Humans aren’t the only species that delights in delivering unexpected little surprises to the ones they love. Anyone with a cat is probably well aware of this fact. Dropping its prey for you to find later on your doorstep is an act of generosity—like delivering a furry fruitcake for you to nibble on. But such generosity is not limited to domesticated animals. A 2007 study showed that rats who had been helped by other rats were likely to “pay it forward” when they saw another rat in need. The males of some species of spider woo their mates by offering delectable treats wrapped in silk. (Although some male spiders can be a real Grinch, and trick the female by wrapping up something completely inedible, like seeds, prey that he has already eaten, or a fruitcake.) Vampire bats are known to share blood with the less fortunate who were unable to find prey during their feeding hours. But perhaps the sweetest gift of all is the gift of cyanide, which the male, six-spot burnet moth gives to his mate. Sure, cyanide is poisonous, but the female knows just how to transform it into a substance that keeps unwanted visitors at a distance. Like fruitcake.
All over the world, you find different traditions for holiday giving. Many countries, including the United States, hang stockings by the fireplace for Santa Clause to fill on Christmas Eve. In Germany, St. Nicholas leaves small toys and candy in children’s shoes on his saint day in early December, as does the good witch la Befana on January 6 for children in Italy. But perhaps the most unusual tradition comes from the Catalonia region in Spain. There children are given treats on Christmas Even by Tió de Nadal—the Christmas Log. Beginning on December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), children give the Christmas Log a cozy place to live, “feeding” it a little food from their dinner each night, and even giving it a blanket to keep warm. On Christmas Eve, the children are sent into another room to pray for the tio to deliver lots of presents, and while they are doing so, the adults quickly hide candy and other treats under the log’s blanket. When the children return, they command the log to poop. They sing songs while hitting it with a stick in order to help it do so, and after each song, an adult reaches under the blanket to reveal another goodie that the log has produced. It gives one reason to be grateful that America has decided to stick with stockings.
Sure, large stretches of Russia are essentially a frozen wasteland for half of the year, but that’s no reason not to have fun. In fact, starting in the 17th century, the Russians developed a unique winter pastime. Called the Russian Mountain, it involved a scaffolding (sometimes up to 200 feet tall) built to support a wooden ramp, which would then be covered with ice to create an instant, high-adrenaline sledding hill. The Russian Mountains were so popular that Catherine the Great not only demanded to have one built at her private residence, but it also required that it be available for her use during the summer as well. That presented a bit of a problem. But after some thought, her enterprising engineers came up with a modified version that, instead of relying on ice, used wheels to send its toboggans careening along a sloping track. Enterprising businessmen began to copy this new thrill ride—which one might describe as involving rolling and coasting—all across Europe and eventually across the Atlantic, where innovations like the circular track and the “lift hill” were perfected. Ironically, when the new, American-style roller coasters began to pop up in Russia a hundred years later, they were known as “American Mountains.”
Yeah, sure, there’s the whole “exposure your kids to culture” reason. But perhaps the more important reason to take children to the museum is that if they go without adult supervision, they may embark on a short-lived but highly lucrative career of art theft. Seriously, it can happen. Take the case of 15-year-old Laurence McCall. He was fond of visiting the Alfred O. Deshong Museum in Chester, Pennsylvania—so much so that he felt compelled to start bringing the artwork home. This was a small museum in the 1970s, so its security system was limited to guards walking the floor. So all young Mr. McCall needed to do was wait until the guard had passed, take the painting off the wall and slide it out an open window. But McCall wasn’t just an art lover, he was also a reader, and when he read an article in the New York Times about how much art could sell for, his appreciation rose to whole new levels. In time, he started selling to private collectors. And then he started selling paintings through Sotheby’s auction house in New York. And if anyone found it suspicious that a teenager was depositing checks for $30,000, driving a Jaguar, and living in his own, 30th floor apartment, no one said anything about it. That is, until they did. By the time he was caught at age 19, it was believed he had stolen at least $400,000 art from the Deshong museum—nearly half of their collection. They couldn’t actually prove that he had stolen the paintings, but they were able to convict him for not paying his taxes. He was imprisoned for three years, and will probably be paying of his debt to the IRS for the rest of his life. And now, when you see those signs in the museum saying “No Unattended Children”, you will know why.
This uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing condition is all too common, especially right before dinner is served. Sure, the less-informed may simply refer to the affliction as “stomach grumbling”, but anything sounds more respectable when given its proper medical name, don’t you think? If dinner is served and the main course is rather spicy, you may come down with acute gustatory rhinitis—food-induced runny nose. If you’re not careful as you eat, you may suffer from morsicatio buccarum, and no one enjoys that feeling when you bite your cheek. You won’t sneeze during dinner, exactly, but if someone sprinkles too much pepper nearby, you may need to sternutate. And the highfalutin health risks don’t stop with the main course, oh no. That ice cream sundae for desert is the leading cause of sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. (That’s “ice cream headache” in plain English.)