The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Christmas carol about the 12 days after Christmas that is mostly full of birds.

The Christmas carol The Twelve Days of Christmas corresponds to the 12 day Christian season following Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas are after Christmas, not before it. Starting with Christmas Day as the first day the 12 days of Christmas end on January 5th the eve of the Epiphany. Incidentally the evening of January 5th, the 12th night, is the title reference in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy Twelfth Night.

As for the song, it was originally a poem and has a cumulative verse style. It probably began life as a memory & forfeit game for twelfth night festivities where participants would recite the cumulative lines faster and faster until making a mistake and be eliminated. As a poem the earliest known publication is 1780 in Mirth Without Mischief (but the poem is likely much older). It was finally set to music in 1868.

1 + (1+2) + (1+2+3) …

The song is sung from the perspective of someone whose true love gives them gifts on each of the 12 days of Christmas. The first day is a partridge in a pear tree, the second day is two turtle doves, etc. However, the gifts are given repeatedly on each new day plus the latest gift. For example a partridge in a pear tree is given on the first day but it’s given on the other 11 days as well, meaning 12 partridges are given in total. Adding it all up there are 364 total items given across the 12 days – most of which are birds.

The items given each day really adds up over 12 days.

A covey, a bevy, a brood, … 

The first 7 days of gifts are all birds which, adding them up across the 12 days, means 224 birds are given. That’s a lot of birds. This works when you realize that the five gold rings were not originally jewelry.

As the lyrics have changed over the years, the five gold rings most likely started out as either five ringed pheasants or five “goldspinks” (an older name for the goldfinch). As strange as the song is this would make a lot more sense since the first 4 days are all birds and then the next 2 are also birds. 

The four calling birds also make little sense (birds sing but they don’t exactly call), but looking back at earlier versions of the lyrics this was previously “four collie birds”. The name “collie bird” is an older name for a blackbird with collie being a reference to colliery (another name for a coal mine).

The gift of a partridge is straightforward enough, but the pear tree is an odd addition. The English word “partridge”, through a series of language leaps, comes from the Greek “perdix” which is related to “perdesthai” meaning “to fart”. The partridge is a bird named after farting and probably acquired this flatulent name because of the sound its wings make when flapping. The “pear tree” is probably because it sounds like “pertis”, the French for “partridge”.

Go-old Rings

The melody and lyrics we know today are because of late 19th / early 20th century English musician Frederic Austin. Around 1905 Austin standardized The Twelve Days of Christmas, setting it to a traditional folk tune, which was published by Novello & Co Ltd. in 1909. He changed collie birds to calling birds and he also gave us perhaps the most memorable part of “five go-old rings”.

Austin made the fifth gift the jewelry of gold rings we know today. His innovation of singing this part as “five go-old rings” is copyrighted and as such royalties have to be paid to Novello & Co Ltd. should you use their version of the song.

The Three-ish Wise Men

Most of what we think we know about the three wise men comes from art and folk tradition … and is wrong.

Part of the Christmas narrative is that the Holy Family was visited by three wise men shortly after the birth of Jesus. Similar to how we aren’t exactly sure when Jesus was born, we also aren’t exactly sure how many wise men there were. We say three because there were three gifts given but the Bible doesn’t specify. Maybe a few wise men went in on a gift together.

Some people say three because the names of the wise men are said to be Gaspar/Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar/Balthazar (kings of India, Persia, and Arabia or Ethiopia respectively), but this is just a folk tradition – there is no evidence to support any of this.


How we think of the wise men has been influenced by centuries of art. Liberal artistic license places the shepherds, the wise men, farm animals, and the Holy Family all in the manger shortly after the birth of Jesus. That said the Bible doesn’t actually give a specific date for the arrival of the wise men and it’s more likely they arrived much later – having them all in the manger together is just more convenient for a painting. Matthew 2:11 states that the wise men visited the Holy Family in a house, not the manger.

