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8 Truly Strange Christmas Customs

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The holiday called Christmas is an amalgam of many winter holidays from around the world. The name is designated as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, although the date is not recorded in the Bible, and people at that time did not place particular important on birth dates. Scientists say the actual date was June 17th, 2BC because of the appearance of the star that beckoned the Magi. December 25th was set as the date for Christmas in the 4th century by Pope Julius I as an attempt to Christianize midwinter pagan holidays such as Solstice and Saturnalia. Customs such as bringing evergreens inside, eating fat-laden foods, and hanging lights are universal responses to the cold, dark winter season. Some of the stranger Christmas traditions are remnants of those older pagan holidays, and some have been changed over the centuries until their origins are hard to discern. Others were just made up to boost business!

1. Krampus

St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus is the weirdest Christmas tradition ever, but he is so well known and so well documented that his origins are beyond the scope of this particular post. As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. People dress as Krampus and roam the streets looking for someone to beat with a stick. Since it is also a night for drinking, the beatings probably don't hurt much. (Image by Flickr user salendron.)

2. Caga Tió

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In English, Caga Tió is "the pooping log". Really. The Catalan custom is still celebrated in Spain, where you can buy your own el Caga Tió. The log is hollowed out, with legs and a face added. You must "feed" him every day beginning on December 8th. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, put him in the fireplace and beat him with sticks until he poops out small candies, fruits, and nuts. When he is through, the final object dropped is a salt herring, a garlic bulb, or an onion. Oh yeah, there is a traditional song the family can sing to encourage the process.

poop log,
poop turrón,
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don't poop well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
poop log!

3. Caganer

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Another Catalonian tradition is the Caganer, a Christmas statue found in nativity scenes in Andorra and parts of Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The scenes depict the entire town of Bethlehem, and the Caganer is usually tucked away in a corner, far from Mary and Joseph. The Caganer needs privacy, because he is defecating. There are quite a few explanations for this custom, but none have been confirmed as the original source. Caganers have been used for at least a couple hundred years. You can even buy Caganers that resemble modern-day celebrities. (Image by Flickr users clare_and_ben.)

4. The Pickle Ornament

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The story goes that when German families decorate the Christmas tree, the last ornament to be hung is the Christmas pickle -usually a blown glass ornament that may have been passed down through generations. It is tucked away in a hard-to-see spot (it is green, after all). The first child who finds the pickle on Christmas morning gets a special gift and good luck all the next year. The trouble with this legend is that people in Germany were unfamiliar with it. Glass tree ornaments were indeed made in Germany, in the shape of fruits and vegetables and other objects. These ornaments became very popular in America when F.W. Woolworth began importing them in the 1880s. An old German legend no doubt helped to sell more glass ornaments! (Image by Flickr user the queen of subtle.)

5. Kentucky Fried Chicken

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The celebration of Christmas in Asia usually involves imported western traditions, but in Japan those traditions have been shaped by commercial interests. The holiday places special emphasis on romantic love, so it's a day to spend with a sweetheart or spouse. Bakeries sell Christmas cakes as traditional sweetheart treats. And you might have to make reservations to get a table at KFC. Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fast food franchise let it be known that fried chicken is traditional for the Christmas feast. And so it is -in Japan. (Image by Flickr user sleepytako.)

6. Zwarte Piet

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Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter is Santa's helper in the Netherlands. Sinterklass arrives on the eve of St. Nicholas Day in a steamship with his slave Zwarte Piet, portrayed in public processions in several cities. Since about 1850, children who don't behave during the year were told that Black Peter might take them back to Spain, where Sinterklaas lives. The racist aspects of the custom have been downplayed in recent decades, and the tale of Black Peter now describes him as a chimney sweep instead of a slave, which explains the blackface. But charges of racism still follow Black Peter, as he is often portrayed with an Afro and exaggerated features.

7. TV Yule Log

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The Yule Log is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. The Yule Log on TV is a relatively new tradition for those who have no fireplace to burn their own log. WPIX in New York has broadcast 24 hours of a burning fireplace on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day since 1966. The original film was shot at Gracie Mansion, but a carpet fire during the first filming made the mayor wary of a reshoot a few years later, so the loop seen now was filmed in California.

8. Mari Lwyd

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Mari Lwyd, an old midwinter custom in Wales, is a holdover from pagan celebrations before Christmas was introduced. Mari Lwyd means "gray mare" in English.

In its purest form (still to be seen at Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, every New Year's Day) the tradition involves the arrival of the horse and its party at the door of the house or pub, where they sing several introductory verses. Then comes a battle of wits (known as pwnco) in which the people inside the door and the Mari party outside exchange challenges and insults in rhyme. At the end of the battle, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties holds out, the Mari party enters with another song.

The horse in the above scenario is made of a horse's skull attached to a pole. The person operating the horse is concealed by sheets, and sometimes has a contraption to work the horses jaw! (Image by Flickr user arosmae.)

See Also...

8 Great TV Christmas Specials (But Not The Ones You're Probably Thinking)
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Is It True That No Two Snowflakes Are Alike?
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12 Things You Might Not Know About A Christmas Story (Even though you've seen it 90 times)
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The Stories Behind 10 Famous Christmas Songs
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11 Notable Presidential Pardons

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Now through Sunday only, all our t-shirts are $14.90! Visit the mental_floss store, finish up your holiday shopping and use the code "holidayteeparty" during checkout.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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