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Why Are There 60 Seconds in a Minute, 60 Minutes in an Hour but 24 Hours in a Day?

A day is the amount of time it takes the Earth to turn in a full circle. But how did people decide how long an hour, a minute, and a second are? The first people to break up a day into smaller parts were the ancient Egyptians. More than 3000 years ago, they began using sundials, which were the first types of clocks. Have you ever noticed how your shadow grows bigger or smaller depending on what time of day it is? The Egyptians told time by putting stakes in the ground and measuring the shadows they made.

Eventually sundials got bigger and fancier. One sundial shaped like the letter “T” was used to divide the half of the day when the Sun is shining into 12 parts. While no one knows for sure why they chose the number 12, some people think it’s because it can be divided evenly by two, three, four, and six. Ten is easy to count—you have 10 fingers and 10 toes—but 10 can only be divided by two and five.

Yet sundials weren’t very useful after the Sun went down. To tell time at night, the Egyptians looked to the stars. Like the Sun, the stars move across the sky as time passes. By choosing a handful of stars to follow, the Egyptians could tell what time of night it was by looking up to check where they were in the sky. They chose 12 stars to track to help them measure the time when it was completely dark outside. Add it all together: 12 hours of darkness + 12 hours of light = 24 hours.

Another ancient people called the Babylonians liked to use the number 60. Lots of civilizations borrowed from this number system, including the ancient Egyptians. That's why we now divide circles into 360 parts, or degrees: 60 goes into 360 six times. (Did you know you can cut a circle into six triangles too?) It's also why people eventually decided to break up the face of a clock, which is also a circle, into 60 minutes … and then to break down each minute into 60 seconds. It took a long time before this happened. So next time you try to measure a minute by counting to 60, remember that people who lived thousands of years ago counted to 60 too!

For further fun reading, check out Scientific American's article on how and why we measure the day.


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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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