Visualizing Christmas

Reading time: 3 min

‘Tis the season to be jolly, as the old song goes, but is it possible to calculate exactly how jolly we are through data sets? A scientific analysis of Christmas and all of its related traditions has long been a point of humorous inquiry, with scientists from serious organizations like the Institute of Physics spending time to calculate the physics of Santa, were he to accomplish his yearly one-night one-man package distribution mission. Roger Highfield, a British science writer and current Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, penned an entire book called the Physics of Christmas that explores these numbers to great depth. This infographic shows some of his calculations.

The Physics Of Santa

by PolicyExpert.
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  Despite the seeming impossibility of visiting 822.6 homes per second to satisfy the wishes of the child masses, scientists like Highfield seem to not want to discredit the possibility of Santa altogether. A recent MeetUp of DataVizDC, a Washington-area group of data scientists and enthusiasts, kicked off by applying the Alcubierre warp drive theory to Santa’s journey, thereby allowing him to defy the laws of physics to reach every house in his allotted time. Alcubierre proposes “a method of stretching space in a wave which would in theory cause the fabric of space ahead of a spacecraft to contract and the space behind it to expand. The ship would ride this wave inside a region known as a warp bubble of flat space.” Several beltway data scientists at the meetup also took on interesting data sets related to the holidays to provide a more quantitative look into the season. A staple of the Christmas season is the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Santa tracker, which is operated jointly by the U.S. and Canada and has reported Santa’s whereabouts to children since 1955. While NORAD’s pre-Internet operation was run primarily by volunteers answering phone calls from eager kids, now you can check out NORAD Tracks Santa website, which uses a pretty fantastic interface. Morningside Analytics took data on tweets from the @NORADsanta Twitter handle to create a cluster map of everyone tweeting about NORAD and the associations between them. The Twitter users are clustered together by color into different categories based on their associations. The size of each dot pertains to how much that user is tweeting about NORAD, and those closer to the middle are more connected. The graphic below shows what the network looks like with all categories selected.   And the one below has four clusters, showing how Christmas marketing is connected to the Republican Tea Party through parenting groups and social media marketing.   But perhaps the most fun data visualized by DVDC was the information on the number of births that take place nine months after Christmas – in other words looking at whether Christmas is a festive holiday in more than one way. Instead of looking a birth numbers, Ben Chartoff at The Sunlight Foundation looked at the birth ranking of days, which lists every day of the year based on how many babies were born on that day. What he found using Plotly was that most of the highest ranked days of the year were found just around the nine month mark following Christmas.

A Holly Jolly Baby Boom?

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A full interactive chart of of all birth rankings throughout the year can be found here:

Birth Ranking Calendar

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There was an interesting dip in the number of conceptions at the beginning of December, which seemed out of place among the high ranking days just before and after. While trying to analyze why this might be, one astute DVDC member pointed to a David McCandless graphic that showed that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a peak time for couples to break up, according to Facebook data.

Peak Break-Up Times on Facebook

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Do you have any favorite Christmas or holiday visualizations? Let us know in the comments.   Allison McCartney is an editor at the PBS NewsHour focused on education and informational graphics, and a freelance designer in the marketplace. She has a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied Middle Eastern history and art. You can follow her on Twitter @anmccartney.

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