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How Christmas may have changed in the Twenty-first Century

Posted in Christmas, Science, Space, Technology on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

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This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 519 published on 25 December 1971.

Santa on Mars, picture, image, illustration

Santa Claus on Mars

For astronauts sitting down to dinner in a space-station orbiting the Earth, it still looks like a traditional Christmas of three decades earlier.

The table and folding chairs may be made of a super-light titanium-aluminium alloy, but the goodies laid out for Christmas dinner are not space-age at all. There is roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, plum pudding, hot mince pie, and trifle.

These men, spending Christmas two hundred miles above the Earth, are lucky – their dinner stays on the table. The huge space station turns slowly like a giant wheel, so that centrifugal force creates a kind of artificial gravity. Otherwise the men, chairs and table, would be floating around in the pressurized cabin like fish in an aquarium, bumping into elusive turkey drumsticks and mince pies. Weightlessness might be amusing, for a while at least, but it would hardly be in the traditional Christmas spirit, and it would be scientifically impossible to pull crackers!

Five other astronauts, however, on a special space mission to the Planet Neptune, will have to stretch their imaginations to the limit to make things seem like Christmas at all. Their Christmas dinner will consist of turkey-flavoured protein powder moistened with distilled water, sucked slowly from polythene bags. Pulling crackers and untying presents will be out, but at least they will be able to play Christmas music from their tape-cassettes, and watch Christmas programmes on their transistorized colour TV.

On Earth, in a flat on the 385th floor of a super-skyscraper in Manchester, the Jones family is entertaining the Green family. The Greens have arrived from California after a journey of just under forty minutes by a hyper-sonic jet airliner, because their friends the Joneses promised to treat them to a traditional English Christmas dinner.

And the meal they are now enjoying is traditional, and perhaps even more English and “Christmassy” than it might have been if they had lived back in 1971, in spite of thirty years progress in science and technology.

The plates they are eating from are made of fine china, and not from heat-resistant plastic. The knives and forks and spoons are not factory-made from modern steel alloys, they are made from pure silver, fashioned by hand by skilled craftsmen.

In the year 2001 most people will have become bored with the plastics and “super-metals” of the 20th Century, particularly as far as their everyday living is concerned. Perhaps the same skills used to manufacture new space-age materials today can be used to mine and distribute silver and other “precious” metals in the future.

Machines will have shortened our working days and given us much more leisure, so that more and more technicians will start being craftsmen again, making the beautiful things of wood, china and porcelain, crystal and silver, which today can only be bought at very high prices in antique shops and special “boutiques.”

The roast turkey the Jones and Greens are eating has been done to a turn in a very unusual type of oven, heated by radio waves!

Even today cooking can be done in a few restaurants by placing the food between two metal plates. The plates are connected to a radio transmitter built-in to the stove. It has been discovered that any object placed in the path of ultra-high frequency radio waves becomes hot. The same types of radio waves, called “UHF” for short, are used for TV programmes.

The Jones’ kitchen looks like the inside of a space capsule. The cooker is enormous – it has two ovens and extra space for the electronic computer which can automatically turn heating plates on and off, or lower the cooking temperatures at certain times, or even tell Mrs Jones the temperature inside the turkey when it is being roasted. And when the grill is on for making toast or grilling bacon and sausages for Christmas breakfast, no heat seems actually to come from it. This grill cooks using “cold heat” or infra-red rays, radiating out towards the food from a series of metal tubes which never seem to glow red.

The Greens are admiring the Jones’ Christmas tree, which is covered with glittering ornaments and festooned with icicles made of tinsel. Coloured lights flash on and off in time with “tinkling” Christmas music which seems to come from an old-fashioned musical box.

Hidden away under the tree is a small metal case containing a tiny factory-made computer, which automatically switches the lights on and off, and also keeps the switching “rhythm” in time with a tiny transistorized electronic organ, whose notes sound exactly like the tones of a Swiss musical box.

Mr Green, who prides himself on being mechanically-minded, gets up from the table and examines the tree closely.

“It’s plastic!” Mr Green exclaims. He sniffs at the tree. “But it sure smells like a real Christmas tree!”

The tree is indeed plastic, which has been specially treated with a chemical which smells exactly like fir or pine.

In America, where the Greens live, “real” pine and fir trees are still to be had, at enormous dollar prices. But in Britain and Europe, where millions of trees have been destroyed by fire and pollution, forest areas are treated with the same protection and respect as wild-life reservations. Mr and Mrs Jones would rather not have a tree at all, unless it could be a real one. But their smallest son James, who has been reading about Christmas trees in an illustrated book published in 1971, just wouldn’t have Christmas without a tree.

Dinner is over and both families sit around opening presents. Mrs Jones gives Mrs Green a beautiful woollen scarf she has woven herself on a small loom. Mr Green gives Mr Jones a book bound by hand in real leather, hand-tooled in gold leaf. The children exchange presents, things they have made in school.

Today we give expensive presents, most of them made in factories. Shopping is done weeks before Christmas. Did you know that today Christmas cards for 1972 are being designed and printed now?

In 2001 most people will probably have learnt that the Christmas spirit is perhaps more important than money spent on presents. More and more people will make things to give as gifts, particularly as “do-it-yourself” will be quite an institution in 2001.

The Jones and the Greens listen to greetings for Christmas, and the New Year, from friends all over the world; for thirty years of “live TV” by satellite have brought people together.

But instead of the traditional cards, people will undoubtedly send personal messages recorded on tape cassettes. The magnetic tape used will be almost as fine as a hair, so that the cassettes will be light and thin enough to fit into an envelope.

In many ways Christmas in 2001 will be much more important for people than it has become today, for the traditional Christmas spirit may be one of the few things which could keep people from being bored in a world dominated by computers and factories.

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