As the countdown to Christmas begins, we're asking Open University academics to answer some festive questions. As we wait for their answers, we'll be asking you to get involved too by sharing your guesses.
See the questions and some answers below. Click on the questions to get the answers. Each week, we'll be adding more...
Question 1: What day did Advent actually begin this year? Was it really 1st December?
John Wolffe, professor of religious history at The Open University, says: 'It’s important to note that the Advent relates not only to the original nativity of Jesus, but to the Christian expectation of his second coming in glory at the end of time. Hence Advent hymns like Charles Wesley’s and John Cennick’s ‘Lo He comes with clouds descending’, which relate to that apocalyptic expectation rather than the baby in a manger at Bethlehem. Traditionally Advent runs from Advent Sunday, the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which is always around 1st December – hence the convenience of treating Advent as starting on 1st December – but actually it seldom does precisely! So this year, Advent Sunday was actually 30th November.' To find out more, read this article.
Question 2: What traditionally takes places in Wales between 3am and 6am on Christmas morning?
Or in Welsh: Beth sy’n digwydd yn draddodiadol yng Nghymru rhwng 3 a 6 o’r gloch ar fore dydd Nadolig?
The OU in Wales say: 'Plygain Singing. Traditionally in many parts of Wales the Plygain service would take place in the local church sometime between 3am and 6am on Christmas morning. The service involves a short sermon accompanied by carol singing.' Visit OpenLearn Cymru if you understand Welsh and check out the new course on Welsh history.
Question 3: Why do some children cry when they meet Santa Claus?
It's happening all over the country at this time of year: happy children who are looking forward to visiting Santa Claus find that confronted face to face, he can actually look rather scary and that happiness can turn to tears. Why is this?
Psychology research student Stephanie Lay specialises in looking at almost-human faces and figuring out what it is that makes some of them scary. The ones that interest her most are those that fall into an ‘uncanny valley’ – ones that are nearly human, but not quite realistic enough to be trusted.
One explanation for their creepiness is that non-human, exaggerated or unusual features cause this effect and that might apply in the case of Santa with his larger-than-life beard and red outfit! Another theory is that blank, dead eyes in a happy face can be very scary, and that might apply if Santa isn’t really quite as cheerful as he seems.
Stephanie's research has certainly found that a mismatch between the expression shown in someone’s eyes and the surrounding face makes for the eeriest of all the faces she's analysed, but they tend to be subtly eerie rather than making anyone cry! In the main, there’s probably a simpler explanation for the tears: over-excitement and anticipation. Whatever the reason, hopefully, the Santa fright will be long forgotten by the time the big day rolls around.
Question 4: Does the number of unhappy people over Christmas outweigh the number of happy people?
Dr Sharon Mallon, Lecturer in Mental Health at The Open University, says: 'There is a great deal of debate about whether the overall impact of the festive period on mental health is positive or negative. Suicide rates are one potential indictor of extreme mental distress and these are generally lower during the festive period and quickly return to normal after the New Year. Other potential measures of mental distress, such as admission to psychiatric wards are also lower during the festive period. This allows some writers to suggest that we are less likely to experience extreme unhappiness at this time of year. One explanation offered for this might be that during the festive period we feel an increased feeling of connectedness with our network of friends and family and that this may protect us from extreme distress during this time. It is also known that participation in social rituals has a positive impact on our wellbeing.
However, we also know that the festive period is a time when some groups will be particularly vulnerable to unhappiness due to their lack of social connections. For example, those who have been bereaved report higher levels of nostalgia and sadness during the festive period. And older people have reported greater levels of isolation and loneliness.
We would also be mistaken in thinking that all social gatherings are happy events. Christmas may also be associated with stressful family gatherings; police figures show that instances of domestic violence are a third higher on Christmas day than on the average day. Additionally, over indulging on food and/or alcohol can have a profoundly negative effect on our mood.
Clearly, our reaction to Christmas will vary depending on our personal circumstances. However, we can all help to reduce the stress of those around us by being mindful of the emotional needs of those around us. And many charities such as MIND have helpful guides for those who are facing the festive season alone.'
If you're feeling stressed or unhappy this Christmas in any way or want to find out more, visit Mind, the mental health charity.
Question 5: What have big meals got to do with Christmas?
Dr Graham Harvey, Head of the Department of Religious Studies at The Open University, says: 'According to at least one carol, Christmas is a time of “good cheer”. Some people understand this to mean “good news” of salvation, redemption and a secure afterlife. They insist that the birth of Jesus Christ should be celebrated in ways that focus on that event alone. Whether or not this is the cause of the “good cheer” (or the content of the “glad tidings” in other versions), those singing “We wish you a merry Christmas” go on to ask for “some figgy pudding”. For them and many others, Christmas is a time of feasting and merriment. Gifts are given and received and people gather to eat more than usual. Generosity to less fortunate people is encouraged — just as the carol singers do when they sign “bring us some figgy pudding”. Originally, we’re told, the carol was sung outside wealthier houses by people whose Christmas festivities would have been less merry if they did not gain consumable rewards for their singing of seasonal greetings. A similar tradition may be suggested when the Live Aid charity song asks us to “Let them know it’s Christmas” by giving money for food, medicine and other necessities to those in need.
