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How Were Roads Cleared Before Snowplows?

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Though we're nearing the beginning of spring, this week has left much of the northeastern United States dealing with the aftermath of a serious bout of snowfall. We take for granted that our roads will be plowed in a timely manner, but it took a long time for us to get to that place. 

Let’s throw it back to the 1700s, when towns in the northeastern United States were just beginning to develop. As they grew, so too did the networks that connected them—which, of course, then mandated a postal service. As CityLab noted, during the Great Snow of 1717, the fastest way for mail carriers to travel the snowy roads between Boston and New York was to trade in their horses for a pair of snow shoes and make the trek on foot. Oof.

But year after year of heavy snowfall taught settlers to prepare for the weather. This meant stockpiling goods, founding organizations to aid those who needed coal and firewood, and inventing ski-like runners to attach to carts, which allowed for a sleigh-like method of transport. However, while these devices helped people to travel in inclement weather, it didn’t solve the issue of actually clearing the roads of snow.

This takes us to the 1840s, when the first patents for snowplows were issued (though there's no record of one being used until around 1862). According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, "The plow was attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses through the snow-clogged streets." Though implemented in Wisconsin, the plows quickly grew to be popular in the Northeast. This innovation spread to trains, which affixed plows to their front ends and could now continue to travel between cities, even in snowy weather.

Plows cleared the way for easier travel, but also brought about a new set of issues, like the tall mounds of snow that piled up on the sides of the roads (something we still deal with today). This was especially problematic for merchants, whose stores were blocked by the walls of snow. Meanwhile, uneven roads proved a challenge for sleigh travel.

One way of combating this was to hire shovelers to clear the roads. However, that still left one major issue: What to do with all the snow? In the late 1880s, cities began utilizing shovelers in conjunction with plows to effectively clear roads. The teams worked together to transport snow out of the trafficked city streets and into nearby rivers. Not only did this pave the way for easier transport in the snow, it created jobs in the winter. Additionally, steam railways were elevated to avoid being affected by snow drifts.

New York City’s Department of Street Cleaning was founded in 1881, which underscored how valuable properly plowed streets were to its residents. According to Untapped Cities, corrupt government officials would accept money and favors in exchange for clearing snow in front of certain businesses. (In 1929, the Department of Street Cleaning became the New York City Department of Sanitation.)

The Blizzard of 1888 brought as much as four feet of snow to the Northeast, halting traffic and taking more than 400 lives. Cities learned from the experience, and started becoming more strategic with their plowing methods. This meant dividing cities into different sections to be plowed and working proactively, clearing roads as snow fell and not waiting until after the storm. One of the biggest innovations that resulted from the storm was underground travel, something both New Yorkers and Bostonians know well.

With the development of motorized transportation came advances in snowplows. They became attached to cars and, in 1920, a snow loader was successfully deployed in Chicago—leading several other cities to purchase their own. The conveyor made snow removal easier than ever before—and paved the way to clearing roads the way we're still doing it today.

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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.

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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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