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Why Do Cats Like Boxes?

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Why do cats like boxes? It's one of those age-old questions. Share your living space with a cat for even a short length of time and you’ll quickly begin to doubt everything you’ve ever been taught about mass and volume. If given the opportunity, a reasonably sized cat will somehow compress itself into a tiny box and idle there for hours.

Why do cats feel the need to squish themselves into cardboard boxes? Do they not realize their dignity is in question when they lord over a living room from a Zappos shipping box?

“There’s that adage, ‘Think outside the box,’” says Carole Wilbourn, a New York City-based cat therapist. “Cats like to think inside of the box.”

Cats, Wilbourn reasons, take comfort in cramped spaces because it makes them feel more secure and dominant. “I think part of it goes back to when they were kittens and inside the womb, feeling safe and comforted. There’s a feeling of coziness, being able to do what they want to do, and just feeling untouchable.”

Science has been able to support this theory. Animal behaviorists have studied stress levels in newly arrived shelter cats and found that felines with access to boxes had lower stress levels and faster adjustment periods than those without [PDF]. Even if they’re not quite as protected as they think they are—you can pretty much do anything to a cat who is inside a box as you could a cat who is outside of one—their perception may very well be that they’re insulating themselves from harm.

Curling up in an undersized shelter has an additional benefit: it helps the cat retain more body heat. Cats tend to like running at a temperature between 86 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a reason you might also find them hanging out on a radiator, laptop, or other heat-emitting device. “When a cat is warm, the cat feels relaxed,” Wilbourn says.

Though you might find a cat stuffed in a bathroom sink or other tight space, cardboard boxes usually have enough give to them to allow for greater comfort for the feline in question. If you’re still perplexed by the preference, remember that you’ve probably endorsed it by melting at the sight. “People see a cat in a box and say, ‘Oh, that looks so nice and peaceful,'" Wilbourn says. "It’s a positive association. It’s easy for a cat to get blissed out in a box.”

A penchant for small boxes isn't the only seemingly odd cat behavior that science has been able to account for; from climbing to scratching to pouncing, researchers have logged a lot of hours studying the science behind your cat's weird ways. They've also studied cat behavior from the owner's perspective, and discovered a number of ways that having a furry friend can benefit the health of its owner, including the therapeutic effect that the heart-melting sound of a purring cat have on those who hear it. Awww.

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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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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