While many Christians celebrate the arrival of the three wise men on January 6th (the Epiphany) this seems to be more a date to celebrate the event than when it actually occurred. It is speculated that the arrival of the wise men could have been as late as two years after Jesus’s birth. This is “supported” by Herod’s command to have all boys 2 years of age and younger slaughtered in an attempt to kill the newly born King of the Jews – the idea being that perhaps the wise men relayed news of Jesus to Herod some time after Jesus’s birth and Herod cast a wide net of ages. That said this Massacre of the Innocents is also something that probably never happened.

The three wise men have been the subject of art for centuries, which has influenced how we think of them.

Kings, Wise men, Zoroastrian priests

So aside from not knowing how many wise men there were, or when they arrived, do we at least know what sort of men they were? By the 3rd century CE people were referring to these travelers as kings. As good as the song We Three Kings is, there is no evidence that these travelers were kings. In fact it is highly unlikely (and a little silly) that the crowned heads of multiple kingdoms would have been traveling in such a fashion. Isaiah 60:1–6 and Psalm 72:11 are mostly to blame for this idea, as both passages allude to kings showing deference and worshipping the Messiah – but kings in general. Neither of these passages say anything about specifically these individuals in the Christmas narrative being kings.

The wise men are also known as the “magi”. The term “magi” comes from Latin, by way of Greek, from the Old Persian “maguŝ” who were priests. It’s unclear if the magi were originally priests of just Zoroastrianism or a mix of regional Persian religions. That said over time the magi of Persia became esteemed for their knowledge, but the magi of nearby Babylonia were thought of as frauds/imposters.

From this “magi” came to be a general term for practitioners in esoteric/mystical fields of study: astrology, alchemy, etc. Incidentally “maguŝ” is the same etymological root for the word “magic” for this reason. So rather than wandering kings, the wise men (of some unknown number) were more likely Zoroastrian priests / practitioners of mystical arts from the East, following the movements of the stars.

Added info: much is made of the gifts brought by the wise men. Using the three supposed names of the wise men: Gaspar brought frankincense, Melchior brought gold, and Balthasar myrrh. What does one do with these gifts?

Gold has the most obvious purpose. Then and now gold was valuable. It is also symbolic of Jesus’s kingship. 

Frankincense is a resin that comes from the Boswellia sacra tree. It was blended with other ingredients and used as an incense burned in religious ceremonies. In Judaism in particular it was used by priests as a literal smoke screen because to see God was to die, and the smoke of the incense could diffuse actually seeing God (should God appear). The symbolism of frankincense is that Jesus is the high priest.

Myrrh is a resin taken from the very thorny Commiphora myrrha tree. It was used as an embalming oil and, as a gift of the magi, alludes to Jesus’s mortality and eventual crucifixion.

Finally, the three kings who gave the gift of music were the three kings of the blues. Albert King, B.B. King, and Freddie King make up the three kings of the blues and were massively influential musicians who shaped blues music and thereby shaped rock & roll.

(Tangentially related) One of the three kings of the blues, B.B. King’s cover of Merry Christmas Baby.

Yule Lads

The Icelandic tradition that, instead of Santa Claus, 13 magical brothers visit children on the nights leading up to Christmas.

The Dimmuborgir lava fields of northeastern Iceland is said to be the home of the ogre/troll Grýla, her lazy third husband Leppaludi (she murdered her first two husbands), and at least 13 of her troll children. The number 13 is the recently agreed upon number because, as with any folk tale, the exact names & numbers have changed over time. At one point Grýla was said to have as many as 82 possible children depending on the version of the story. Her appearance also changes with the telling of the story – she sometimes has horns, cloven feet, 40 tails or maybe 15 tails, 3 faces or just 1 face, etc.

Exactly what Grýla looks like has varied over the centuries, but her affinity for eating children has remained constant. Also, the painting of her on the right, looking very much like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son, is by artist Thrándur Þórarinsson.

