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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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technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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