From Santa to Star Wars: what the experts have to say

17 December 2015

Santa, Star Wars and sustainable fashion: experts from across the University of Sydney lend their research expertise to Christmas-themed topics

Religious aspects to Christmas and spiritual tourism

By Professor Carole Cusack (Department of Studies in Religion)

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ but it might surprise people to know that the academic consensus is that there is no definite evidence for the month in which Jesus was born.

The tradition of celebrating his birth later in the year started in the fourth century. The marking of the mid-winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, around 23 December, with its powerful connections to the emergence from winter and the celebration of light, warmth, fecundity and positive powers, meant that many religions and cultures had celebrations then.

The popularity of decorating a pine tree as part of Christmas also has its origins in non-Christian traditions from the northern parts of Europe where Yule was celebrated at the mid-winter solstice.

The figure of Kris Kringle is derived from the German Chris Kindl, says Professor Cusack

The traditional Christmas tree is an evergreen, whose green branches defy the chill winter and point to the ultimate victory of the sun. 

As for our big-bellied, bearded giver of gifts, Santa has his origins in several equally generous figures. Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop in the fourth century who provided dowries to poor girls to prevent them turning to prostitution.

The figure of Kris Kringle is derived from the German Christ Kindl (Christ child) who was the gift-giver in the German-speaking world. His tradition was brought to the United States by Pennsylvania Dutch, among whom it is still popular.

Boxing Day, unlike the other traditions I have discussed grew out of the world of work. The tradition, which some claim may extend back to the late Roman period, but which is probably medieval, is that employers would give their apprentices boxes containing gifts. Masters would do the same for their servants. 

Economic and financial impact of Christmas

By Dr Shumi Akhtar, (University of Sydney Business School

Christmas spirit often has a reassuring feeling of selflessness which draws people into fanatical shopping sprees around the nation and globe. It is debatable whether the billions of dollars in spending during Christmas is overall beneficial to the economy.

The psychological satisfaction of giving or receiving gifts is hardly quantifiable and often is not accounted for in measuring economic and financial impact. In the short run although there is a huge influx of money in the economy during Christmas time, the months following Christmas spending by consumers shrinks significantly.

It’s a time of year when people don’t have a choice nor have enough time to think rationally about the cost and benefit of their purchases. Most people will take time off from work to buy presents for their friends, families and colleagues which is often not appreciated by the recipient. Then there’s the unneeded purchases for oneself purely because the item is selling at a 90 percent discount price on branded items and not using it once in their life.

Star Wars: The cultural impact of the new installment

By Dr Bruce Isaacs (Department of Art History)

The new installment of Star Wars represents the continuation of one of the most influential cultural objects of the 20th and early 21st Centuries.

The challenge for the new Stars Wars franchise, helmed by J. J. Abrams, heir to the Lucas/Spielberg blockbuster form, is to capture the magic of the original franchise that was so sorely missed in the prequels. Bringing in the stalwarts – Han Solo and Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and of course, the progenitor of the myth, Luke Skywalker – is a very smart move.

It’s unclear just what Star Wars: The Force Awakens will mean to this and the next generation of moviegoers. But it’s clearly more than cinema, more than television, and more than merely entertainment. As so many commentators have rightly argued, love of the franchise borders on religious fervor.

Sustainable fashion: gift ideas and summer wardrobe culling

By Lisa Heinze (PhD candidate, Department of Government and International Relations)

To avoid sending unnecessary waste to the landfill, consider giving the gift of an experience to your loved ones instead of an item, especially if you're unsure if it will be cherished by the recipient. Offer to babysit to allow busy parents a date night out together, share (and even make!) a wonderful meal with a friend, plan a day-trip somewhere like the Blue Mountains, or give a gift certificate for a massage, movie tickets or another activity.

Summer is a popular time to clean out your closet, but before you rush to take your unwanted items to the local Op Shop, consider hosting a clothes swap with your friends, family or co-workers instead. Only between one third and one fifth of all donated clothing gets re-sold in the country of donation, and charity shops are overflowing with our unwanted garments. If there are still remaining pieces after the clothes swap, only take the best quality items to the Op Shop.

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