Grýla hears about bad Icelandic children all year long and, in the dark cold of winter, she wanders the land tracking them down. She kidnaps misbehaved children, sticking them in a sack over her shoulder (or in a sack being held by one of her tails), and takes them back to her cave where she cooks them into a stew for herself and Leppaludi. Around the same time her sons set out to perform mischief.

The 13 Brothers

Each of Grýla’s 13 sons depart for Icelandic homes one at a time, with one arriving each night for 13 successive nights. Stekkjarstaur, “Sheep-worrier”, arrives first on the night of December 12th. Each son has a proclivity towards a certain kind of mischief that (a bit on the nose, and rather like the 7 dwarfs) their preferred form of mischief is each troll’s name. On December 16th Pottaskefill “Pot-scraper” arrives to steal leftovers from pots. On December 18th Hurðaskellir, “Door-slammer”, arrives and slams doors at night – and so on. The culmination of this is the arrival of Kertasníkir, “Candle-stealer”, on Christmas Eve. Each son remains for 13 days after their arrival, somewhere hidden it would seem, and depart for home one by one until next winter.

A collection of Yule Lad illustrations, after their sanitizing rebranding. The illustrations of Brian Pilkington in particular, more than anyone else, has helped define the Yule Lads for modern audiences.

From Winter Bad Boys to Santa Stand-Ins

The idea of the ogress Grýla’s and her 13 sons wandering the land in winter was incredibly scary for children (like the scary idea of Krampus wandering the Alps). At best these creatures may invade your home and cause havoc, at worst you might be kidnapped & eaten. Perhaps understandably in 1746 the Danish government (who governed Iceland at the time) banned Icelandic parents from using this story to scare their children.

Beginning in the 18th century, and especially in the 19th century, this story underwent a sanitizing change in public image (except Grýla, who continued to be a murderous villain). The change started slowly in the more densely populated towns but eventually spread across the country to farm houses as well. Rather than being a winter story of dark forces it took on more of a whimsical Christmas sentiment. 

The 13 troll brothers were reimagined as light-hearted bearded gnomes/dwarfs. To further the association with Christmas they became the Jólasveinar, the “Yule Lads”, and instead of solely spreading mischief they became gift givers. Similar to how Santa rewards the good and punishes the bad, the Yule Lads took on the role of Christmas good cop bad cop. On each of the 13 nights children are instructed to leave a shoe by the window where, if they’ve been good, the Yule Lad who arrives that night will leave a gift. If the child has been bad however they’ll get a rotten potato.

The Yule Cat

This Icelandic Christmas tradition has one more evil component: Jólakötturinn the “Yule Cat”. Similar to how Azrael is the evil cat companion of Gargamel in The Smurfs, so too is Jólakötturinn the devilish pet of Grýla. Jólakötturinn is said to be a gigantic black cat who prowls Christmas night looking for children (or possible adults as well) who did not receive new clothes for Christmas. The ones he finds he eats. 

Many Levels

Fairy tales / folk tales entertain as well as educate, and the Icelandic tradition of Grýla and the Yule Lads is no different. These stories teach practical lessons and communicate cultural values. Prosaically telling a child not to waste limited food resources in the winter is ok, but telling them a troll may come in the night and steal their food will certainly get their attention. Grýla instills the lesson that Icelandic winters are harsh and dangerous, don’t go outdoors alone. Even the Yule Cat’s story has more to do with putting pressure on Icelanders to finish their weaving projects before Christmas, instilling a strong work ethic in the next generation, than the idea that a diabolical black cat likes to see people in new clothes.

Added info: Of Grýla’s other children that didn’t make the sanitized final 13, Lungnaslettir has to be the most memorable / horrific. He carries his lungs outside of his body (or possibly the lungs of a sheep). His name translates to “Lung-splatterer” as his chosen form of mischief is to chase children and hit them with his bloody lungs.

The highly influential 2001 book The Yule Lads: A Celebration of Iceland’s Christmas Folklore by Brian Pilkington, more than anything else, has helped define the Yule Lads for modern audiences. Pilkington’s illustration work is nostalgic to the folk tradition while still reimagining the characters. His Yule Lad illustrations are also the basis for a fun collection of Christmas tree ornaments.

