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What's the Difference Between Ketchup and Catsup?

Ketchup and catsup are simply two different spellings for the same thing, a modern, Westernized version of a condiment that European traders were introduced to while visiting the Far East in the late 17th century. What exactly that condiment was and where they found it is a matter of debate.

It could have been ke-chiap from China's southern coastal Fujian region or it could have been kicap (a Malay word borrowed from the Cantonese dialect of Chinese, also spelled kecapand ketjap) from Indonesia, both of which are sauces based on brined or pickled fish or shellfish, herbs and spices. Whatever it was, the Europeans liked it, and as early 1690, they brought it back home with them, calling it catchup.

The early Western versions of the sauce - which, starting in 1711, was sometimes called ketchup, another Anglicization of the Malay name popularized in the book An Account of Trade in India - were pretty faithful to the original Eastern ones, with one of the earliest recipes published in England (1727) calling for anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper and lemon peel. It wasn't until almost a century later that tomatoes found their way into the sauce, in a recipe in an American cook book published in 1801. In the meantime, another alternative spelling popped up, mentioned in a 1730 Jonathan Swift poem: "And, for our home-bred British cheer, Botargo [a fish roe-based relish], catsup, and caveer [caviar]."

The tomato-based version of ketchup quickly caught on in the U.S. during the first few decades of the 19th century. At first, it was made and locally sold by farmers, but by 1837 at least one company was producing and distributing it on a national scale. The H. J. Heinz Company, a name that's synonymous with ketchup for most people today, was a relative latecomer to the game and didn't produce a tomato-based ketchup until 1876. They originally referred to their product as catsup, but switched to ketchup in the 1880s to stand out. Eventually, ketchup became the standard spelling in the industry and among consumers, though you can still find catsup strongholds sprinkled across the U.S.

Thanks to @SpaceJamb for suggesting the Mr. Burns photo.

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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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