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Where Did The Term "Happy Hour" Come From?

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There’s nothing better after a hard day’s work than kicking back with some friends and downing a few cocktails. For bars, pubs, and restaurants, the practice of happy hour specials—typically held between the hours of 4pm and 8pm—has become a commonplace way to boost sales on slow weekdays and to let their customers relax to make them “happy” before dinner. But the concept of the “Happy Hour” isn’t merely a marketing strategy, and the history of hitting the sauce at half price has a surprisingly strong—if not varied—connection to American history.

Happy hour these days is clearly linked to getting slightly intoxicated without making too big a dent in your wallet, but the term itself comes from American Naval slang in the 1920s following the First World War. A “Happy Hour” was an allotted period of time on a ship where sailors engaged in various forms of entertainment to relieve the monotonies of the seafaring life. Most of the time, this meant wrestling or boxing matches, but it still could include other athletic activities intending to boost morale.

At the same time, the U.S. was going through the darkest—not to mention driest—period in the history of getting hammered: Prohibition, the failed experiment given legal standing by the infamous Volstead Act. From 1920 to 1933, the manufacture, transport, and sale of certain intoxicating beverages was prohibited. (Sacramental wines and cider fermented by farmers were given exemptions.

But instead of abiding by the newly enacted teetotal tenet, Americans became as alcoholic as ever, and would gather together in secret speakeasies or at home to consume some tantalizingly illegal cocktails to wet their whistle before dinner. “Happy Hour” as an expression was soon picked up, either directly or secondhand, from the Naval slang and merged to describe these outlawed gatherings. 

Though Prohibition was later repealed, the concept stuck around. Some think that a Saturday Evening Post article from 1959 that mentioned the happy hour in regards to military life introduced the expression to the public, but other sources, like the OED, cite later examples—such as a 1961 Providence Journal article referencing Newport policemen “deprived of their happy hour at the cocktail bar”—as informally spreading it into the general vernacular over time. Eventually, in the '70s and '80s, it was co-opted by the service industry as the food and drink specials we know today. 

The happy hour isn’t a universal concept, however. Currently, 23 states have banned restaurants and bars from selling "alcoholic beverages during a fixed period of time for a fixed price," including Massachusetts, which was the first state to do so, in 1984—no small feat when you consider that Boston was recently named the drunkest city in America. Yet some states, like Pennsylvania—which extended the minimum happy hour period to four hours in 2011—encourage a restaurant’s ability to schedule their specials however they please. Internationally, the happy hour was banned in Ireland and very specific restrictions were put in place in the rest of the UK in an effort to curb culturally acceptable binge drinking, while in Canada the term “Happy Hour” in regards to drink specials is banned in Ontario [PDF], and in Alberta regulations strictly limit drink prices and happy hours until 8pm.       

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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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