Also, national treasure Björk has recorded multiple Christmas songs based on Icelandic Christmas traditions. The first is 1987’s Jólakotturinn, about the Yule Cat. The second is 1995’s Jólasveinar ganga um gólf a new version of the traditional Icelandic song about the Yule Lads.

Learn more about the Yule Cat, Grýla, and the Yule Lads.

A great intro to Icelandic Christmas traditions.

One of two Icelandic Christmas songs Björk has recorded, Jólasveinar ganga um gólf is a new version of the traditional Icelandic song about the Yule Lads.

Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner (Supper, & Tea)

The names and details of our daily meals are relatively recent creations.


The clue being in the name, breakfast is the first meal of the day, the meal where you “break your fast” (the fast of not eating overnight in your sleep). That said this first meal of the day wasn’t always first thing in the morning like it is today. Up through the early Middle Ages people would rise and do without eating until after they had worked for several hours.

Further complicating things this late morning first meal of the day, before being called breakfast, was called dinner. From the Old French “disner” meaning “to break one’s fast” the first meal of the day only became “breakfast” in the 15th century. This early meal would be bread, maybe some cheese, and some alcohol (alcohol being safer to drink than water).

Dinner and Supper

As breakfast became breakfast, dinner moved from the 1st time slot to the 2nd. You would eat a small meal upon waking (breakfast), eat a large meal in the late morning to give you energy for the rest of your work (dinner), and then a small meal in the evening. The small meal at the end of the day was supper, from the French “souper”. This was typically a soup that you supped, a soup that was slow cooked throughout the day to be ready in the evening.

But dinner wasn’t done moving and moved again from the 2nd time slot to the 3rd, replacing supper as the last meal of the day. This change wasn’t all at once. The dinner shift in time slot was due to several reasons not least of which was the changing nature of how people worked. When people worked out of their homes or in an agrarian lifestyle in the fields near their homes, it was easier to prepare & eat a large meal in the middle of the day. Through the Industrial Revolution work moved to factories & offices and it became impractical to have a large meal in the middle of the day. As such dinner continued to be the biggest meal of the day but it moved to the end of the day when people returned from work.

That said, while “dinner” is the term most people use for the big meal at the end of the day some people (particularly those of agricultural backgrounds) still call this meal supper. Generally speaking though “dinner” and “supper” are seen as synonymous terms for the same meal. As such the Last Supper could have been the Last Dinner.


With breakfast at the start of the day, and dinner now the last meal of the day, this left a time slot opening in the middle of the day. Lunch is essentially if dinner and supper switched places and supper changed its name. Starting in the 18th century lunch became a small midday meal, increasing in popularity as more and more people had their dinner at the end of the day.

Tea Time

So what is tea / tea time? After the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza introduced tea to England in the 17th century it eventually became a staple of British life. Tea as a meal took two forms: Afternoon Tea and High Tea. Confusingly, afternoon tea is the classier of the two.

Tea was originally had after the large midday meal of dinner, as tea was believed to assist digestion. As dinner moved to the end of the day tea time was created as a way to hold people over between lunch and dinner while still having tea after midday. Afternoon tea, as the name suggests, was served in the afternoon. It was a light meal of tea served with cucumber sandwiches, scones, cakes and other elegant snack foods – it’s tea time of the upper class (because who else had the time to break for fancy foods in the midafternoon?). High tea on the other hand was the meal of the working class. Working people couldn’t take a break midafternoon so they had their tea with heartier snacks after they came home in the evening but before their supper (or dinner).

As dinner replaced supper as the final meal of the day some people in British countries merged dinner and high tea, calling this meal “tea”.

Devil’s Advocate

Using the Socratic Method, the Devil’s Advocate was the person who argued against the canonization of someone, preventing them from becoming a saint.

