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The Quick 10: Big Ben Turns 150!

On Sunday, everyone's favorite British Bell celebrated its sesquicentennial "“ yup, Big Ben turned 150. We're a little late in wishing it happy anniversary, but better late than never, right? Here are a few birthday facts about Big Ben and her Clock Tower.

night1. As inferred above, "Big Ben" doesn't refer to the clock or the tower, but to the bell itself. Ol' Ben weighs 13.7 tons (tonnes, to you Brits) and rings an "E" note when it's struck; the quarter bells strike G#, F#, E and B.
2. We're pretty sure we know whom the bell is named after, but not totally sure. Most likely its named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the First Chief Commissioner for Works who oversaw part if the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament "“ including Big Ben "“ in the 1850s. His name is inscribed on the bell. The story goes that Parliament was having a long session to name the bell when tall Ben Hall stood up and expounded on the matter for a ridiculously long time. When he was done, someone yelled, "Why not call it Big Ben and have done with it?" and the whole House started laughing. But this is just a story "“ there's no documentation to verify it. The other theory is that it's named after Benjamin Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer of the same era who went by the name "Big Ben of Westminster."

3. There's a Latin inscription under each clock dial. They all say the same thing: "Domine Salvam fac Reginam nostrum Victoriam primam" which means "O Lord, save our Queen Victoria the First."

foundry4. Big Ben and the Liberty Bell are cousins! The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London made both of them. Interestingly enough, they both cracked pretty quickly. The first Big Ben cracked upon the first use, so Whitechapel used her as scrap metal to make Big Ben #2"¦ which also cracked. But it wasn't Whitechapel's fault "“ the bell wasn't being used as the Foundry had prescribed. A barrister named Edmund Beckett Denison had ordered and used a hammer more than twice the size of the one that the Foundry told him to use, which resulted in the crack. After this second crack, Big Ben was out of commission for four years; the hour was struck on one of the quarter bells instead of on the Great Bell. The Great Bell was moved about an eighth of a turn so the hammer could hit a piece of the bell with no crack in it; it's the bell we hear today. If you've ever noted that the bell chimes with a not-quite-right tone, the crack is the reason.

5. The second bell was too big to fit up the Clock Tower's shaft vertically, so it was turned sideways and winched up. It took about 30 hours to get it into place.

6. Here's what it looks like chiming.

7. Despite a very impressive history of being almost perfectly on time, even after a bomb struck it during WWII, Big Ben and the clock have fallen silent several times throughout history. A few of these instances include:
"¢ For two years during WWI, it was silenced as so not to attract attention from the German zeppelins.
"¢ In 1962, heavy snow accumulation on the clock's hands made it ring in the New Year about 10 minutes late.
"¢ In 1949, a flock of starlings decided the minute hand would make a good perch. Their combined weight slowed the hand by 4.5 minutes.

cleaning8. In 1980, the BBC famous for their April Fool's Day jokes, announced that the clock was going digital and offered to give the minute and hour hands away to the first listener who called into the program. Not only were people not fooled, they weren't even amused. The BBC later apologized for such a distasteful joke.
9. The Tower is not open to the general public, but every now and then, the press and some VIPs are escorted to the top. They have to be willing to climb 334 steps, though "“ there's no elevator.

sweeney10. Big Ben has been voted the Most Iconic London Film location and the most popular landmark in the United Kingdom. People know Big Ben and its history so well that when a promotional poster for 2008's Sweeney Todd included a foggy image of the Clock Tower in the background, they cried foul. Sweeney Todd, you see, was set in the early 19th century, and since Big Ben and the tower weren't around until the late 1850s, it wasn't historically accurate.

Perhaps this makes me hopelessly uncultured, but I can't see the Clock Tower without thinking, "Hey look kids! There's Big Ben, and there's Parliament!" "Kids... Big Ben. Parliament, again."

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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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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