Dec. 28 is Holy Innocents' Day, or Childermas, commemorating the massacre of male infants in Bethlehem ordered by King Herod, who wanted to destroy the recently born Jesus. "In consequence probably of the feeling of horror attached to such an act of atrocity," says Chambers's Book of Days (1891), "Innocents' Day used to be reckoned about the most unlucky throughout the year, and in former times, no one who could possibly avoid it, began any work, or entered on any undertaking, on this anniversary. To marry on Childermas Day was especially inauspicious."
The good old days?
It was once the custom in England to beat children on Childermas, supposedly to remind them of Herod's crime. "[But]anthropologists," says The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, "have noted that ritual beatings are more likely descended from pagan rituals of good luck than from punishment." Christmastime could be a brutal season in Merrie Olde England. The Encyclopedia offers the following examples.
Classroom high jinks: "In Britain, schoolboys would bar the door and refuse the master entrance until ritual verses were exchanged and a holiday was granted. The usual pattern was for boys to gather weapons and provisions as Christmas drew near and then seize the school or, more often, a single classroom; if they could hold out for a set period, usually three days, they were allowed an extension of the usual Christmas holidays or a relaxation of the normal rate of flogging. If the master broke in they were generally beaten severely."
Extreme blindman's buff: An 18th-century description of this popular parlour pastime reveals a darker side of the way the game was played: "[T]en it is lawful to set any thing in the way of [blindfolded]folks to tumble over, whether it be to break arms, legs, or heads, 'tis no matter, for neck-or-nothing, the Devil loves no cripples."
Even bugs get lonely
"Humans in solitary confinement can go crazy, talking to themselves and trying to break free," Eric Bland writes for the Discovery Channel. "Now scientists from New Mexico and New Hampshire are reporting that bacteria locked in solitary confinement know they are locked up, talk to themselves, and try to break free of their imprisonment. ... Bacteria lack [human] senses, but they do have excellent noses. They smell the walls around them, using a chemical process known as quorum sensing. Quorum sensing is how bacteria communicate with each other, and with the world around them."
Monkeys in space
"A monkey may be sent to Mars, under plans unveiled by Russian scientists," The Daily Telegraph reports. "Although the ape will be looked after by a robot on the mission, the decision is expected to spark controversy with animal-rights groups." The Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy in Georgia is in preliminary talks with Russia's Cosmonautics Academy about preparing monkeys for a simulated Mars mission. This could lay the groundwork for sending an ape to the Red Planet, according to Zurab Mikvabia, the institute's director. A round-trip mission to Mars would take about a year and a half. During that time, Mr. Mikvabia said: "The robot will feed the monkey, will clean up after it. Our task will be to teach the monkey to co-operate with the robot."
We probably had fun
"Everyone knows that 'time flies when you're having fun,' but a new study suggests that the reverse is also true," U.S. National Public Radio reports. "When people are tricked into thinking that time has 'flown by,' they react to their surprise at the passage of time by assuming that it means they must have been having fun, says Aaron Sackett, a psychology researcher at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis." The sense of "time flying by" also seemed to make annoying things less annoying.
Thought du jour
"What we call luck is the inner man externalized. We make things happen to us." - Robertson Davies