5 Weird Facts About The Holidays, Because Turns Out One Gift Is Better Than Two

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Christmas carols, lights on trees, gift-giving, the prospect of spending the holidays with your family: it's enough to make some people turn to a) drink or b) science. Scientific studies about the holiday season can range from the outright demented to the fanciful; Danish researchers actually did MRI brain scans on four people in 2012 to see what "the Christmas spirit" looks like in the brain. (Spoiler: the brains of people who grew up with Christmas are much more reactive to pictures of festive cheer than those who didn't.)

But aspects of the holiday season also attract some intriguing scientific work. Psychologists have used Western Christmas food to study our willpower in the face of temptation, for example. In one of the oldest Yule-centric scientific traditions, the Audubon Society has been running a Christmas Bird Count, where bird-lovers do censuses of their local winter bird populations, since 1900 (originally to stop people shooting said birds for their festive dinner tables).

Others have been sparked by Christmas accidents, like a photographer noticing that a frog had swallowed one of his glowing Christmas lights — which led to an enlightening study by National Geographic into how human objects can fool animals with "evolutionary traps," by looking like something tasty or useful. (The frog, if you're interested, thought the light was an insect, and was likely not pleased to find it was instead illuminating his colon.) However, some scientific studies about festive traditions have been, to put it kindly, a bit weird. Here are our five top favorites.

One big gift + one small gift = misery?

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In case you were wondering whether giving little Mary Susan several tiny screwdrivers as well as that one massive power drill is a good idea, worry not: science has gone into the breach for you. The answer is, surprisingly, no. It's called the Presenter's Paradox, and it reveals that humans are ungrateful little brats about small gifts being added to big ones.

The study, conducted by Virginia Tech in 2011, determined that if you added a smaller, less expensive gift to a more expensive item, the recipient would see the combined gift as less generous than just getting the luxury item on its own. So a Cartier watch plus a $10 gift certificate for Claire's would look less expensive than just receiving the watch, even though, in monetary value, the first gift bundle is worth more. It's our instinct to average stuff out, apparently. We're a terrible species.              

Santa is actually a scientific genius

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In 2009, North Carolina State University actually devoted time and money to working out the technology that would be required for Santa's sleigh to deliver presents to the world's boys and girls by flying around the world in one night. Despite the fact that the story is, erm, not actually meant to be a realistic depiction of physics. Have these people never heard of magic and the power of Christmas?

Apparently not. The North Carolina researchers determined, among other things, that the sleigh's runners would have to be made of a titanium alloy; that the sleigh itself would have to be equipped with laser sensors, a nanostructure skin, and a thermodynamic processor to make toys in-flight — and that the reindeer would have jetpacks. The sleigh's speed would be explained by "relativity clouds."

"Santa is using technologies that we are not yet able to recreate in our own labs," the head scientist said, presumably before being gently packed off for paid leave somewhere sunny.

Stuffing pork up your nose stops nosebleeds

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A Christmas ham is a holiday tradition in the Southern United States, and partakers will be pleased to know that, in a pinch, a wedge of their porky plate could be used to stop nosebleeds. This year's IgNobel-prizewinning study determined that cured pork, stuck up on the nostrils of sufferers of a particular genetic disease, could prevent the very non-festive nasal haemorrhages spoiling one's Christmas lunch.

However, in case you start stockpiling cured ham and bacon for nasal bleeds in general, be warned that the cure (which involves putting "nasal vaults" made of pork up the patient's nostrils, no lie) is only for sufferers of Glanzmann thrombasthenia , a blood disorder. If a member of your family does suffer from that, though, it's all pigs for themselves.

Playing with your food makes it taste better

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This study showed what every fussy eater and lover of traditions knows: accompanying your food with some kind of ritual, like setting it on fire (Christmas pudding really is a very weird thing), actually makes it taste better. Humans, it seems, get more enjoyment from their food if they undergo some kind of performance with it, instead of just stuffing their gobs. Hence kids needing to eat crusts last, or our ingrained love for snapping the wishbone at the Christmas table.

The study used chocolate: People who were told to ate a bar immediately had a less enjoyable experience than the subjects who were asked to break, unwrap, and eat it in a specific way. They spent more time eating it, savored the flavor more, and said it tasted amazing. So, apparently, your mom's cooking might actually be terrible — and it's the crackers, Bing Crosby soundtrack, and ritualistic carving of the turkey that make you faint with happiness.

Christmas trees can depress people

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Grinches and Scrooges aren't alone in the world: A study done in 2010 revealed that people who don't celebrate Christmas could actually be actively depressed by being surrounded by symbols of Christian festive cheer. This seems completely logical. Why would you be pleased if your shopping malls, TV channels, and neighborhood houses were suddenly overtaken by inane songs, a giant bearded creep with a weight problem, and his slave-driven flying ungulates?

However, the study was alarming, in that it only took a teeny tiny dose of Christmas to make people miserable — a miniature Christmas tree. Non-celebrants of Christmas filling out studies about their mood in a room with this Christmas tree rated themselves as sadder than those in a bare room. And even the people who did celebrate Christmas suffered one emotion pretty strongly in the tree room: guilt.