FESTIVALS

No Fooling: The History of April Fool’s Day and Poisson d’Avril

Learn the origin of April Fool’s pranks — and check out these bizarre vintage April Fool’s Day cards.

I’m not making this up: No one’s 100% sure how April Fool’s Day started, but it probably began when the New Year moved dates

I’m not making this up: No one’s 100% sure how April Fool’s Day started, but it probably began when the New Year moved dates

The flowers begin to bud, robins appear, and a few gorgeously warm days start to sneak their way in. Springtime in Chicago is wonderful — though Duke and I will never forget that early April trip we took to Switzerland, when they were harvesting the spaghetti from the trees. Our timing was perfect; one more week and the limp noodles hanging from the branches would no longer be al dente.

Coincidentally, Easter falls on April 1 this year, as it did in 1957, when the BBC aired a three-minute segment showing people plucking strands of spaghetti from trees. Some viewers even called the BBC, wanting to know where they could purchase their very own spaghetti tree. Of course, it was just an elaborate prank — the first televised April Fool’s Day hoax.

Because spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees, silly.

The Amusingly Mysterious Origins of April Fool’s Day

This isn’t a joke: No one’s completely sure where and when April Fool’s Day started, but they’ve got some pretty good ideas.

A favorite theory is that it has to do with the switch from the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar, to the Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII. The decision was made in 1563 at the Council of Trent. That meant the New Year shifted from the end of March to January 1.

A poisson d’avril symbolized an easily caught fish and, by extension, a gullible person.

Some years later, in 1582, the French made the calendar switch. Those who didn’t get the memo or refused to play by the new rules were poked fun at and had paper fish (poisson d’avril, or April fish) sneakily placed on their backs. A poisson d’avril symbolized an easily caught fish and, by extension, a gullible person.

It’s also thought that the ancient Greco-Roman festival known as Hilaria (the Day of Joy) is a precursor to April Fool’s Day. This pagan celebration began on March 25, shortly after the Vernal Equinox, to honor Cybele, Mother of the Gods, and the resurrection of her castrated lover (and in some tellings, her son!), Attis.

The festivities conclude on April 1, accompanied by feasts, games, masquerades and practical jokes — hence the association to April Fool’s Day.

Even the Indian holiday Holi, which takes place around this time of year, involves much mischief-making. Associated with the Hindu demoness, Holika, people celebrate the triumph of good over evil by throwing brightly colored powder on each other.

During the 18th century, April Fool’s Day caught on in Britain. The Scottish celebrated a two-day event that started with “hunting the gowk” (a word for the cuckoo, which represents a fool), during which people are sent on wild goose chases. This was followed by Tailie Day, where the butts of jokes had fake tails or Kick Me signs pinned to their backsides.

Have a laugh at these hilarious (and bizarre) vintage April Fool’s and poisson d’avril cards. –Wally

Vintage New Year’s Greetings

Pierrot clowns, dwarves, pigs and cherubs helped ring in New Years past.

May the New Year come crashing in…in the most adorable way

May the New Year come crashing in…in the most adorable way

The new year is a time to let go of our bad habits and make some sort of effort to improve ourselves. It’s a time of optimism, when the new year spreads out before us as a blank slate. Any unpleasantness from the past year can be left behind.

newyearsresolutions.jpg

So it’s not surprising that people used to send New Year’s greetings that were filled with symbols of good luck and promise. On these vintage cards, you’ll see kids enjoying bottles of champagne (that effervescent boozy beverage is still the tipple of choice on New Year’s Eve).

For some reason, Germans viewed pigs as signs of prosperity, so you can see porkers cavorting all over these old-time cards.

There are also quite a few depictions of bearded humanoids. The cards with dwarves were typically created for Scandinavians, particularly the Swedish. These magical diminutive creatures are symbols of luck. Indeed, you can see them holding bags of coins.

Other European countries incorporated their magical creatures (elves, gnomes and the like) into their New Year’s cards.

Another character making an appearance on vintage New Year’s cards is the clown with poofy balls on his costume known as Pierrot. While clowns are often sources of mirth (even though plenty of people think they’re creepy as hell), Pierrot is a sad clown, desperately in love with a woman named Columbine, who breaks his heart and takes up with the dapper Harlequin. I’m not sure why they became associated with the holiday, but it’s a depressing way to kick off the new year.

Good luck symbols are found all over these cards, including horseshoes, mushrooms and four-leaf clovers, which have migrated from New Year’s iconography to St. Patrick’s Day.

For some reason, Germans viewed pigs as signs of prosperity, so you can see porkers cavorting all over these old-time cards.

And of course there are the most popular New Year’s characters: “The symbols for the New Year are Father Time, hoary with age, being replaced by the newborn child,” writes Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell in her book Postmarked Yesteryear: Art of the Holiday Card. “It is the retelling of the King who dies only to be replaced by a younger and stronger ruler. It is the story of the Phoenix shedding its beautiful feathers and then bursting into flames only to be reborn from the ashes on his self-induced pyre. It is senility and decay replaced by virility.”

Take a spin through these sometimes strange but often sweet vintage New Year’s cards, most of which come from the early 1900s. May your New Year be filled with mushrooms, pigs and small bearded men. –Wally

Christmas Around the World

Learn strange Christmas traditions from other countries.

Why are these people in blackface? It’s just one of the quirky Dutch Christmas traditions!

Why are these people in blackface? It’s just one of the quirky Dutch Christmas traditions!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes. But in many parts of the world, it’s one of the strangest times of the year as well.