In the Catholic Church the “Advocatus Diaboli”, aka the “Devil’s Advocate”, was the person whose job it was to test the veracity of candidates for canonization. Created in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V, the official name of the job was the “Promoter of the Faith”. Essentially their job was to argue against sainthood and force their opponent, the “Promoter of Justice”, to bring a stronger case and better demonstrate the merits of a candidate.

The intention was that the Promoter of the Faith was to take a critical / skeptical approach to help weed out unworthy candidates for sainthood. The “Devil’s Advocate” lasted until 1983 when Pope John Paul II drastically changed the responsibilities of the Promoter of the Faith in the canonization process. Interestingly after this change the Church saw an explosion of new saints. Pope John Paul II canonized 482 people which is more saints than the previous 500 years of popes combined. Curiously nobody seems sure exactly how many saints there are but it’s frequently said to be around 11,000 and counting.

Created by Pope Sixtus V the role of the Devil’s Advocate was to use the Socratic Method and argue against sainthood for canonization candidates.

the Socratic Method

Having someone play the role of Devil’s advocate, someone who takes a counter position to help both sides better arrive at the truth, existed before the Catholic Church. The philosopher Socrates is credited with inventing (or at least popularizing) this method of debate in the 5th century BCE.

In the Socratic Method someone (the interlocutor) puts forth a claim/idea to which someone else (essentially the Devil’s Advocate) challenges this assertion through a series of questions. By questioning the premises of someone’s position the Socratic Method helps to bring out the inadequacies, limits, & faults in their logic. Like tempering steel in fire, should the the initial premise survive the debate it will be stronger than it started because the problems of its logic will be corrected. Through success or failure both sides learn from the process. The rigorous analysis of the Socratic Method brings both sides closer to the truth and potentially gives us only the best Catholic saints.

A nice crash-course of the Socratic Method.

Homer plays “Devil’s Advocate”.

Mischief Night

The night before Halloween is a night of mischief & destruction (in a select few cities).

For most people, the night before Halloween (which itself is the night before All Saint’s Day), is unremarkable – there’s nothing special about October 30th. For a select few areas however the night of October 30th is a night for pranks & vandalism. October 30th is Mischief Night.

English origins

Many cultures have recognized, if not fully sanctioned, annual traditions for mischief. The Alpine tradition of Krampus for example brings some chaos and mischief to the Christmas season. Since at least the 18th century England, and in particular the northern areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire, have had Mischief Night. Traditionally this was a night for young teens to engage in low-grade pranks on the night of April 30th before May 1st (the first day of summer). A particularly popular prank was to remove the gates from farms, releasing animals from their pens and creating havoc as the animals wandered about farms and town.

Over the centuries that mischief moved from the Spring to the Fall ending up on November 4th, the night before Guy Fawkes Night. As Ireland’s Halloween and England’s Guy Fawkes Night emigrated to America, Mischief Night went along for the ride.

Philly & Detroit

In 2013 the New York Times released a dialect quiz which was a survey of questions about what people from around the United States call things and how they pronounce them. One question was “What do you call the night before Halloween?” With a few small exceptions, overwhelmingly most of the country replied with “I have no word for this”, except for two areas: Philadelphia and Detroit.

Most of America thinks nothing of October 30th, but the Philadelphia and Detroit areas carry on the old English tradition for mischief.

The Philadelphia area, extending into New Jersey, calls October 30th Mischief Night. The Detroit area calls this night Devil’s Night. Just like their English predecessor these nights are times for pranks & vandalism. From the mild to the wild the mischief can include ringing doorbells, taking things from porches, egging houses, smashing pumpkins, throwing toilet paper into trees, and more. In Detroit this night has been known particularly for arson. In the 1980s as the city contracted in size people would set fire to abandoned homes. In 1984 there were more than 800 fires reported across the city, the most of any Devil’s Night. Arson has also sometimes been a feature of Mischief Night, such as 1991 in Camden, NJ when 133 fires were reported.

