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Uberprutser via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

What Are Those Picturesque Dutch Windmills Actually For?

Uberprutser via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

When most of us think of a windmill, we think of the quaint Dutch variety, which are so emblematic of Holland that the 19-windmill complex in the village of Kinderdijk has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Those towering windmills with their lattice-shaped blades, widespread since before the days of Don Quixote (finished in 1615), weren’t keeping the lights on, like today’s wind farms. So what did they do?

In the windy Netherlands, those quaint structures were an important part of flood control beginning in the 15th century. A quarter of the country lies below sea level, which makes it incredibly prone to flooding. The Dutch have refined their flood control systems over hundreds of years, and their engineering is so effective that other countries, like the U.S., are now trying to adopt their techniques as climate change puts more cities at risk of flooding.

Windmills harnessed the power of wind to pump water out of what are called polders, swampy areas reclaimed from the water and turned into arable farmland. Windmills pumped the water out of the low-lying ground to prevent flooding and keep crops from drowning [PDF]. They could draw water up almost five feet, where it would be stored before being drained into rivers or back into the sea. If water needed to be raised more than five feet, mills were installed in a series, called a molengang, so that the first mill would lift the water five feet, then a second higher mill would lift another five feet, and so on until it could drain into a canal.

According to a translated 1962 history of Dutch windmills by windmill preservationist Frederick Stokhuyzen, there were about 9000 windmills in Holland in the 1800s, and the earliest mentions of Dutch windmills date back to the 13th century. Before polders were established, windmills—as the word itself might lead you to believe—were already places to grind grain and mustard seeds. Wind power was also used to cut timber, make paper, and press oil—essentially, anything that needed to be pounded, shredded, or mixed. Aesthetically, these windmills looked much the same from the outside, though their interior machinery and layout were different.

The interior of a tower mill. Image Credit: Frederick Stokhuyzen via University of Groningen

In larger windmills, including drainage mills, the miller tended to live on the lower floors of his workplace, much like a lighthouse keeper would.

Author Peter Moore discusses the life of a miller in his history of weather forecasting, The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future, noting that working at a wind-powered mill required serious skill.

“The art of windmilling is almost completely lost today but in [the 1800s] it was a common practice that required mental alertness,” Moore wrote. The miller “would have worked inside, operating the gearing system, rotating the sails and applying the brake when the wind blew too strongly. This was a real danger.”

He continued:

"If the sails were not furled in a storm its arms could spin around at an ever-quickening pace, propelled by its own force as well as by that of the wind. The friction of the movement had been known to set mills alight, as had attempts to belatedly jam the brake wheel. The miller, therefore, had to be attuned to coming weather, judging the subtle shifts in the cloud base, the dimming of the ambient light or the quickening of the breeze."

“Harbor with Windmill” by Jan van Vlaardingen Couver via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dutch windmills also served as messengers. Millers broadcast news—including whether the mill was open for business—by adjusting the position of the windmill’s sails. Tilting the sails to look like a lopsided “X” could indicate joy or mourning, depending on where the sails were located in relation to the vertical. If the top sail was a little before the vertical, that indicated joy (for births, weddings, etc.); if it was just past the vertical, that meant mourning (for funeral processions). During World War II, resistance forces used windmill blades to spread information about Nazi raids.

Windmills were so integral to life in the Netherlands that they are ubiquitous in Dutch landscape paintings. Certainly they’re more picturesque than the American mills that powered textile production and other industries in the 19th century, though they may not have had the same mass production abilities.

However, windmills no longer play the vital role in industrial production in the Netherlands, nor are they the most effective form of flood control anymore. There are only about 1200 left, many of them in the western region of Holland, though the whole country still celebrates them on the second Saturday and Sunday of May for National Mill Day.

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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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