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Is Home Field Advantage Real?

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As the World Series heads to Game Six tonight, the Red Sox are up three games to two. Boston lost once at home in Fenway Park, and the St. Louis Cardinals got beat twice at their own Busch Stadium. They’ve each won only one game at home. Both teams are missing out on that certain something, that edge that seems to come from playing in your own stadium in front of the hometown fans. Is that home field advantage real?

The science points to yes. Plenty of researchers have crunched the numbers on various sports and found that the home team consistently wins a greater proportion of games. In a review of bunch of these types of studies in 2010, Jeremy P. Jamieson, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, concluded that a home team will win approximately 60 percent of all games.

What contributes to this advantage? Researchers have found a number of things that give an edge to the home team, some more obvious than others. Jamieson arranges them into a few categories.

The hometown crowd

Larger and denser crowds, which the home team would expect to have with their fans living nearby, are associated with bigger advantages for the home team. The crowd’s behavior also has an effect, and studies have found that when the fans boo the home team for poor plays, it acts as a motivator for better performance—more so than when a visiting team is booed. Other research suggests that noise from the crowd can influence the judgments of referees and umpires, and fewer calls are made against the home team when the officials can hear the crowd than when the fans are quiet. 

The familiar field

Another factor is the players’ familiarity with their stadium’s facilities and the playing surface. One study found that teams that relocate to a new stadium enjoy a reduced home field advantage for a while. Even if it’s their stadium, the unfamiliarity takes away from their edge over away teams until they get settled in to the new home. 

Business travel

The third factor Jamieson found was travel. Away teams sometimes have to travel a long way to their competitors’ home stadium, and studies have linked the away team’s travel distance to the level of advantage that the home team has over the visitors. One of the main drivers behind this effect was the jet lag from long-distance east-west travel affecting visiting teams’ performance and game outcomes. 

Positive thinking

Finally, these three factors all feed into a fourth: the psychological states of the players. Athletes report feeling more positive and motivated when playing at home, which can affect their performance. 

In his review of the research, Jamieson found that baseball teams generally have a weaker home field advantage than teams and competitors in other sports. Jamieson thinks that the one underlying cause here is season length and game importance. Major League Baseball teams play 162 game in a regular season, so each individual game contributes less to their final win percentage. If the players see an individual game as less important to the overall season, it might reduce a home team’s motivation. 

The crowd factor also seems to come into play here. In 2007, Jamieson writes, the average MLB stadium had a capacity of 45,097 and average attendance for the season was 32,717. So, for an average regular season game, about three quarters of the seats are filled. The English Premiere football league (soccer, to us Yanks), in comparison, filled a little more than 80 percent of the seats on average that same year, and showed a much larger home field advantage effect. A lower crowd density might help explain why baseball shows less of a home field advantage effect than more well-attended sports. 

That said, NFL football has a shorter season than MLB baseball and denser crowds (around 98 percent of the seats were filled, on average, in 2007), but Jamieson found those teams had a similar home field advantage to MLB, so something else has to be going on here to account for the differences between sports. Jamieson suggests that fan behavior could contribute. While soccer and football fans are known to be active and rowdy, baseball, he says, has a “less intense atmosphere in which fans routinely leave even before the game is over.” 

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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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