What's the Difference Between Britain and England?


Moments after Andy Murray’s victory over Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, the New York Times went with a headline that raised some eyebrows: “After 77 Years, Murray and England Rule.” The story was expanded for the print edition, and the headline tweaked—first switching out “England” for “Britain,” then changing the second clause.

That is because—despite what many think—England and Britain aren't the same thing. The best analogy would be to call the United States the Midwest: It disenfranchises a significant proportion of the country, and risks offense. It’s a common misconception that has been going on for centuries, and it’s difficult to unravel.

Cry God for Andy, England and St George!

“Britain” was initially the term for the home of a group of Celts who inhabited modern day England and Wales (and a small part of southern Scotland) before Roman occupation. It was nothing more than that—and remained that way until 1603, when James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland) sought to unite his two countries. He titled himself King of Great Britain, though opposition and wariness meant that Great Britain didn’t exist during his lifetime, and though subsequent kings and queens ruled both Scotland and England, the governments beneath them were separate for Scotland and England.

It took another century, and the ascension to the throne of Queen Anne in 1702 following a succession crisis, to put the wheels of union back into motion. Anne’s first speech to parliament as Queen of England explained it was “very necessary” to unite the two countries.

Teams of negotiators were drawn up, and after years of talks the Acts of Union 1707 were passed in the English and Scottish Parliaments, drawing together the two countries into the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

So what is it today?

Today, “Great Britain” refers to the entirety of the United Kingdom, save for Northern Ireland (or, if you want to think of it in terms of landmass, the British Isles minus the island of Ireland). This is why technically, the country that flies the Union flag is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and not just Great Britain. But invariably there’s slippage in the definition: When people refer to Great Britain (or just plain Britain), quite often they mean the United Kingdom.

Still with us? Well what if we told you that today most Britons drop the “Great” from Great Britain? If you ask, they’ll say they’re British, from Britain; no one fills out their passport’s nationality section to say they’re United Kingdom-ish.

But Andy Murray’s definitely not English.

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So let’s break it down: England + Scotland + Wales = Great Britain. Great Britain + Northern Ireland = the United Kingdom. Of course, just as New Yorkers and Bostonians share a friendly rivalry, so do Scottish and Englishmen and women.

In fact, the divisions can run deep between the two. Scottish national pride can rub against the natural gravitation of the seats of power, commerce and industry to the heart of England. The tension is so bad that there will be a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014—which could make the English/British/Scottish conundrum a lot easier to untangle.

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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