Our year-end celebrations — Christmas, Kwanzaa and Chanukah — all make reference to kindling a light in the darkness. And no wonder, since they cluster around one of the oldest holidays on Earth, the winter solstice, when the pallid sun begins once again to gather strength.
Much as we appreciate the cycles of nature, the holidays by now have acquired a thick crust of customs and myth. And few characters figure more prominently than good old Santa Claus.
What do we know about this guy, and how do we know it? We have his description — twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, nose "like a cherry," full beard, a round belly and a hearty laugh. With his flying reindeer, he cruises the world, ducking down chimneys in a wild gift-giving spree.
Or so we think today. But we have that on the say-so of one Clement Clarke Moore, a New York classics scholar who wrote "’Twas the Night Before Christmas" in 1822. The poet’s genius lay in his synthesis of Dutch, German and Scandinavian folklore with Teutonic and Norse legends of a jolly old elf who presided over pagan winter solstice festivals.
Today, we’d figure Santa is gearing up for the big trip from his headquarters at the North Pole. But scientists say that the updated version of the real Santa — the original prototype — would today be more likely hanging out in sunglasses and a swimming suit, sipping a cool drink among the olive groves of Gemiler, a small island off the coast of Turkey.
That’s where Santa’s direct ancestor, St. Nicholas, lived and died around 250 A.D., according to Roger Highfield, author of "The Physics of Christmas," a whimsical search for the scientific truth behind the holiday.
Nicholas of Turkey was the one who tossed bags of gold through the windows of the needy. Finding a window shut tight one night, he sent his sack of loot down the chimney — encouraging hopeful townsfolk to hang stockings by the chimney to catch any stray windfall. And so the Christmas custom began.
The real St. Nick probably never saw a Lapland reindeer, never rode anywhere faster than his horse could gallop and wore bishop’s robes rather than a tailored red three-piece.
The origin of the "flying" reindeer, the red-and-white color scheme and the jolly ho-ho-ho is as surprising as it is politically incorrect. English researcher Patrick Harding blames it on drugs — specifically, the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, which, he says, was the recreational-ritual drug of choice in Northern Europe before vodka arrived from the East sometime after the 12th century. Ingestion produces hallucinations of flying, a euphoric laugh and red-and-white dots before the eyes.
As for delivering presents to the world’s 2.1 billion children under 18 on a trip estimated at 221 million miles, Highfield figures Santa works against the rotation of Earth — taking advantage of international date lines — giving him 48, rather than 24, hours to accomplish the task. It still works out to 1,279 miles-per-second, or several times the speed of sound.
Aerodynamic engineers figure Santa could suppress the expected sonic booms with an "anti-sound" generator blasting from a special speaker on his sleigh. Possibly he has some sort of elf-made anti-gravitational field, or is master of a "special relativity" that overcomes the physics at issue.
Highfield says that far from undermining a capacity for wonder, seeing Santa through the prism of science has made him seem "more real than ever." Don’t fret the science: If we believe, he will come.
Santa, after all, just puts a human face on the spirit of generosity and good will. Whatever holiday you’re celebrating, here’s hoping it’s merry and bright.