PA Editorial

PA EDitorial
academic explorations

Mistletoe and Citations: Christmas according to academics

Mistletoe and Citations: Christmas according to academics

By September, the first signs of Christmas start appearing in the shops. The TV schedules are planned, special programmes are made, and entire digital TV stations are handed over to 24-hour Christmas movies. The music industry moves into festive mode, recording Christmas singles and dusting off classic collections from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Phil Spector. Even Bob Dylan released a Christmas album.

If you thought academia was immune to the infectiousness of Christmas, think again. Even eminent journals such as the BMJ let their hair down at this time of year to celebrate the rich and quirky in the world of academic publishing and research. So here at PA Editorial, we decided to kick off our shoes and settle down by the fire with a mince pie and mulled wine to sample some of the most unexpected academic explorations of Christmas.

It’s beginning to smell (and sound) a lot like Christmas: the interactive effects of ambient scent and music in a retail setting – Eric Spangenberg et al. (ScienceDirect)

The American news anchor-man Walter Cronkite once claimed that Christmas smells like oranges, but we all carry our own associations. Retailers have long understood how the geography and ambience of their stores influence the behaviour of shoppers, and this study explores the way carefully chosen olfactory and musical stimuli combine to affect our responses at the most profitable time of the year.

The sound of Wham! or Bing Crosby as you walk through the doors might make you roll your eyes, but many more subtle effects are at play. Eric Spangenberg and his colleagues discovered that the aromas of pine, potpourri, cinnamon and candles, with familiar Christmas music playing over the PA system, encourage consumers to linger, browse and spend on festive products with unusual abandon – nothing is straightforward in retail.

A clinical trial gone awry: the Chocolate Happiness Undergoing More Pleasantness (CHUMP) study – Kevin Chan (National Library of Medicine)

Dark, milk or white: what’s your chocolate of choice? The cocoa-derived treat comes into its own at Christmas, but how much do we really care about what kind we eat? Does the pleasure of indulgence trump the niceties of taste? Kevin Chan’s randomised control trial – a slightly frivolous if interesting experiment – found that more chocolate means more happiness, even if many participants ultimately tended towards their normal preferences. The conclusion? Well, some chocolate is better than none, and lots of chocolate is best of all (we may have already known this).

The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research – CPE Nothaft (CUP)

In most Christian countries, December 25th is unquestioned as the date of the birth of Jesus. However, the Greek, Syrian, Coptic and Romanian Orthodox churches celebrate it on January 6th, while the Armenian Orthodox church pushes it to January 18th. The question of the exact date has been argued over by historians and theologians for centuries. This study considers the competing evidence but ultimately admits the best answer we can reach is that no one really knows.

Evidence of a Christmas spirit network in the brain: functional MRI study – Anders Hougaard et al. (National Library of Medicine)

Heavy on science, this study uses a single-blinded, cross-cultural group study with functional magnetic resonance imaging to compare the brain activity of 10 people who embrace Christmas and 10 who are largely indifferent. Hougaard was able to identify a marked difference between the blood oxygen level-dependent responses of the two groups. He concluded that there is indeed a ‘Christmas spirit network’ operating in the cortical areas associated with spirituality, somatic senses and the recognition of facial emotion. However, it leaves the average Grinch unmoved.

Christmas Economics: A Sleigh Ride – Laura Birg & Anna Goeddeke (SSRN)

We all have beliefs about how Christmas shifts everything away from the year-round norms – prices go through the roof, arguments increase, bank accounts suffer, moods plummet, depression increases, and everyone worries that they haven’t bought good enough presents for family and friends. This study explores and explodes some of these perceptions, suggesting ways to get the maximum sense of well-being from the season. As a bonus, it even tells you how to get more presents.

Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness – Elizabeth Dunnlara et al. (Science)

As the saying goes, Christmas is about giving, even if the rest of the year is mostly about receiving. We spend months working, earning, saving and generally trying to boost our income, and then we blast a hole in it over a few days in the middle of winter. There’s definitely a sense of obligation to spend like there’s no tomorrow, but this study considers the impact on our well-being of this seasonal generosity. Its findings are upbeat and positive, with plenty of evidence that it feels better to give than to receive. On whether this happiness survives the arrival of credit card bills in January, the study is silent.

Perpetuating the Father Christmas Story: a justifiable lie? – Janet Gill & Theodora Papatheodorou (Taylor & Francis Online)

We’d all agree that parents have a duty to tell the truth to their children. The occasional trivial lie is perfectly acceptable to spare them unnecessary grief when a pet dies or a grandparent departs. Yet some of us go to energetic lengths to maintain the fiction of Santa Claus by getting up in the middle of the night to deliver bulging stockings of presents to their bedsides – praying they don’t wake up and ruin the illusion. This study looks at the reasons why we perpetuate the myth, including creeping commercialisation, cultural conformity and concern for the development of children’s imaginative potential. It balances these against the cost of children’s inevitable realisation that it’s all just made up. Maybe we just want to hold onto the innocence of little ones for as long as possible.

How St. Francis created the Nativity scene, with a miraculous event in 1223 – Vanessa Corcoran (The Conversation)

The iconography of Christmas seems to have been with us forever, but the truth is that it has changed over the centuries and looks different from country to country. Much of what we accept as the traditional British Christmas was imported from Germany – like the tree – or dreamt up by Charles Dickens. The nativity scene is indispensable to Christmas, but it represents the accrual of many different stories and traditions. How we see it today is due largely to the ideas in a thirteenth-century book about St Francis of Assisi, which quickly became assimilated into devotional art. This study traces its development and considers how it continues to be adapted to the priorities of modern Christianity.

As we put aside our gift box of academic studies, full of science, anthropology, psychology, history and a few tongues in cheeks, we’ll simply say that Christmas, as both a festival of religious devotion and a stampede of consumerism, is an endlessly rich source of inquiry and surprise. So, before we return to our everyday routine of peer review and editorial services, we think it’s important to leave you with perhaps the most important and uncontroversial citation of all:

‘It’s CHRIIIIISTMAAAAAAS’ – Noddy Holder (Slade, 1973)

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