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How Does the Farmers' Almanac Work?

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Labor Day may have signaled the unofficial end of summer, but that milestone hasn't done much to cool off the regions that are still sweating in oppressively hot weather. There may be good news on the horizon for fans of chillier weather, though. The recently released 2016 editions of both the Farmers' Almanac and the Old Farmers' Almanac are predicting unusually frigid conditions across much of the country this winter. 

While these frosty predictions are fun to contemplate on steamy days, they raise an obvious question: How can an annual publication claim to know what this winter will be like months in advance, when my local weatherman can't even tell me with accuracy whether I’ll need my umbrella tomorrow?

The Secret Formula

Historically, almanacs are annual publications that outline the days of the year alongside factors like sunrise and sunset times, holidays, moon phases, and solstices. The calendar hanging on your wall is an example of a simple almanac. Some of the earliest almanacs referenced celestial events to tell readers whether they would have good or bad luck on certain days, much like how we use horoscopes today. By the 17th century, the only publication more popular than almanacs in England was the Bible. Around this time, they began popping up in the America colonies, offering seasonal weather predictions, tips for household management, and entertainment like puzzles and jokes.

The Farmers’ Almanac (founded in 1818) and the Old Farmers’ Almanac (founded in 1792) are two of the most popular remaining almanacs. The former offers long-range weather predictions made two years in advance. Today it claims to have an annual distribution of more than 2.6 million copies and a readership of 7 million.

Both publications claim to have a roughly 80 percent accuracy rate. Their predictions are the products of top secret mathematical formulas that take into consideration things like sunspot activity, tidal action, and planetary positioning.

Farmers' Almanac managing editor Sandi Duncan says the formula is so secret, even she doesn’t know it, and she’s been with the Farmers’ Almanac for more than 20 years. “I could probably access it if I gave away my first son or something.” The Almanac’s formula is entrusted to just one living being: a weather forecaster who, since the publication’s inception, has gone by the pseudonym “Caleb Weatherbee.” The Almanac’s editors keep everything about Caleb’s true identity a secret. In fact, the only thing they’re actually willing to confirm is that he exists. “He is a real person,” Duncan says. “We don’t want to let everyone know what his real name is. We don’t want anyone badgering Caleb. He’s got an important job so we have to make sure he can continue to do it. ”

An important job, indeed. The current Mr. Weatherbee is the 7th in the publication’s nearly 200-year history. He’s going on 25 years on the job and will likely remain in the position for life. How’d he land such a gig? Duncan says there was “something special in the stars.” Also, he loved weather, and was already a big fan of the Almanac. Being a Caleb Weatherbee takes a very special kind of person, Duncan says, “someone who probably looks beyond the computers and radar systems and appreciates that nature and the weather formula is a little bit more accurate at times for long range forecasts.”

And so we come back to the secret weather formula, which Duncan compares to the confidential concoctions guarded by KFC and Coca-Cola. “We gotta protect it,” she says. “We don’t want anybody figuring it out.”

The Prediction Problem

This is incredibly frustrating for skeptical scientists who, for years, have sought to put the formula to the test. “Anytime you have science that’s shrouded in secrecy or politics, something is not totally kosher,” says Jan Null, a certified consulting meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services. He began reviewing the accuracy rate of the Old Farmers’ Almanac in 2000 after seeing public officials like water managers base their decisions off its predictions. “It’s correct on the order of 25 percent to 30 percent of the time, which is no place close to the 80 percent of the time that is often claimed.”

Part of the problem, he says, is it’s nearly impossible to predict the weather with any kind of accuracy two years in advance, even with today’s advanced technology. “If someone really had the answer to that, think how incredibly rich they would be,” he says. “They would own the commodities market. That person is not out there. No one is showing good skill in long range weather forecasting.” Typically, he says, you can make weather predictions for the next seven days, but beyond that, your chances of being right plummet.

Duncan defends the Almanac’s efforts and cites its predictions for last winter. “We were very accurate,” she says. “We called for a very cold, very snowy winter.” But this is another problem with measuring the Almanac’s accuracy: Its predictions are so broad as to be nearly meaningless. In areas that experience it, winter is cold and snowy by definition.

Fact Checking the Formula 

But surely there is something about the Almanac’s methods that give it some credibility, right? Since I couldn’t get my hands on the actual formula, I asked a few scientists and meteorologists to explain how sunspot activity, lunar cycles, and planetary positioning impact seasonal weather predictions. Herein lies another problem: they don’t. At least, not significantly.

Let’s start with the planets: According to meteorologists with the National Weather Service, our elliptical orbit and the position of the planets has little if any effect on the weather. Here’s what they had to say, smiley face included: “...we are closest to the sun during the northern hemisphere winter, and this obviously does not prevent us from getting cold. :) There is also a slight wobble in the Earth's tilted axis, but the cycle of this wobble is extremely long, on the order of hundreds or thousands of years, and thus would have even less of an effect on seasonal weather conditions.”

What about the ocean tides? “Tides also don’t have any effect on the weather,” says Null. “Sea level goes up and down every six hours, that’s it.”

Of all the methods the Almanac admits to, sunspot activity is the only one scientists say could have some small effect on the weather. “Sunspot activity actually is slightly correlated with Earth's climate,” says Dr. Shane Keating, a physicist with a focus in atmosphere-ocean science.

Basically, the sun's magnetic field switches direction roughly every 11 years. During this period, the number of sunspots varies. Some evidence suggests that periods of fewer sunspots cause at least regional, and possibly global cooling. “However, the effect is fairly small compared with the natural variability of Earth's climate,” Keating says. And if there is an effect, it would be seen in terms of years or decades, not seasons, say NWS meteorologists. “Sunspot activity alone cannot accurately predict whether one's summer will be hot, winter will be cold, etc.”

Duncan admits the Almanac isn’t always right, and recommends people still listen to their local meteorologists. “We’re happy when our forecasts are on the mark, but of course sometimes they’re off the mark and we do admit that,” she says. “Mother Nature likes to remind all of us no matter what kind of weather formula we use to predict the weather that she’s in charge, and sometimes none of us can predict the weather with 100 percent accuracy.”

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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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