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What is Martial Law?

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Getty Images

After the tri-state area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, food, gas, and power were in high demand but short supply. In those situations, people get desperate, and they sometimes become violent, throwing not just common courtesy, but also any sense of what it means to be law abiding, out the window. This lack of order usually leads the government to declare what’s known as Martial Law. In the wake of the hurricane, some news outlets reported that parts of New Jersey had been placed under martial law. But what is martial law, and under what conditions is it implemented?

Martial Law: A History

Martial law is defined as “the imposition of Military forces to designated areas in order to regain, maintain, and secure when the civilian (local) government authorities are unable to do so and, in some cases, to enforce government rule.”

A declaration of martial law isn't as rare as you might think. In fact, there are numerous examples throughout America's history. Following the end of the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson declared martial law in New Orleans until he received official word of the peace settlement that ended the war (New Orleans was also under martial law more recently, following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina). Likewise, San Francisco was placed under martial law after the earthquake of 1906 and during riots at the ports in 1934. Chicago was placed under martial law following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. President Lincoln declared martial law over the entire country (well, almost) during the Civil War. Coal was the reason martial law had to be declared in Colorado in 1914, and Hawaii was under martial law following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

On the Front Lines

For the most part, Presidents and politicians have declared martial law and, at the same time, stayed as far away from the anarchy as possible. But there's at least one case of a President getting involved in the fray.

Following the American Revolution, our new government, headed by George Washington, decided to place a tax on whiskey production in order to gain some much needed revenue. This did not sit well with many whiskey producers in Pennsylvania, who had just finished fighting a war partly based on taxes. So they got mad and rioted.

Washington was having none of it. He didn’t declare martial law and send in the troops; he saddled up his horse and led the Army into Pennsylvania himself to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. The sight of him pretty much squashed the rebel cause, and proved that Washington was probably the toughest President of all time.

Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?

Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.


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