One of the curious things is how localized these traditions are. Mischief Night and Devil’s Night exist in their geographic areas and have never spread much further despite existing since at least the mid 19th century. One theory for Mischief Night’s limited reach is the provincial nature of the Philadelphia area. Other major American cities have more of an even mix of new vs born-and-raised residents, which means customs spread. Most people in the Philadelphia area however were born around Philly and have never moved away – 68% of Philadelphians were born in Pennsylvania. As such the cultural traditions, food, sports loyalties, accent, and other jawn stay near the city and never leave the Philadelphia area. In this way, the mischief of Mischief Night has remained contained to the region – to the relief of people everywhere.

Added info: Philadelphia is at the center of another divisive Halloween tradition: candy corn. As the story goes, candy corn was invented by George Renninger at the Wunderle Candy Company in Philadelphia around 1898. The authenticity of these exact details however are questionable and are considered “oral history.” The tri-colored candy is tasty to some but to others the honey vanilla flavor and waxy texture is off-putting.

The National Confectioners Association has created a “National Candy Corn Day”, the date of which is October 30th, Mischief Night.

Victorian Haunted Houses

We think of Victorian houses as haunted and creepy because of changing cultural values as well as evolving design trends.

Following the American Civil War affluent families (especially in the North) built new homes in the style of the time. The style in the second half of the 19th century was Victorian architecture complete with deep porches, mansard roofs, ornate decorative trim, turrets, heavy drapes, wallpaper, etc. Victorian architecture tended to give each room a specific purpose with an overall closed floorpan.

By the early 20th century however this style was out of fashion. Design was turning towards Modernism and architecture was no different. Architects everywhere were embracing the simpler, cleaner, more open design approach of Modernism – Frank Lloyd Wright was becoming celebrated for his use of the modernist “Prairie style”. Design was moving into the future with forward-thinking ideas of progress (technological, industrial, social, etc.). In this environment Victorian homes looked increasingly behind the times both culturally and stylistically. Architects were outright rejecting what Victorian design looked-like and symbolized. Big Victorian houses, once seen as signs of prosperity were now seen as symbols of corruption – the rich getting richer, the wealth gap, and the prosperity that was unobtainable by the common person.

Out with the old, in with the new

As time marched on many older houses were torn down and replaced with new homes in the latest styles. Those who kept their Victorian homes did so because they either truly liked them or because they no longer had the money to do anything else. It’s this second group of people who let their homes go (sometimes abandoning them altogether), who were no longer able to handle the upkeep.

On the outside the elaborate wood trim would fade or chip exposing the wood to rot & crumble. On the inside the ornate trim would accumulate dust & spider webs. As the houses aged they would settle creating creaking floorboards and doors that might not stay shut, opening by themselves. If gas pipes broke and leaked they could release carbon monoxide, leading people to see visions and feel a sense of unexplained fear. All-in-all the world was moving on but these old, overgrown, decrepit, dusty, creaking Victorian homes sat in decay, stirring up emotions of failure, fear, & unease. Then pop culture put the final nail in the coffin.

From The Addams Family to Stranger Things, Victorian houses have become the go-to architectural style of spooky haunted houses.

In 1938 The Addams Family made their first appearance as a comic in The New Yorker. The creepy, kookie, macabre Addams family lived in an old haunted Victorian mansion (which has been revisited most recently in the 2022 spin-off Wednesday). In 1960 Alfred Hitchcock gave us Psycho in which Norman Bates lives with his mother (sort of) in a spooky Victorian house up on a hill. In 1964 we got The Munsters who, like the Addams Family, were a funny family of creepy misfits living in a Victorian mansion.

Today, regardless of whether they are well-kept or not, it’s hard not to not see Victorian houses as being slightly creepy thanks to shifting design trends and pop culture monsters.

Pumpkin Beer

Pumpkins were a part of colonial beer making as a malt substitute. Only in the 1980s did pumpkin beers become the pumpkin spice flavored beers we know today.

