It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
What are all the sights, sounds, textures and smells of that you associate with Christmas time? Maybe it’s the wonderful smell of pine from your new Christmas tree, or chestnuts roasting, crackers being pulled, a pot of mulled wine warming on the stove, warm cosy jumpers, or maybe it’s the delicious smell of your favourite part of Christmas dinner tingling your taste buds. But did you know that all these sights and smells that with associate with all the festivities of Christmas are all down to thousands and thousands of molecules.
So in true scientist style I thought I would share some of the chemistry behind that makes Christmas the most wonderful time of the year. Let’s call it the ’12 molecules of Christmas’.
There is no better place to start when talking about the molecules of Christmas than with Christmas dinner. I am sure that we are all guilty of falling into a food coma after stuffing our faces with turkey and trimmings at lunchtime. But the reason you might feel sleepy is not just because of the sheer volume of food you have eaten but a molecule called tryptophan that is found in turkey. Tryptophan is an amino acid and a building block of proteins and is sleep inducing. But tryptophan is present in all meat so it is actually the amount of carbs you eat with your dinner that helps send you into an afternoon snooze. Why? Well, all those potatoes, parsnips and the like releases the hormone insulin which increases the uptake of amino acids. This means more tryptophan can pass the blood-brain barrier causing you to be drowsy.
Starting your Christmas dinner off with a bang? I’m talking about good old Christmas crackers. One side of the strip is an abrasive surface to create friction while the other is coated with an explosive salt called silver fulminate. As you pull a cracker the friction reacts with the salt and creates that signature cracker bang!
Another Christmas classic and you either love them or you hate them. Have you guessed what I am talking about? Good old Brussel Sprouts! The molecule sulforaphane is created when the plant is damaged or broken down. For example when you overcook them. The sulphur in this molecule is what gives them their characteristic smell and that bitter taste to some.
From the name you can probably guess what this one is. Cinnamaldehyde is found in cinnamon and makes up many festive spiced recipes but my favourite has got to be mulled wine. Or spiced cider. Or a mince pie. Did you know that cinnamaldehyde has anti-bacterial properties. So it could be the perfect excuse if you’re feeling a little under the weather over the festive period to have a glass of mulled wine.
Who doesn’t love a kiss under the mistletoe for Christmas? But do not try to eat it – the berries or the leaves! If eaten, it contains toxic compounds such as tyramine that can make you rather ill. So keep the Christmas spirit going and just use mistletoe for a quick peck instead.
No matter what your favourite tipple is, this molecule makes a common appearance around December. Besides lacing our glasses at parties and gatherings, alcohol is included in many recipes and also responsible for that traditional blue flame of a lit Christmas pudding after reacting with the sucrose of your dessert.
Would it really be Christmas without a tree? While I could have talked about the PVC that makes up fake trees, I thought I would stick to the traditional pine trees. That characteristic pine aroma you get from those pines is thanks to a molecule called alpha pinene, and actually it’s isomer beta pinene. It is also one of the molecules used in pine fragrances and air freshners you can buy. Plus it is the coolest molecule that I have ever had to draw…
Another one you can probably guess where it is found. Ginger and gingerbread is another Christmas tradition that has a scent and taste that reminds you of building gingerbread houses and other festivities. But gingerol is not found in uncooked ginger. It is only produced one ginger is heated and gives it it’s pungency.
Whether you are decorating your trees or the outside of your house, you have a range of gallium compounds to thank. If the fairy lights you are using for your decorations are LEDs then they give off light when an electric current passes through them. As they are made from semi-conductive materials, the colour of your Christmas light depends on the material used. For example, gallium phosphide gives a green light, gallium nitride is blue and aluminium gallium indium phosphide gives red.
The biologists reading this might recognise this one but probably from something that is not very Christmas related. Well, this time I am talking about wrapping paper and tape. All the rolls of paper used to wrap up those surprise gifts and the tape to keep them a surprise until the big day could be based on a molecule called cellulose. But I also cannot pass up this opportunity to try and encourage you all to use recyclable wrapping paper or find more eco-friendly ways of wrapping up your presents. I saw a photo this week of someone using pillowcases and ribbons to wrap presents up. While the shiny and glittery wrapping paper can look beautiful sat under the tree, it cannot be recycled and just fills up landfills even more. I dread to think how much is created on Christmas day. So spare a thought for the environment too this Christmas.
Christmas reminds me of big cosy jumpers and being sat by a log fire. Burning those logs creates a host of molecules that contribute to that distinctive aroma that we all love and one of those is syringol. Syringol is responsible for those sweet smoky aromas rather than the woody ones, but Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without syringol right?
And last but not least is this perfectly named molecule. So while rudolphomycin isn’t found in anything to do with Christmas, nor is it even named after the reindeer, I couldn’t pass up the chance to share it as a molecule of Christmas to share the fun scientists sometimes have when naming molecules – a lot of you might have already heard of the gene called Sonic Hedgehog right? Well when rudolphomycin is broken down it creates a sugar that is called rednose too. Sometimes you just have to love science.
What other sights, smells and tastes remind you of Christmas time? Let me know in the comments and we can find out what molecules are responsible.
But all that is left for me to say is ‘Merry Christmas’ to each and every one of you. Thank you all for your continued support this year. Remember to take some time for yourself this Christmas and share a thought for all the molecules making your festive season merry and bright!
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