The Holidays from A to Z

UC Riverside experts are available to discuss topics such as the perennially popular “A Christmas Carol” to how to avoid becoming a digital zombie

holiday ornaments

UCR faculty are available to discuss a variety of topics related to the holiday season.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Faculty experts at the University of California, Riverside are available to discuss their latest research and topics ranging from holiday film favorites, the chemistry of your favorite holiday concoctions, and the origins of Christmas to managing expectations, teaching STEM using principles of Kwanzaa, and atheists’ admonition to “celebrate reason,” not “the season.”

A Dickens of a Christmas

Joseph W. Childers, professor of English and dean of the Graduate Division
(951) 827-4302

The legacy of “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ popular tale of redemption, poverty and social justice, continues today, nearly two centuries after its publication in December 1843. The story, a staple of holiday festivities for many families, made Scrooge a household word, and gave birth to the phrases “Merry Christmas” and “Bah humbug.” Dickens scholar Joseph W. Childers is available to discuss how “A Christmas Carol” sets up a notion of Christmas that is as much indebted to the ideology of solipsism and greed as it purportedly is at odds with it.

Susan Zieger, associate professor of English
(951) 827-7840

Susan Zieger, a scholar of 19th century British literature, is available to discuss how Charles Dickens invented the modern version of Christmas in the 1843 with his novel “A Christmas Carol,” and how the Victorians celebrated Christmas before and after Dickens published this novel, as well as the commercialization of Christmas and the tradition of Christmas ghost stories.

Santa, St. Nicolas, and Springerli Cookies

Christine Ward Gailey, professor of anthropology
(951) 827-6426

Where did Santa Claus and St. Nicholas come from? Are they related? Anthropologist Christine Ward Gailey is available to discuss the origins of Christmas traditions, and the history of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas. She also is fascinated with German Christmas cookies, including Springerli cookies and the wooden molds carved to make them. Recipes available.

Ancient Origins of Christmas

Michele R. Salzman, professor of history
(951) 827-1991

Using new evidence from Egyptian calendars, historian Michele Salzman connects Dec. 25 with the celebration of the Sun established by the Roman emperor Aurelian in the late 3rd century. The Birth of the Sun after the winter solstice was a wide-spread belief in the ancient Mediterranean. Late Roman Christians also believed the birth of the Sun of God – the light of Justice – should be celebrated on that day in the later 4th century CE, creating two competing explanations for the return of the Sun.

Black Friday and Holiday Shopping Trends

Barry Mishra, professor of accounting
(951) 827‑7707

As the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday is the official kick-off to the Christmas shopping season. On the fourth Friday of November, shoppers across the U.S. scramble to take advantage of widespread bargains and limited “doorbuster” deals. Business professor Barry Mishra is available to speak about the history of Black Friday and how online shopping is changing this tradition. “With the advent of e-commerce, Black Friday has gone through an epic change,” he says. “The shopping patterns of the consumers, ‘why, what, when, where and how,’ has changed for good. Consumers want value-added promotions earlier than ever before and retailers are only happy to oblige, especially when it comes to online and hybrid channels.”

The Christmas Story

Richard Cunningham, religious studies lecturer
(951) 827-6427

New Testament scholar Richard Cunningham specializes in the Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, and in ancient Judaism and Christianity. Cunningham, who teaches “Introduction to Western Religions,” also available to discuss modern forms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Holiday Movies That Just Keep on Giving

Derek Burrill, associate professor of media and cultural studies
(951) 827-1261

These are the top 10 holiday movie favorites of media and cultural studies professor Derek Burrill”

  • “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – Largely because of Hermey the elf and aspiring dentist. And because it’s important to be independent, together.
  • “Love, Actually” – Did you know that love, actually, is all around? It is! Especially when it’s in the form of fantastic looking movie stars.
  • “Die Hard” – Because everyone feels like they’re under siege during the holidays.
  • “The Hebrew Hammer” – This guy says L’chaim with his fists!
  • “Christmas with the Kranks” – Rotten Tomatoes calls it “a mirthless movie as fresh as last year’s fruitcake.” And the critics put it at 5 percent. See this if you want to put your holiday debacle in perspective.
  • “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” – A Supernatural Santa sets out to punish bad little children. If only teenagers believed in Santa …
  • “Bad Santa” – An alcoholic, foul-mouthed criminal rips off department stores as Santa. Billy Bob Thorton’s finest performance.
  • “Trading Places” – Oddly familiar for a film released in 1983. A tale of the 1 percent playing games with the 99 percent. And Eddie Murphy when he was on fire.
  • “Elf” – You don’t have to like Will Farrell, but if you do, then it might help you deal with Zoey Deschannel. “Siri, if it’s December 25, is it Christmas today?”
  • “Black Christmas (Stranger in the House)” – A holiday serial killer? I’ll have seconds, please.

Here’s a movie that will most likely be on this list next year:

  • “Krampus” – A potentially great horror movie that you can use to scare the kids into behaving.

Holiday Foods:  Love at First Bite Must Also Have Chemistry

Cindy Larive, professor of chemistry and interim dean
(951) 827-2990

It’s the time of year when many of us loosen our grips on our diets to succumb to the temptations of festive foods like candy canes, sugar cookies, eggnog and chocolate fudge.  What’s the chemistry behind our favorite candies?  “Sugar is the basis for many holiday treats including divinity, peanut brittle, toffee, candy canes, toffee and caramels,” says Cindy Larive, a professor of chemistry. “Though all of these items start with a simple mixture of sucrose (table sugar), corn syrup and water, many different tastes and textures result!  As a sugar syrup is heated, the amount of water present decreases. Key stages are indicated by the behavior of the syrup when dropped into cold water (e.g. soft ball, hard ball, soft crack and hard crack). Getting the syrup to the correct stage is key to making candy with the proper texture. Once all of the water has been evaporated, the temperature of the syrup increases further and the caramelization process begins. This occurs when the sucrose begins to break down chemically, generating a mixture of chemicals that give rise to its rich flavor.”

