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What is the Origin of the Phrase "Come Out of the Closet"?

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This week, NBA center Jason Collins announced he was gay in a cover story for Sports Illustrated. In other words, he "came out of the closet." This expression for revealing one's homosexuality may seem natural. Being in the closet implies hiding from the outside world, and the act of coming out of it implies the will to stop hiding. But though the closet has long been a metaphor for privacy or secrecy, its use with reference to homosexuality is relatively recent.

According to George Chauncey's comprehensive history of modern gay culture, Gay New York, the closet metaphor was not used by gay people until the 1960s. Before then, it doesn't appear anywhere "in the records of the gay movement or in the novels, diaries, or letters of gay men and lesbians."

"Coming out," however, has long been used in the gay community, but it first meant something different than it does now. "A gay man's coming out originally referred to his being formally presented to the largest collective manifestation of prewar gay society, the enormous drag balls that were patterned on the debutante and masquerade balls of the dominant culture and were regularly held in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, and other cities." The phrase "coming out" did not refer to coming out of hiding, but to joining into a society of peers. The phrase was borrowed from the world of debutante balls, where young women "came out" in being officially introduced to society.

The gay debutante balls were a matter of public record and often covered in the newspaper, so "coming out" within gay society often meant revealing your sexual orientation in the wider society as well, but the phrase didn't necessarily carry the implication that if you hadn't yet come out, you were keeping it a secret. There were other metaphors for the act of hiding or revealing homosexuality. Gay people could "wear a mask" or "take off the mask." A man could "wear his hair up" or "let his hair down," or "drop hairpins" that would only be recognized by other gay men.

It is unclear exactly when gay people started using the closet metaphor, but "it may have been used initially because many men who remained 'covert' thought of their homosexuality as a sort of 'skeleton in the closet.'" It may also have come from outsiders who viewed it that way. It seems that "coming out of the closet" was born as a mixture of two metaphors: a debutante proudly stepping into the arms of a community and a shocking secret being kept in hiding. Now the community is the wider community, and the secret is no longer shocking. "Coming out" is a useful phrase, but it need not imply a closet.

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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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