Pumpkins have had two lives in beer making history – colonial and modern. Native to the Americas pumpkins are fairly easy to grow and a great food source. There is documented evidence of humans cultivating pumpkins since at least 5,500 BCE. When European colonists arrived in the 16th century they learned to use pumpkins as food, eventually hitting upon the idea of using them to make beer.

When you make beer, malt gives the process the sugars needed for fermentation to produce alcohol. Malt is grain that has been soaked, germinated, & dried. Early colonists had a difficult time staying alive let alone having the ability to produce reliable harvests of grains for beer. Necessity being the mother of invention they turned to the pumpkin and used the meat of the pumpkin to produce the sugars they needed for fermentation.

While they were initially used out of necessity, pumpkins continued to be used to make beer throughout the 18th century long after colonists were growing grain. Pumpkins were cheap and grown everywhere which made them hard to resist. That said pumpkin beer was a drink of the colonies – Europe, which had affordable sources of grain, had no interest in making beer from pumpkins. After more than 200 years pumpkin-based beer began to decline in the early 19th century as grains in America became more affordable.

Pumpkins have been grown in the Americas as a food source for thousands of years. Eventually European colonists realized they could make beer with them.

Pumpkin Spice Pumpkin Beer

Our modern concept of pumpkin beer is more inline with the Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) and the pumpkin spice craze of the early 2000s – it’s about the flavor of pumpkin pie rather than using pumpkins as a malt substitute.

In 1986 the California brewpub Buffalo Bill’s Brewery (the first brewpub in America) was inspired to brew one of George Washington’s beer recipes that called for pumpkins instead of malt. After trying it however they found the taste less inspiring. So instead they created a syrup using traditional pumpkin pie spices and added it as flavoring. This was the first modern pumpkin beer.

Today pumpkin beers are an autumnal tradition with hundreds of options. Like other pumpkin flavored foods, some pumpkin beers contain real pumpkin while others do not, but one common characteristic is they all tend to taste like the spices of pumpkin pie.

Slippery Rail Season

The annual autumnal slow-down of regional rail is due to crushed leaves releasing oil on the tracks.

After the leaves change into their autumnal colors they fall to the ground. The ones that fall on rail lines are responsible for slower trains. As trains roll on down the line they crush any leaves on the rails, releasing pectin which acts as a low-friction grease making it harder to control the train. This is even worse when it rains. It becomes harder to slow down a train but also harder to accelerate again, resulting in delays. This is slippery rail season.

Transit organizations try and deal with leaves in a variety of ways. Trains & cars equipped with pressure-washing machines spray the tracks to remove the residue and uncrushed leaves (NJ Transit calls the train that does this the “Aqua Train”). Some organizations will also apply a mixture of gel & sand to increase traction.

Added info: another place you want traction is Pamplona, Spain during the Festival of San Fermín and the running of the bulls. Every morning, before humans and bulls run down the tight cobble stone streets of Pamplona, crews clean all trash from the streets as well as coat several sections of the route with a chemical anti-slip substance.

How SEPTA deals with leaves in the Philadelphia area.

An extended explanation from the MBCR on how they clean slippery rails in New England.


The mythical sphinx spans thousands of years around the ancient world. Also, technically, the Great Sphinx of Giza isn’t a “sphinx”.

The sphinx is a human-animal hybrid chimera (except not a literal chimera). At its most basic it is part human part lion with other design options available depending on the culture.

Egypt, the protector sphinx

The first human-lion hybrids come from Egypt. While most Egyptian human-animal hybrids are animal heads on human bodies, the sphinx is the other way around. To borrow from Spinal Tap, “No one knows who they were or what they were doing”no one knows what these creatures were called in Egyptian culture nor is anyone exactly sure what they were meant to do. It’s thought they were created as protectors, defending royal tombs, but nobody is certain. They were frequently carved with the face of whichever pharaoh’s tomb they were beside and as such most Egyptian sphinxes are male.

Egyptian sphinxes are generally male and thought to be protectors of royal tombs but nobody is certain.