Christmas feasting, however, can be contentious. It is not only that family gatherings can exacerbate tensions and even animosities. It is not only that gift giving can become competitive or that it can result in disappointment for those who get new mittens instead of a new TV. It is more that some people think that Christmas feasting is a distraction from the “glad tidings” they associate with Jesus’ birth. Some of these people question the association of big meals and glittery decorations with questions of salvation. This is not a new concern. It has vexed some Christian preachers since this midwinter festival was added to Christian calendars sometime in the third or fourth centuries of the Common Era. They have worried that feasting and giving gifts will trap people in materialism and the “desires of the flesh”. Other Christians think that this birthday is an excellent cause for celebration of well-being and communal sharing. So Christmas can cause tensions not only in our ordinary family lives but also in the life of Church communities.
Let’s go back a bit. Christmas was added to Christian calendars in the third to fourth century. Maybe that seems odd. Christmas was not accepted in many Christian communities for a long time (and is still rejected by some Churches). Part of the reason for this was originally that birthdays were not particularly important events everywhere. Other events in people’s lives were considered more worthy causes of celebration. Also, Christianity typically has much more to do with Jesus’ death than his birth. This generated earlier and larger celebrations and rituals. In fact, when Christians did begin to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, they did not agree on when that should happen. There is nothing in early Christian texts to fix on a date. Eventually, however, other dates were rejected and 25th December was agreed on. Some of the reasons for that choice might explain why we eat big meals at Christmas (whether we are Christians or not).'
Question 6: What makes a great Christmas number one?
Dr Catherine Tackley, Head of the Music Department at The Open University, says: 'Although musically very different, there is perhaps a common feature which explains the popularity of an old song like ‘Jingle Bells’, classic examples such as the BandAid charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (1984) and even the apparently non-festive ‘Killing in the Name’. Whether overtly ‘Christmassy’ or not, songs that get to number one at Christmas often draw on a spirit of community and togetherness. Similarly to the traditions of pantomime, these songs seek and achieve appeal across generations – perhaps individual musical tastes are abandoned for the sake of family unity - which allows Bob the Builder (2003) and even Mr Blobby (1993) to achieve pop success.
Musically, songs that are successful at Christmas often feature massed backing choirs which allude to religious choral traditions - check out the massed gospel voices backing Alexandra Burke on her rendition of Hallelujah (2008). Choirs have also achieved success in their own right – whether involving celebrities (‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’) or military wives (‘Wherever You Are’ 2011). But Christmas number ones often actively encourage participation akin to the type of informal, communal singing which can be heard at football grounds or pubs. ‘Jingle Bells’ is extremely repetitive (a characteristic of many of the most popular songs) and uses only five pitches in its chorus; the chorus of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ has similar qualities (but with six pitches) making these both relatively easy to sing along to. ‘Can We Fix It?’ by Bob the Builder achieved number one status with a simple four pitch refrain and ‘call and response’ device which involves the listener. Some take a melancholy slant on this theme, such as glam rock band Mud’s 1974 hit ‘Lonely this Christmas’, Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ (1984) and The Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ (1987), number one in Ireland. Even ‘Killing in the Name’ will forever be linked with the strength of communal action against corporate dominance.'
Question 7: In the UK, how close are children's experiences to the popular ideal of a family Christmas?
Andy Rixon, Lecturer in Children and Young People, Faculty of Health and Social Care at The Open University, says: 'Christmas for children (regardless of whether they are Christian), if we are to believe numerous adverts and films, revolves around home and time spent with family. These representations also generally downplay the reality and variety of family forms, including the experiences of lone parents, lesbian and gay parents, blended families and, as we discuss below, children who live away from home. Parental separation can also create more than one ‘family’ unit, possibly bringing children the stress of divided loyalties.
The domestic family Christmas is potentially an outdated ‘ideal’. For example statistics indicate that there has been a rapid rise in the number of people working on Christmas day (TUC 2012) often from economic necessity. Relatives can be geographically dispersed and as a result new technologies and social networking are reinventing the way families come together to celebrate Christmas. These same technologies offer older children, regardless of their physical location, the chance to have a virtual Christmas with their peers.
According to the NSPCC there are 60,447 children in care. These children’s experience of Christmas will depend on individual circumstances. Many of these children are already living within extended or kin family, most are fostered and some live in residential settings such as children’s homes. Christmas, because of its close association with family interaction, is often a point at which contact visits are made if both the child and family want it, the courts agree and most importantly - it is safe. Even where contact is enabled the fragility of parent child relationships can be exposed, it is not unknown for parents to forget to turn up to a contact visit, even on Christmas day. For residential workers and foster carers, Christmas can be hard work. Putting up Christmas decorations, buying children presents and cooking a festive meal are relatively straightforward. However they may also have to provide emotional support and physical comfort to children with unfulfilled expectations of a family Christmas.'
If you are interested in learning more about children families and social care why not visit TUC?
Question 8: How does Santa make it all around the world in one single night?
The truth is nobody knows for sure just what type of magic the big-bearded guy has got up his red velvet sleeves - not even our academics at The Open University!
Here are some of our favourites from your Facebook and Twitter suggestions:
- "Cloning: there are 1000 Santas, the result of a lab accident at North Pole currently being looked at by Elf & Safety."
"My seven-year-old daughter answered straight away: 'He uses his SantaNav'."
"He has got an Amazon Prime account."
"He is able to manipulate the time and space continuum; therefore he can simply stop or slow down time for that one night, allowing him to make it to every single place."
"He makes sure an essay is due in on Christmas morning. It's amazing what you can cram in to those last few hours!"
There's also this slightly 'bah humbug' answer for all you sceptics!
Well done to those of you that thought along the lines of teleportation or time travel. Our academics think both could be possibilities.