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When did Christmas turn spherical?

25 December 2011 No Comment

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This Christmas, I will be travelling back to my homecountyof Cornwall to spend time with my parents. When I arrive, a large proportion of the main living space in their house will be taken up by a huge Christmas tree, under which will be stacked all the presents we’ve bought for each other. Following our traditional Christmas dinner, we’ll start the excited process of unwrapping everything!

Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree!

The origin of the Christmas tree is an interesting one. It is thought to relate back to the medieval mystery plays, where a ‘tree of paradise’ was used as a prop.  This was decorated with apples and wafers, as part of the process of acting out the story of the bible. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the tree from these plays was transformed into the Christmas tree as we know it. The apples were replaced by little red Christmas balls!

Christmas Balls?

Of course, as a ‘particle man’, it is the balls on the Christmas tree which grab my attention as much as the presents. As readers of this blog will know, in laser diffraction particle sizing there is no more perfect shape than a sphere, and so it is good that my parents’ collection of baubles includes many fantastic spheres, some of which were purchased in the 1950’s when by grandparents were living in Germany.

According to Wikipedia, the glass baubles were first made in Lauscha, Germany, by Hans Greiner, who produced garlands of glass beads as tree decorations. In the 1880s, American F. W. Woolworth (aw! Don’t we all miss Woolies on the high street here in the UK!) discovered Lauscha‘s baubles during a visit to Germany. He made a fortune by importing the German glass ornaments to the U.S.A.

Is Spherical Really Perfect?

Of course, not all balls are spherical – talk to Rugby or American Football players! This is true of Christmas baubles too. Both historically and more recently, these have tended away from ‘spherical’, and can be found in all sorts of shapes and sizes, designed to catch the light in different ways and please the avid Christmas tree fan. Could this lead to confusion for me, as I ponder the wonder of my parents’ tree? Possibly! However, the good news is that techniques such as automated image analysis provide a useful way to characterize the non-spherical nature of these special particles!

…and after all that particulate pondering, I think I deserve some more turkey!

Merry Christmas to you all!