Staying Fit During the Holidays – Diabetes, Obesity, Weight Loss

Dr. Andrew Alexander, associate clinical professor of family medicine and director of clinical education
(951) 827-2074

The holidays can play havoc with people’s diets.  Offering a plethora of rich food choices, such as savory dishes and sugary desserts, this time of year can especially jeopardize people’s weight-loss plans and goals.  People with diabetes need to take extra precaution.  Andrew Alexander, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of family medicine in the School of Medicine, is an expert on diabetes, obesity and weight loss and can speak to these issues. (If you are unable to reach Dr. Alexander, please contact

Staying Healthy During the Holidays – Preventing Colds and Flu

Dr. Maegan Dupper, assistant clinical professor of family medicine
(951) 827-7808

Dr. Heidi Millard, assistant clinical professor of family medicine
(951) 827-7808

Over the river and through the woods, your family and friends are bringing cold and flu to your door. Learn what you can do to avoid the cold and flu bugs and have a happy, healthy holiday. (If you are unable to reach Drs. Dupper or Millard, please contact

Teaching STEM Using Principles of Kwanzaa

Carolyn Murray, professor of psychology

Unity. Self-determination. Collective work and responsibility. Cooperative economics. Purpose. Creativity. Faith. For those who observe Kwanzaa, these are the guiding principles of a seven-day celebration created to connect African Americans with their African cultural and historical heritage. They also constitute the principles around which UC Riverside’s University STEM Academy was founded. The project offers instruction and mentoring in math, science and leadership skills for 6th- through 9th-graders in the Inland Empire. It is aimed at, but not limited to, African American students. Kwanzaa, which is celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, was created by Maulana Karenga, professor of Africana studies at California State University, Long Beach and first celebrated in 1966. Each of the seven principles is observed on a different day, and are believed to have been key to building strong, productive families and communities in Africa, according to the official Kwanzaa website.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time to Learn Something New

Rachel Wu, assistant professor of psychology
(951) 827-3897

When we decide what our resolutions are during this holiday season, we are told to aim for realistic goals. But, we are limited by what we think is possible. How many times have you surprised yourself by completing something that you didn’t think was possible at first? Wu’s research is showing that the “use it, or lose it” saying is actually not true. Adults are capable of seeing, hearing, and learning much more than we thought was possible. This research challenges current estimates of our limitations. So, this holiday season, when we are creating our New Year’s resolutions, let’s resolve to learn something new and surprise ourselves.

Great Expectations

Kate Sweeny, associate professor of psychology
(951) 827-7165

The holidays often bring to mind delightful memories of one’s childhood, coming together as a family to share gifts, conversation, and a delicious meal, Sweeny observes. “With these memories come high expectations, perhaps unrealistically high, for the holiday ahead. Research finds that lofty expectations are easily shattered, leaving painful disappointment in their wake.” Perhaps the optimal strategy when anticipating the holidays is to “embrace joyful optimism while pairing it with a dose of realism about the potential pitfalls that accompany a hectic time of spending, travel, and visits with family.”

Joyeux Noël

Michelle Raheja, associate professor of English
(951) 827-1799

How do the French celebrate Christmas? France is more secular than the U.S., so there is little public discussion of Christianity. The French traditional give smaller and fewer gifts, but relish multicourse meals that last all day and are sometimes followed by dancing. Voila! Michelle Raheja will be traveling to Paris in December to experience how the French will celebrate the holidays this year in the wake of the November terrorist attacks.

Celebrating Reason, Not the Season: How Atheists Negotiate the Winter Holidays

Katja Guenther, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies
(951) 827-5853

How do atheists and other people who don’t believe in a god get through the holidays, when it seems like religious symbols are everywhere and so many Americans are engaged in religious traditions? Katja Guenther studies the experiences of atheists and other non-religious people, including efforts by atheist organizations to remove religious symbols, like nativities, from public spaces. Over the last several years, atheist groups have attracted significant public attention with controversial holiday outreach campaigns like American Atheists’ billboards asserting that the story of Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus is a myth and asking Americans to “celebrate reason” rather than religious mythology. Professor Guenther’s research finds that atheists themselves are divided about how to engage with religion and that the winter holidays are a key time of year for debate and discussion among atheists about how to negotiate interactions with religious people, symbols, and institutions.

How to Avoid Becoming a Digital Zombie

Juliette Levy, associate professor of history
(951) 827-6492

How do Digital Zombies celebrate the holidays? What are Digital Zombies anyway? That’s a good question, and one that you won’t be able to answer without doing some research. Juliette Levy’s historical research methods course on Digital Zombies – aka “History 19WV: The Historian’s Workshop” – is a gamified online course that improves digital literacy skills, historical research skills and critical thinking. It explores the many tools historians use to answer questions – for example, about religious traditions, about celebrations through history, about the meaning of family in faraway times and places – and it does this in a game-like environment. The point of the course is to introduce students to the practice of history by letting them work in the library, with documents and developing their own research project – which is the only way to prevent the spread of the digital zombie disease.

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-7847
Twitter: bettyemiller

Additional Contacts

Iqbal Pittalwala
Tel: (951) 827-6050

Mojgan Sherkat
Tel: (951) 827-5893

Sean Nealon
Tel: (951) 827-1287

Sarah Nightingale
Tel: (951) 827-4580

Archived under: Arts/Culture, Health, , , , , , , , , ,

Top of Page