As for the largest, oldest, and most famous sphinx of them all, while it was built somewhere between 2600 BCE and 2500 BCE, no one is exactly sure who built the Great Sphinx of Giza or why. It thought to have been commissioned by (and is thought to have the face of) the pharaoh Khafre. It’s positioned facing East near the Great Pyramid of Khufu (the tomb of Khafre’s father). Khafre also built himself a pyramid caddy corner to his father’s, just 10 feet shorter. 

The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest, oldest, and most famous sphinx. He used to have a nose and a beard and was possibly painted, but all three features have been lost over time.

It’s hard to appreciate just how old the Great Sphinx is (and how long sphinxes have been a part of Egyptian culture). The pyramid complex had been built and subsequently abandoned so long ago that the Sphinx was buried in sand up to its shoulders by the time the first excavation attempt took place in 1400 BCE. That means the first excavation was around a 1000 years after the Sphinx was built and that was still around 3400 years ago. Trying to rescue the Great Sphinx from the desert sands has been going on for thousands of years.

The Greek sphinx is one particular sphinx. She is famous for her riddle and her role in the story of Oedipus.

Greece, the monster sphinx

Sphinxes spread counterclockwise around the Mediterranean from Egypt to the Middle East, to Mesopotamia, and into Greece around 1600 BCE – the visual design and meaning changing along the way. In Greek mythology there was a single sphinx (not numerous sphinxes like in Egypt) who was also a human-lion hybrid but was female and she had wings.

The Greek sphinx comes to us through the story of Oedipus. This sphinx is more of a monster than her Egyptian counterparts (she is inline with other Greek female monsters, like the gorgons). As Oedipus is traveling to Thebes he encounters the sphinx. The city of Thebes is at her mercy as she offers a challenge to all who want to enter the city: she will grant safe passage if you can successfully answer a riddle. If you fail she kills you. Oedipus correctly solves the riddle and the sphinx (dramatically) kills herself … and this isn’t even the craziest part of the Oedipus story (paging Dr. Freud).

The word “sphinx” was both the specific name of the sole Greek sphinx as well as a general term the Greeks used for these kinds of creatures (like what we do today). That said, the word “sphinx” is of Greek origin and so technically outside of Greece these creatures aren’t “sphinxes”. While the Greeks may have called the Egyptian creatures “sphinxes” the Egyptians did not. The word “sphinx” didn’t even exist until over 2000 years after the Great Sphinx of Giza, so again what the Egyptians called these things is something else unknown.

The Greek sphinx also influenced South and Southeast Asian cultures where sphinxes are seen as holy guardians at temples and other religious sites. In these places the sphinxes are meant to ward away evil and cleanse the sins of religions devotees.

Sphinxes have appeared in art around world over the centuries but especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Sphinxes (both the male Egyptian kind and the winged female Greek kind) made appearances in European art from the 15th century onward but their greatest surge in popularity was during the 19th century Egyptology and Egyptomania craze. After Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt from 1798-1801 the French brought treasures to France which led to an interest in all things ancient Egypt. Bits of this can still be found in Egyptian Revival architecture which features pyramids, sphinxes, and other Egyptian motifs.

Also, on the topic of the French in Egypt, Napoleon’s troops did not shoot off the Great Sphinx of Giza’s nose. One story is that around 1378 CE a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr destroyed the nose in an attempt to stop a cult that was making religious offerings to the Great Sphinx. Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr was supposedly executed for defacing the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx also had a beard but it most likely fell off from erosion of sitting in the desert for thousands of years.

Added info: Egyptian culture had yet another resurgence in western popularity with the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Two years later in 1924 H.P. Lovecraft was the ghostwriter of Harry Houdini’s Under the Pyramids, an adventurous tale of Houdini’s kidnapping and imprisonment under the pyramids. The Great Sphinx plays a pivotal role in this supposedly true tale.

Also, the hairless Sphynx cat breed is not from Egypt, but rather is from Toronto, Canada.