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Did Cats Drive This Painter Insane?

I wrote about the mad sculptor Messerschmidt last week, and in the comments one reader mentioned that his work reminded them of an English painter named Louis Wain (1860-1939) -- who I then proceeded to look up, and become totally fascinated by. So here's the story. Louis Wain was a man of some artistic talent, and he adored cats. While his young wife was gradually succumbing to illness over a period of several years, Wain often used the household cat, Peter, to amuse her, dressing him up in glasses and making it seem as if he were reading the paper, just for chuckles. He began to draw Peter, of whom he would later say "To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work" -- and indeed, many of his early published drawings and paintings are of the family cat. In the beginning, his work was more or less naturalistic, like the above.

After his wife passed away, he became more and more obsessed by cats. His furry subjects were often anthropomorphized in cutesy ways -- in fact, he seemed almost incapable of drawing human beings. He wrote, "I take a sketch-book to a restaurant, or other public place, and draw the people in their different positions as cats, getting as near to their human characteristics as possible." If that's not an indication of early-onset weirdness, I don't know what is. In any case, his cats-doing-people-stuff work got him a lot of attention, and he became something of a national sensation, with his drawings reproduced on cards and posters.

He was a cat activist too, and a card-carrying member of the National Cat Club, the Cat Protection League, and the wonderfully-named Our Dumb Friends League. Meanwhile, see below. Aww!

In the 1910s and 20s, things took a turn for the worse. His behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1924, his sisters committed him to the pauper's ward of a mental asylum. He languished there for a year until a newspaper article was written about the deplorable conditions he was forced to endure, and when big-name fans came out of the woodwork -- H.G. Wells said "English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves" -- he was moved to a much more pleasant asylum, where he lived for another ten years or so before passing away. In that time, he began to paint and draw again, and though his subject was the same as ever, his increasingly bizarre style seemed evidence of some mental disorder, possibly schizophrenia. (One theory, which some still ascribe to, is that he contracted and was driven mad by toxoplasmosis, a parasite that lives in cat poop.) Today, his early and late work are used in psychology textbooks to illustrate the progress and effects of schizophrenia.

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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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