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What Becomes of Bad Guys' Bodies?

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Getty Images

It took more than two weeks after Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed to find a grave for his body. Both Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Cambridge City Manager Robert Healy had said they would not allow the body to be buried within their cities’ limits and the funeral director struggled to find a cemetery elsewhere.

It’s not exactly surprising that no one wanted the body. Aside from the distaste that comes from having a terrorist buried next to someone’s kindly grandmother, there was legitimate concern that a grave like Tsarnaev’s could attract vandals, protests, admiring jihadists or other disruptions. (Tsarnaev's final resting place has not been disclosed.)

Tsarnaev isn’t the first public enemy to run into this problem. After Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death, Congress passed legislation that barred military veterans who had been convicted of capital crimes (e.g. McVeigh) from burial in military cemeteries. McVeigh’s remains were cremated, and scattered at an undisclosed location by his lawyer. Terrorist Osama bin Laden was buried at sea after his home country Saudi Arabia refused to repatriate his body.

After WWII, the Soviets worried that Adolf Hitler’s body, which the Red Army had found partially cremated outside the Führerbunker, would attract neo-Nazis and any unsecured gravesite would quickly be turned into a shrine. The KGB decided to destroy the remains and dispose of them in secret, and three agents finished burning the body in the German woods and scattered the ashes in the wind.

The family of Leon Czolgosz, who killed President William McKinley in 1901, wanted the assassin’s body turned over to them, but government officials refused and opted to destroy it instead. Taking some inspiration from Walter White’s playbook, they buried Czolgosz in the prison where he was executed, in a coffin filled with quicklime and sulfuric acid, which destroyed the corpse.

In some cases, one man’s trash is another’s treasure, and disposing of a defeated bad guy hasn’t been very difficult. The bodies of the five Palestinian terrorists killed by German police during the 1972 Munich massacre were turned over to Libya, where they were greeted by adoring crowds and buried with full military honors.

Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?

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.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

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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