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5 Questions on the Origins of Christmas

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The traditions we associate with Christmas have evolved over the centuries. Here are answers to five questions about these traditions, from the date we choose to celebrate to the origin of Santa.

1. Why do we celebrate on December 25th?

The Bible makes no mention of Jesus being born on December 25th and, as more than one historian has pointed out, why would shepherds be tending to their flock in the middle of winter? So why is that the day we celebrate? Well, either Christian holidays miraculously fall on the same days as pagan ones or the Christians have been crafty in converting pagan populations to religion by placing important Christian holidays on the same days as pagan ones. And people had been celebrating on December 25th (and the surrounding weeks) for centuries by the time Jesus showed up.

The Winter Solstice, falling on or around December 21st, was and is celebrated around the world as the beginning of the end of winter. It is the shortest day and longest night and its passing signifies that spring is on the way. In Scandinavian countries, they celebrated the solstice with a holiday called Yule last from the 21st until January and burned a Yule log the whole time.

In Rome, Saturnalia—a celebration of Saturn, the God of agriculture—lasted the entire end of the year and was marked by mass intoxication (a tradition your uncle still upholds to this day). In the middle of this, the Romans celebrated the birth of another God, Mithra (a child God), whose holiday celebrated the children of Rome.

When the Christianity became the official religion of Rome, there was no Christmas. It was not until the 4th century that Pope Julius I declared the birth of Jesus to be a holiday and picked December 25th as the celebration day. By the middle ages, most people celebrated the holiday we know as Christmas.

2. How did Americans come to love the holiday?

The American Christmas is, like most American holidays, a mishmash of Old World customs mixed with American inventions. While Christmas was celebrated in America from the time of the Jamestown settlement, our modern idea of the holiday didn't take root until the 19th century. The History Channel credits Washington Irving with getting the ball rolling. In 1819 he published The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., an account of a Christmas celebration in which a rich family invites poor folk into their house to celebrate the holiday.

The problem (if you're so inclined to call it such) was that many of the activities described in Irving's work, such as crowning a Lord of Misrule, were entirely fictional. Nonetheless, Irving began to steer Christmas celebrations away from drunken debauchery and towards wholesome, charitable fun. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, Christmas gained popularity and Americans adopted old customs or invented new ones, such as Christmas tress, greeting cards, giving gifts and eating a whole roasted pig (or is that just my family?).

3. Who popularized Christmas trees?

ChristmasTree.jpgSince time immortal, humans have been fascinated with the color green and plants that stay green through winter. Many ancient societies—from Romans to Vikings—would decorate their homes and temples with evergreens in the winter as a symbol of the returning growing season.


But the Christmas tree didn't get going until some intrepid German dragged home and decorated a tree in the 16th century. Legend has it that Martin Luther himself added lighted candles to his family's tree, starting the trend (and leading to countless fires through the years). In America, the Christmas tree didn't catch on until 1846 when the British royals, Queen Victoria and the German Prince Albert, were shown with a Christmas tree in a newspaper. Fashionable people in America mimicked the Royals and the tree thing spread outside of German enclaves in America. Ornaments, courtesy of Germany, and electric lights, courtesy of Thomas Edison's assistants, were added over the years and we haven't changed much since.

4. What's the deal with Santa Claus?

The jolly, red-suited man who sneaks into your home every year to leave you gifts hasn't always been so jolly. The real Saint Nick was a Turkish monk who lived in the 3rd century. He was known for being charitable and selfless, eventually becoming the patron saint of sailors and children. According to legend, he was a rich man thanks to an inheritance from his parents, but he gave it all away in the form of gifts to the less-fortunate. He eventually became the most popular saint in Europe and, through his alter ego, Santa Claus, remains so to this day. But how did a long-dead Turkish monk become a big, fat, reindeer-riding pole dweller?

The Dutch got the ball rolling be celebrating the saint—called Sinter Klaas—in New York in the late-18th century. Our old friend, Washington Irving, included the legend of Saint Nick in his seminal History of New-York as well, but at the turn of the 18th century, Saint Nick was still a rather obscure figure in America.

On December 23, 1823, though, a man named Clement Clarke Moore published a poem he had written for his daughters called "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," better known now as "T'was the Night Before Christmas." Nobody knows how much of the poem Moore invented, but we do know that it was the spark that eventually lit the Santa fire (just hopefully not in the same fireplace he slips down on Christmas Eve). Many of the things we associate with Santa—a sleigh, reindeer, Christmas Eve visits—came from Moore's poem.

coke-santa.jpgFrom 1863-1886, Thomas Nast's illustrations of Santa Claus appeared in Harper's Weekly—including a scene with Santa giving gifts to Union soldiers. Not much has changed since the second half of the 19th century: Santa still gets pulled in a sleigh by flying reindeer, he still wears the big red suit and he still sneaks down chimneys to drop off presents. Contrary to popular belief, the Coca-Cola company did not invent the modern Santa. They did, however, learn how to use his image to get parents to buy soda during winter.

5. Who invented Rudolph?

Santa did get one more friend in 1939. Robert May, a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department store chain, wrote a little story about a 9th reindeer with a disturbing red nose for a booklet to give customers during the holiday season. Ten years later, May's brother would put the story to music, writing the lyrics and melody.

Streeter Seidell is the front page editor of CollegeHumor.com and a mental_floss contributor.

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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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