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Is the Five-Second Rule Real?

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It's dinnertime. As you lift your fork, a piece of pasta falls off and hits the floor. Do you pick it up and eat it?

Many of us will rationalize eating it with the five-second rule, the common idea that a piece of food on the floor for less than five seconds remains safe to eat. Fans of MythBusters will point out that Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage proved several years ago that five seconds on the floor was enough for tasty morsels to attract all sorts of bacteria—but a new study finds that, depending on the type of food and the floor you've dropped it on, the five-second rule works.

Students at Aston University in the United Kingdom, led by Anthony Hilton, a professor of microbiology, looked at whether different types of food would contract E. coli or Staphylococcus aureus if they fell on various types of floors, including tile, linoleum, and carpet. Students dropped wet foods, such as gummy bears and pasta, on the surfaces. Within five seconds, the moist foods on tile and linoleum started showing signs of E. coli or Staphylococcus aureus. When it came to carpet, the food could rest for up to 30 seconds without any microbes showing up. And dry foods, such as cookies or pretzels, could sit on any type of floor for up to 30 seconds before bacteria swarmed all over it. 

“Consuming food dropped on the floor still carries an infection risk as it very much depends on which bacteria are present on the floor at the time; however, the findings of this study will bring some light relief to those who have been employing the five-second rule for years, despite a general consensus that it is purely a myth,” Hilton said.

The students also surveyed people about the likelihood they’d eat food off the floor. Of the 500 people surveyed, 87 percent would or had already consumed food from the floor. Women were more likely to nosh off the floor, with 55 percent feeling comfortable with it and 81 percent adhering to the five-second rule. 

"Our study showed that a surprisingly large majority of people are happy to consume dropped food, with women the most likely to do so," Hilton said. "But they are also more likely to follow the 5 second rule, which our research has shown to be much more than an old wives' tale.” 

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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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