The holidays are when we feel most connected to the past, when we celebrate the fact that our ancestors also had to sit awkwardly at the family table, overeating and making small talk with people they barely liked.
However, it turns out that holidays in the past didn’t look exactly the same as they do now. In fact, it took a long time for the most famous holidays to get their shit together and stop being inexplicably terrifying. For instance …
Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns Used To Be Horribly Disfigured Turnip Demons
The most iconic symbol of Halloween must be the jack-o-lantern. Both spooky and silly, this rotund orange goon highlights the mischievous nature of the event. But the festive disembowelment of pumpkins is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before that, there was another go-to item that haunted Halloween, one more ghoulish and unappetizing than our modern eyes dare handle. Prepare to feast your eyes on the true, hideous nature of the jack-o-lantern. Behold!
Whoops, wrong picture. Behold!
We don’t know why, but this is creepier than a real human skull.
Originally, jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips, whose waxy skin and gaunt form offer much more of an undead panache than the relatively jolly pumpkin. The origin of this, as befits the holiday, comes from a scary story. In 17th-century Ireland, there once lived a fellow named Stingy Jack, who, true to his name, was a bit of a son of a bitch. One day, Jack met the Devil in a pub (this is an Irish story) and decided to trick him.
Playing up on his frugal nature, Jack convinced Satan to transform himself into a coin in order to pay for their drinks. However, instead of plopping the demonic coin on the counter, Jack decided to pocket it right next to a silver cross. Weakened by the divine symbol, the Devil could not escape and had to make a deal with Stingy Jack, promising to leave his soul alone for 10 years. We can only assume the Devil had been drinking since early that afternoon and was no match for Jack’s deviousness.
When Old Nick reappeared to exact vengeance 10 years later, Stingy Jack once again tricked him by making him climb an apple tree that had a cross carved into its bark (the Devil was either drunk again or an eight-year-old boy). Again, the same deal was struck, but this time Jack died before the 10 years were up.
When he arrived in Heaven, God told him in no uncertain terms that a man who spent his life deceiving everyone, up to and including the Father of Lies, was not welcome in paradise. For obvious reasons, the Devil wouldn’t let him into Hell either. So Jack was cursed to roam the Earth in eternal darkness, with a carved turnip lantern as his only source of light, because flashlights hadn’t been invented yet.
Eventually, the tale of the wandering fiend became a mainstay in folklore, with children excitingly peering into the night, fearing that they would see the tiny light of Jack of the Lantern (or Jack o’ Lantern, as is the Gaelic way to put it). Soon, Jack became part of the festival of Samhain, the Irish and Scottish equivalent to Halloween, and people would celebrate by carving their own turnip lanterns.
When the Scots and Irish started emigrating to the Americas, they took their spooky tradition with them, but traded in their traditional turnip for pumpkins, which were native to America and more easily obtained. Turnip lanterns are still handy if you run out of candy and want to make sure no kid comes within 100 yards of your front door, though.
Because of our modern, sexually sophisticated sensibilities, Valentine’s Day can feel like a relic of a bygone era. The idea of writing a little Valentine card to declare your affection seems silly to anyone who has ever started a relationship in the stall of a nightclub bathroom. But back in the time before dick pics, Valentine cards were the most direct, no-nonsense way to tell someone you were interested in them and their nudity. Unfortunately, sometimes this straightforwardness carried some super aggressive undertones.
Apparently, in the early stages of the Valentine industry, nuance wasn’t anyone’s strong suit. That quickly became problematic when illustrators tried their hands at thematically appropriate wordplay. In fairness, there are many ways of making “stealing” someone’s heart look cute and adorable, but armed robbery probably isn’t one of them.
Museum”Maybe rob yourself some pants first?”
Neither is literally taking a hammer to the competition.
Studying these mid-20th-century cards quickly reveals another pattern: People sure loved shooting things. (Still do!) And while Cupid may have used arrows, these men wanted to fill their special someones with the hot lead of love.
And if that didn’t work, there was always the option of turning the gun on yourself. Because nothing makes a girl’s heart go all aflutter than informing her that you’ll blow your brains out if she doesn’t join you at the local soda shop.
But nothing holds a candle to the sheer horrid absurdity of the cannibal Valentine, in which the world’s worst puns are inexplicably combined with illustrations of people being boiled alive.
Which of course turned real racist real fast.
And if you’re wondering which type of Valentine would be the worst to get in your mailbox — the violent one, the suicidal one, or the racist one — the answer is D) All of the above.
The Horrifying Past Incarnations Of Mall Santas
Christmas is the only time of the year when parents encourage their children to approach a bearded stranger at the mall and ask if he has any presents for them. Mall Santas represent the earthly interest of Father Christmas, donning his curly beard, plump belly, and red outfit to bring cheer to the world. But it took a long period of trial and error to get those costumes right, which are two words you generally never want to be associated with Santa Claus.
In the European tradition, Saint Nick was a tall, gaunt man with the beard of a druid and the face of a stern math teacher. As a traveling spiritual leader, Saint Nicholas was usually depicted wearing a menacing hood and a cloak. The idea of this spindly hooded figure sneaking across rooftops and judging if people have been good or bad sounds like it should be received with much less childlike joy.
But dressing like a phantom strangler wasn’t the most horrifying version of Santa Claus ever created. That honor belongs to Germany, because of course it does. The Wend people of East Germany had their own interpretation of Santa Claus named Rumpliche, or Knect Ruprecht. Instead of shooting down chimneys to deliver presents, he visited children at home to scare the shit out of them. On Christmas Day, one young man from each Wendish village would pose as Rumpliche and recruit some other young ruffians to be his assistants.
