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What is Pine Tar Used for Outside of Baseball?

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Getty Images

On Wednesday, Yankees starter Michael Pineda was ejected in the second inning of a game against the Red Sox for displaying a "foreign substance" that looked an awful lot like pine tar on his neck. Less than two weeks before, the internet had buzzed with outrage —and disdain that anyone would bother with outrage— after umpires cited ignorance in failing to take action against Pineda's pine tar on the wrist in another start against Boston. At the time, the general consensus was that a little sunscreen or hair gel or, yes, pine tar to give a pitcher better grip in chilly conditions is best ignored — despite Official Rule 8.02, which states: The pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball. But Wednesday's transgression was just too flagrant to turn a blind eye and now Pineda faces a suspension that should have him miss at least two starts.

But all this got us wondering: When it's not slathered on the skin of Major League pitchers, what's the point of pine tar? In fact, what even is pine tar?

To the latter question first: pine tar is brownish, thick, sticky liquid produced by high-temperature distillation of pine wood. It originated in Scandinavia hundreds of years ago where it was used to weatherproof and preserve wooden ships and even ropes made of natural fibers. Maritime use spread from Sweden throughout Europe and eventually to the British Colonies in America. It is still used to this day to treat wooden furniture that may be exposed to the elements.

Pine tar has also developed several medicinal uses for both humans and animals. In a soap it is said to treat minor skin ailments — everything from eczema and psoriasis to rashes, poison ivy and insect bites (although a debate rages on in the natural soap community about the presence of carcinogenic creosote in pine tar). As an antiseptic, it can be used to treat minor scrapes and scratches but is more popular in a veterinary context, often applied to horses' hooves to fight infection and keep hooves from cracking.

Back to baseball, Rule 1.10 (b) permits the use of pine tar on the bat to allow players to get a better grip — up to 18 inches from the end, but no further, as the Yankees and Royals made clear on a fateful day in 1983. The limit is in place to prevent pine tar from getting on the ball while it is in play.

As the Pineda example makes clear, the same concessions for grip are not extended to pitchers, as it is thought to give them a competitive advantage in throwing tighter breaking balls.

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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