kg (3.3lb) of greenhouse gas -
equivalent to leaving a lightbulb on all weekend. But,
while buying locally sourced food could save Britain
2.1bn in environmental and congestion costs, it could
double the average bill because of the higher prices
charged by small and organic producers. 

Is Christmas unhealthy? 

By Jeremy Laurance 

Christmas lunch of turkey, roast potatoes, stuffing,
bacon, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts
and gravy adds up to 620 calories. Follow it with
Christmas pudding and cream and the calorie counter
zooms up to 1,306. 

With a glass of champagne, (100 calories) a couple of
glasses of burgundy (90 cals each) and a glass of port
(185 cals), the total leaps to 1,771 calories. Once a
year, a blow out on this scale - a day's worth of
calories at a single sitting - is unlikely to do any
lasting harm. But if you keep it up over the holiday
period you will inevitably put on weight. 

There are some health benefits too though. The sprouts
and carrots contribute to the five-a-day target for
fruit and vegetables, the cranberries may help to ward
off infections and alcohol in moderation cuts the risk
of heart disease. But the greatest health benefit of
Christmas is - or should be - the good cheer it

Do reindeer ever have red noses? 

By Cahal Milmo 

The notion of reindeer and red noses - or more to the
point the infernal tune that assails Christmas
shoppers - can be blamed on Robert May, an advertising
copy-writer in 1930s Chicago. 

Mr May was commissioned by his company to invent a
seasonal tale to give away to customers of a
department store chain and the resulting yarn of
Rudolph, the disfigured ruminant, sold six million
copies. Mr May never made a penny from his invention
because the copyright belonged to his employer. 

But recently researchers discovered that there is in
fact such a thing as a red-nosed reindeer. Scientists
in America found that reindeer were susceptible to a
particular type of mite which irritates the nasal
passages and causes the animals to rub their noses


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