They would all dress in striped suits, don creepy masks, and roam the streets, pounding and screaming on doors demanding that parents hand over their naughty children. When many Wendish Germans emigrated abroad (to Texas, for example), they took their terrifying anti-Claus with them, terrorizing children up until the 1950s.
Old Candy Containers Are More Terrifying Than Any Modern Halloween Decoration
Successful trick-or-treating depends as much on picking a great costume as it does on bringing along the right container to haul all that sweet loot back home. Today, kids’ candy bags usually take the form of a plastic pumpkin or their least-soiled pillowcase, but in the past, having the most elaborate and adorned candy box was a big part of the Halloween experience. People would spend a lot of time and money on candy containers — and the result was scarier than their costumes could ever be.
By the 19th century, “novelty candy packaging” was all the rage. People would make or buy outlandish Halloween ornaments made out of papier mache and cardboard to store their candy. This fad even spread to different holidays, resulting in people having papier mache Santa Clauses or turkeys which they would have to decapitate in order to get at their chocolate. Still, when it came to creepy containers, Halloween had no equal. What started out as simple black cat dolls quickly transformed into the kind of unblinking avatars of silent horror that wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse directed by David Cronenberg.
The practice quietly went extinct in the 20th century, when people seemed to have unanimously decided that the madness had to stop. Because of the sudden halt (and the fragility of the paper containers), these horrifying tote bags are now considered rare collector’s items. That sentient foot up there was valued at around $3,500, and the potato policeman / marital aid goes for anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. One collector sold his whole lot for a whopping $370,000. That’s almost enough money to pay for the exorcism!
Sexy Turkey Murder Pinups
While there are many things that can sour Thanksgiving dinner (bad weather, delayed flights, your grandma’s casual racism after two sherries), there’s really only one thing that can make or break the day: the turkey. Turkeys are the real stars of the holiday — the centerpiece to beat all the actual centerpieces. Which is why it’s maybe not so strange that, once upon a time, Hollywood felt the need to “sex up” the turkey by pairing it with a bunch of scantily clad pinup models, who also had to be ready to slaughter the bird at a moment’s notice.
The tradition of sexy Thanksgiving photos arose with the advent of the Hollywood starlet. Suddenly, newspapers were clamoring for saucy pics of beautiful women, and any reason to put leggy dames in front of the camera was good enough. This included the sexy Thanksgiving photo shoot, wherein young actresses had to take humiliating pinup pictures with a turkey. A lucky few got away with just showing off their homemaking skills …
… but many unfortunate pinups had the almost impossible task of looking suitably attractive while standing next to a bird that looks like it’s already been turned inside-out.
er pinups. Like buxom executioners, these models are prepping their weapons for the inevitable (and seemingly delightful) slaughter of their gobbling co-stars, whether they be brandishing a rifle …
… or sharpening a fucking hatchet.
And to prove that no star could escape the dreaded Thanksgiving massacre shoot, here’s Marilyn Monroe posing as a “vixen pilgrim,” ready to blow a turkey’s face off with her oversized blunderbuss:
Everyone has to start somewhere, and for actresses in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the first stepping stone to fame was proving they could look sexy right before massacring a hideous giant bird.
Speaking of old-timey Thanksgiving …
Thanksgiving Used To Look Like The Purge
Thanksgiving is the time of year when we’re all reminded of what we’re thankful for: the love of our family and friends, and the latest iPhone. But what we really should be thankful for is the fact that creepy masked figures no longer stalk the streets, knocking on doors and demanding money — which was a Thanksgiving tradition for much longer than it should have been.
For nearly a century, several American towns and cities would celebrate Thanksgiving by hosting elaborate masked balls. People would dress up in tattered clothes, don macabre animal and/or human masks, and celebrate the giving of thanks like there was no tomorrow.
The tradition started in the mid-1800s, when European immigrants decided to bring back “mumming,” a medieval practice wherein masked men would roam the countryside performing for alms. By the end of the century, mumming Thanksgiving was in full swing. The costumes became more intimidating, too, with many celebrants donning full-body costumes, which were often ghoulish parodies of politicians or other famous figures, to say nothing of the spectacular cornucopia of racist stereotypes.
Another big part of this bizarro Thanksgiving tradition was going door to door begging for money. Thanksgiving takes place around the time of the much older Martinmas, a feast named for Saint Martin of Tours, the patron saint of beggars and the poor. And like Christian holidays tend to do, when its practitioners moved to a new place, they picked the nearest native holiday and assimilated it.
This was particularly popular in New York City, where there was a constant influx of new immigrants. The city was even host to several ragamuffin parades, where kids would roam the streets in gangs, dressed in grotesque beggar outfits and painted faces, going door to door demanding tribute in the form of apples or money.
By the 1930s, the masked Ragamuffin Day was in steep decline. Several newspapers published articles condemning the practice, and a particularly devastating blow was dealt by a New York superintendent named William J. O’Shea, who circulated a letter among parents declaring that “modernity is incompatible with the custom of children to masquerade and annoy adults on Thanksgiving Day.” Basically, he was telling those damn kids to get off his lawn.
Eventually, the tradition was completely snuffed out in favor of a new tradition that had overtaken New York City: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In essence, we traded bands of sooty masked children begging for money for a giant inflatable Garfield barreling down the street, also begging for money.