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The festive season is in full swing and we're all busy buying presents and stocking up on food, chocolates and other treats. Scientists at the Centre for Life reveal some surprising seasonal science

Camels: The Bactrian camel and dromedary are the last two remaining species of a family of animals that lived across America, Africa and Asia. They are the largest animals adapted to live in desert conditions with thick coats to protect them from extremes of heat and cold. Camels do not store water in their humps; they are fat stores. As the fat is used up, it makes water in the camel's body. By metabolising its hump a camel can survive without water for two weeks and without food for a month.

Christmas Bells: Bells have been associated with Christmas since medieval times. Bells vibrate in a number of different ways at the same time with lots of overtones. It is these higher harmonics which make a bell sound like a bell.

Cranberries: Cranberries are a source of polyphenol antioxidants which, it is claimed, have a beneficial effect on the circulation and immune system. Some research also suggests cranberry juice helps fight bladder infections.

Fairy Lights: Most fairy lights are made up of an electrical circuit connected in series ( that is, the electricity has to flow through each bulb before reaching the next one. This means that when one bulb goes, the entire string of lights stops working, making it very difficult, and frustrating, to find the failed one. To avoid this, some more expensive sets of lights are connected in parallel, which means electricity flows past as well as through each bulb, so when one goes the rest stay on.

Freezing Cold: The lowest temperature ever recorded in the North East was in Durham City in 1982 when temperatures plummeted to a seriously-chilly minus-16.1AC.

Holly: Female holly has the berries, the male does not, and instead it produces small flowers in the spring.

Ice: There are 17 different types of ice. Pagophagia, a type of eating disorder, is the compulsive consumption of ice. It took 60,000 litres of water to make the ice on the ice rink at the Centre for Life.

Icebergs: While icebergs float in salt water oceans, they are made of fresh water. More than two-thirds of the Earth's freshwater exists as ice in the form of glaciers and ice caps.

Mince Pies: The modern mince pie is a long way removed from its mediaeval ancestor, which was a savoury fried or baked pastry of liver or minced meat with boiled eggs and ginger. By the 16th Century, the dish was associated with Christmas, and the eggs had disappeared and dried fruit and spices were added for variety. By the 17th Century, the meat had been replaced by suet giving rise to the sweet, fruity, fatty confection we know today. In modern commercial mince pies, animal suet is usually replaced by hard fats prepared by hardening vegetable oils with hydrogen.

Mistletoe: Mistletoe is a parasite that takes its nutrients from the tree on which it lives, usually apple or oak. It has been used in rituals for thousands of years and its berries have been found in the stomachs of ancient bodies buried in peat bogs. The only surviving ritual is kissing under it at Christmas.

Port: Port takes its name from Portugal, the country where it is produced. But it would not exist without Britain. In the early 18th Century, the Treaty of Methuen reduced duty and made Portuguese wine much cheaper than French. The trouble was it had to survive the long rough sea crossing of the Bay of Biscay. A healthy shot of brandy to fortify the wine made it much less likely to go off on voyage and our taste for the strong, rich, fruity product persists to this day.

Reindeer: One of the few species of deer in which both the males and females grow antlers. Every year each animal sheds its antlers and grows new ones from stem cells at the antler's base.

Robins: Ever wondered why you don't see many robins in the summer? It is because they are partial migrants and many are winter visitors here, avoiding the cold of the German winter. Some British robins also fly south to enjoy a Christmas in the sun. As with humans, Mallorca and the Balearic Isles are favoured destinations.

Santa's Little Helpers: Everyone knows Father Christmas could not deliver toys to all the children in the world without his army of Little Helpers. What fewer people know is that we all have our own army of little helpers without which we could not digest most of our food. These helpers are the bacteria which live in our gut. Unlike us, they can produce enzymes which break down plant materials and short-chain sugar molecules. Without them a lot of the energy-rich compounds and many of the vitamins in our diet would pass straight through our guts.

Sleighs: Sleighs and skates move easily over snow and ice because they concentrate pressure on the narrow runners, or blades. This pressure melts the ice and snow creating a thin film of lubricating water on which they can move easily. The huge weight of glaciers also creates pressure that causes the ice at the bottom to melt, producing a film of water on which they gradually slide downhill.

Snow: The Eskimos or Inuits have nine words to describe snow. Kaniktshaq, snow; qanik, falling snow; anijo, snow on the ground; hiko (tsiko in some dialects), ice; tsikut, large broken up masses of ice; hikuliaq, thin ice; quahak, new ice without snow; kanut, new ice with snow; pugtaq, drift ice; peqalujaq, old ice; manelaq, pack ice; ivuneq, high pack ice; maneraq, smooth ice; akuvijarjuak, thin ice on the sea; kuhugaq, icicle; nilak, fresh water ice; and tugartaq, firm winter ice. In Montana, in 1887, the largest snowflakes on record fell to the earth. Each snowflake was fifteen inches in diameter!

St Nicolas: The name Santa Claus is derived from Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, a saint known for gift giving. He was originally a Fourth Century bishop in what is now southern Turkey. He is also patron saint of pharmacists.

Three Kings or Wise Men?: The three kings only appear in St Matthew's Gospel. Magi, the original Greek word used to describe them, refers to members of the priestly class of the Medes from what is now Iran. Our words "magic" and "might" come from the same root, which conveys an idea of power.

To find out more festive facts, visit the Centre for Life in Newcastle. Until February 11 you can take a whirl on the Centre's open air ice rink.

For further information, prices and opening times, call the customer information line on (0191) 243 8210 or visit www.life.org.uk
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Dec 19, 2006
Words:1143
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