The Science Of Seasonal Myths

The Science Of Seasonal Myths

Jemima Smith, Staff Writer


The holiday season is fast approaching, and with it comes a slew of seasonal traditions and myths. Winter myths are a bit wacky and fantastical — they rely heavily on a childish spirit and the suspension of disbelief. But what would it be like to take them literally? WFS science experts were interviewed to find out. 

Let’s head to the Chemistry lab to learn about the reactions behind some of these myths. According to the story of the Hanukkah Miracle, a small bit of pure olive oil in a cruse, or jar, was able to burn in a lamp for eight days and nights. But what kinds of reactions happen in a lamp like this one? According to Ms. O’Brien, olive oil is made up of fatty acids, which are hydrocarbons (compounds containing hydrogen and carbon, as the name suggests). These acids are oleic, linoleic, palmitic, and stearic. Their general chemical formula is  CH3(CH2)nCOOH. Burning any hydrocarbon follows the formula of an organic combustion reaction: (CxHyOz + O2 → CO2 + H2O). According to Ms. O’Brien, “Olive oil is a relatively safe choice for lamp oil fuel because its flashpoint is on the higher side (410 Fahrenheit). This means that the lamp won’t catch fire if the flame dips into the oil pool.”

A strange part of the myth of Saint Nick is the alleged punishment for children deemed naughty by the inhabitants of the North Pole. Every December, kids are told to be extra good and kind because if they’re naughty, Santa will know and they’ll get nothing but coal in their stockings on Christmas Day. It’s a weird tradition, and no one can really agree where it comes from. Some possible origins include a Sicilian myth called ‘La Befana’ about a witch who disciplines bad children by giving them coal, or a Dutch tradition in the 1500s to leave clogs by the fireplace on Christmas Eve and receive candy for being good and coal for being bad. American families became increasingly dependent on coal in the late 19th century, and it didn’t have a negative connotation until around the beginning of the 20th century when it was very common. According to Ms. O’Brien, “coal is formed from the compression and heating of plant (organic) matter in the absence of oxygen underground over the course of millions of years. It’s a very dense fuel which gives off twice the heat as wood per hour, so it would be useful to heat a child’s home though not much fun.” So maybe Santa’s punishment isn’t as bad as it sounds? Don’t be so sure: “However, coal is associated with a number of health concerns and its ash has been found to contain heavy metals such as mercury and sometimes radioactive elements such as uranium.” Naughty kids might be getting more than they bargained for. 

As for Santa’s sleigh, O’Brien argues that “it could be powered by Thiokol, a sulfur-containing polymer used as a rocket fuel stabilizer.” Thiokol stinks because of its sulfur content but could work well as magical sleigh fuel. 

 Talking about the physics of Santa, here’s what Mr. Cauchy has to say: “The population is now 8 billion people.  About 25% of that is 15 or under, or approximately 2 billion.  If Santa were to deliver to 2 billion in 24 hours, that would mean an average of 43 microseconds per person.  That is a ridiculously small number, so we can safely say this makes no sense with the physics we know… The fun thing is to think of ways this could be possible.  Science fiction and fantasy writers are good at coming up with ideas.” He cites some creative solutions to transcending time and space in the worlds of Ant-Man and the Sandman, with the Quantum Realm and the Dream Dimension.

2 billion children to deliver to is an enormous number. So let’s break it down by households: 8 billion people in the world divided by an average 5 people per household is around 1.6 billion. Around 45% of people around the world are estimated to participate in Christmas, so 45 percent of 1.6 billion is roughly 720 million households. The average world population density is 61 people per km2, and going back to our earlier statistic, that’s about 12 households per km2— altogether 60 million square miles of households. Flying diagonally over a km2 would be a distance of 1.4 km. Santa needs to fly about 84 million kilometers (52 million miles) altogether. To do this in 24 hours, he’d need to fly at around 2,166,666 miles per hour (3,000 times the speed of sound). This speed would cause several sonic booms and deadly combustions, but even ignoring those it would put 98484 g’s of force on Santa (while the average human can withstand no more than 9), so it’s safe to assume that in addition to his immortality, Santa has the immunity and/or regenerative abilities of Deadpool. 


How about the biology of our North Pole dwellers? According to Ms. Johnson, flying reindeer would consume reindeer lichens (Cladina rangiferina) and bearded lichens (Usnea spp.). These are foraged from their native boreal forest habitat in Lapland. She says: “Lichens are fascinating little organisms, part fungus and part photosynthetic algae. They are sensitive indicators of particularly clean atmospheric conditions in the arctic, as they are very susceptible to air pollutants. Thankfully, there is strict regulation regarding the sustainable collection of these species. Clearly, Santa, in addition to his epic skills in international commerce and transportation, is quite the botanical biochemist and wise ecologist!” Reindeer eat about 9 to 18 pounds of plants to travel an average of 23 miles per day. As a result, each reindeer consumes about 1.7 lbs per mile traveled. Each pound of hay (substituted for foraged vegetation) is about 890 calories, so reindeer need about 1513 calories per mile. Santa needs to travel about 226 million miles to deliver all the presents to each child. Assuming that these flying reindeer have inexhaustible endurance, they would need to eat 342,000,000 calories of vegetation, or 380,000 pounds of hay, to fuel their flight. Their skeletons may feature hollow bones like those in birds to help them during their flight. 

Santa himself has some strange biological implications. In order to digest all of the cookies left out for him, Santa would need to metabolize 123.5 billion calories and 6.65 billion grams of fat. The energy from those calories would be equivalent to roughly 517 billion joules, or enough energy to power 1435 electric cars. “Nutritionists tell us that every excess 3500 calories corresponds to an increase of one pound,” Ms. Johnson says, “so in one night he’d be gaining over 35 million pounds, solely from his caloric intake.”  This is assuming that his body processes food and creates fat like a normal human, which it probably would not. 

How about Santa’s immortality? Ms. Johnson points to the backwards aging jellyfish (Turritopsis doohmii) and regenerating flatworms (Schmidtea mediterranea), “both of which effectively add a ‘do-over’ phase to their life cycle.” Other examples include “the resistance tricks of UV-insensitive archaebacteria and the cycling of slowed metabolism of tardigrades.” His immortality, on a cellular level, could also come from avoiding age-related breakdown of chromosomes through heightened telomerase activity, as is known for some species.

So now you’re well-versed in the ins and outs of olive oil lamps and Santa Claus’s genetic similarities to jellyfish. Of course, there are always more calculations to make or factors to consider. But now you’ll have an answer to just about any skeptical question a kid throws at you this holiday season!