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The 18th Century's Most Insane Sculptor

Franz Xaver Messerschmidst was, by all accounts, an incredibly talented sculptor. By the end of his life he was also, by most accounts, thoroughly insane. He was born in Austria in 1736 and by the 1770s had become recognized as one of the great neoclassical sculptors of his day -- and then everything seemed to go wrong. His friends and colleagues were afraid he was losing his mind. He suffered from an aggravating complaint of the bowels, which modern doctors think might've been Crohn's disease. He found minor relief only in pinching and contorting his ribcage in very specific ways, and in doing so he had to make some very funny faces. He began to sculpt what he saw in the mirror -- and around the same time, he began suffering from what was likely schizophrenia. The dozens of busts -- known as his "heads" -- that he would create in the last years of his life are so incredibly lifelike, and so incredibly strange, that's it's difficult to believe they were sculpted more than almost 300 years ago.

Slate did a nice slideshow of Messerschmidt's work recently, and they write:

Messerschmidt, wrote an author who visited him during this late period of his life, believed there were "sixty-four variations on the grimaces," the 61st of which Nicolai found him working on. Many, if not most, were self-portraits, such as the one shown here, posthumously named "The Yawner" and praised by Nicolai for revealing elements, like the underside of the tongue, perhaps "never before been represented by a sculptor."

He believed a being called the "Spirit of Proportion" came to torment him in the night, and one of his most famous heads, The Beaked, was apparently modeled after his phantasmagorical visitor.

For more, check out Slate's slideshow.

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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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