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What is the Funny Bone, and Why Does Hitting It Hurt So Much?

The "funny bone" is neither funny (when you whack it on the edge of a piece of furniture), nor a bone (whether you whack it or not). Where'd the name come from, and why is it so painful?

What it is

The funny bone is actually the ulnar nerve, a nerve that runs from the neck all the way to the hand, where it innervates several muscles in the hand and forearm and ends in two branches that innervate the pinkie and half of the ring finger.

Why it hurts

For most of its length, the ulnar nerve is protected, like rest of the body's nerves, by bones, muscles and/or ligaments. As the nerve passes the elbow, though, it runs through a channel called the cubital tunnel, and here it's protected only by skin and fat, making it vulnerable to bumps. When you hit your funny bone, you're actually hitting the nerve against bone and compressing it. The result is an exhilarating cocktail of numbness, tingling and pain that shoots through the areas where the nerve does its work: down the forearm and hand and into the ring and pinky fingers.

Playing the name game

There are two camps in the debate over how the ulnar nerve got be known as the funny bone. One side says that it's an anatomical pun, because the nerve runs along the humerus, which sounds like "humorous." (Get it?) The other side claims that the nerve got its nickname because of the funny (as in odd) feeling you experience after you hit it.

Things could be worse

When you hit your funny bone, it seems like the worst thing in the world, but imagine experiencing chronic irritation there, like someone banging on your funny bone day and night. It sounds like a method of torture you'd dream up in a revenge fantasy, but it's a very real problem called cubital tunnel syndrome.

Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve is obstructed during its trip along the elbow and gets pinched or squeezed, usually from sleeping with the arm folded up. The result is the same as a quick whack to the funny bone: numbness, pain and a tingling sensation, but it lasts a bit longer. Over time, progressive irritation of the nerve causes the numbness to settle in and stay. Muscle weakness in the forearm and hand can also set in, and the pinkie and ring finger can curl up in a position called the "ulnar claw." The condition can usually be helped with elbow splinting and the correction of aggravating postures, hand therapy or, in extreme cases, surgery that provides more space for the nerve and reduces the amount of pressure on it.

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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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.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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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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