Americans have their share of kooky Christmas traditions, including the belief that a misfit reindeer with a glowing red nose named Rudolph flies through the sky, helping pull a fat man’s sleigh. Not to mention that said fat man somehow fits all the presents for every kid onto this sleigh and makes it around the world, slipping down chimneys, all in a single night.
But that’s nothing compared to some of the holiday traditions in other parts of the world.

People in the Netherlands dress as Black Peter, a Moor, by putting on blackface.

For example, Christmas takes on a strangely scatalogical bent in Catalonia, a region of Spain. People place the figurine of a guy in the act of deficating in their nativity scenes as well as beat a log until it poops out treats for kids.

And in Austria and other parts of Europe, if you’re a naughty child, a devil named Krampus will kidnap you, beat you savagely with a stick and drag you to Hell.

Here are some of the more bizarre ways to celebrate the holidays in other parts of the world.

The Dutch version of Santa Claus has a helper named Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter

The Dutch version of Santa Claus has a helper named Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter

Go in blackface as Santa’s helper in the Netherlands.

Sinterklaas, as Santa Claus is known to the Dutch people, travels with his servant. But instead of diminutive elves, Sinterklaas is accompanied by Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. Today people dress as Black Peter, a Moor, by putting on blackface. Not very PC — it’s amazing this tradition still exists. It wouldn’t in the United States, I’ll tell ya that.

Someone’s been naughty and needs to get stuffed into a sack and sent off to Spain!

Someone’s been naughty and needs to get stuffed into a sack and sent off to Spain!

It’s these fellows who keep tabs on who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. The good kids get presents, while the bad ones are shoved into a sack and taken off to Spain for a year of reform school.

Spiderweb decorations are common in Ukraine and Poland

Spiderweb decorations are common in Ukraine and Poland

Decorate the tree with spiderweb ornaments in Ukraine and Poland.

Spiderweb ornaments might sound more Halloween than Christmas, but there’s a story behind them. A poor Ukrainian widow lived with her children in a hut. The kids saw a majestic evergreen outside and wanted it to be their Christmas tree. Trouble was, they didn’t have any ornaments and couldn’t afford them.

So the woman cried herself to sleep that night. The hut’s spiders heard her sobs and decorated the tree in intricate webs overnight. In the morning, the sunrise caught the webs and made them glisten like metal. And everyone lived happily ever after, as they tend to do in these fairy tales.

In Poland, they also decorate Christmas trees with spiderwebs, but there’s a different tale behind this tradition. They believe a spider wove a blanket for baby Jesus. I’m sure it wasn’t warm and was annoyingly sticky, but I suppose they appreciated the sentiment.  

If a witch can’t find a broom in your house, Norwegians think she’ll leave you alone

If a witch can’t find a broom in your house, Norwegians think she’ll leave you alone

Hide brooms from the witches in Norway.

Apparently witches and evil spirits like to come out to play on Christmas Eve. So Norwegians, to keep them at bay, hide their brooms, which we all know is a witch’s favorite means of travel. To thwart the witches and evil spirits, men will also fire three shots from their rifles into the air.

These nuns in Venezuela were off to celebrate Christmas mass on roller skates

These nuns in Venezuela were off to celebrate Christmas mass on roller skates

Roller skate to church in Venezuela.

Amid the explosions of firecrackers, entire Venezuelan families in Caracas don roller skates and head off to Catholic mass. As tradition has it, children go to bed with a piece of string tied around their toe with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters roll past, they give the string a tug, and children know that it’s time to put their own skates on. It’s such a popular tradition that the government took to closing entire streets to traffic so families could skate together in safety. This has gotta be the only time church feels like a disco club. All that’s missing is the mirror ball.

Grab your horse skull! It’s time to go wassailing in Wales!

Grab your horse skull! It’s time to go wassailing in Wales!

Carol (and beg for booze) with a dead horse in Wales.

Perhaps you’ve heard the song that begins, “Here we come a-wassailing.” This is the Welsh version of caroling. Wassail is an old England word for “cheers” and can also refer to the boozy beverages the carolers are begging for: ale or mulled wine.

The old Mari Lwyd just ain’t what she used to be

The old Mari Lwyd just ain’t what she used to be

The tradition, known as Mari Lwyd, translates to the Gray Mare, involves people going from house to house, singing and challenging the families inside to a battle of rhyming insults until they get a boozy beverage. What makes this creepy is that one person dresses up like a horse, donning a white sheet topped with an actual horse skull adorned with ears and eyes.

Take me to church

Take me to church

Bring a rooster to mass in Bolivia.

Bolivians celebrate Misa del Gallo (Mass of the Rooster), the midnight service on Christmas Eve, by bringing along a rooster. It must get quite boisterous. But what’s with all the cocks? It’s to honor the creature that is believed to be the first to have announced the birth of baby Jesus.

Dark-haired men, come on in! Blonde and red-haired women, stay the heck away!

Dark-haired men, come on in! Blonde and red-haired women, stay the heck away!

Hope for a dark-haired man to visit you on Christmas in Estonia and Ireland.

Your first Christmas visitor (the first-footer) can determine if your household will have a good year or not — at least that’s what the Estonians believe. If you’re a woman, blonde or red-haired, just stay home, though, please. It’s really only dark-haired gents who bring good luck.

Ireland has the same tradition, though they light a candle and, at the last stroke of midnight, throw open their front doors to welcome in the New Year. Women will beat the door with a loaf of bread, while hoping for a dark-haired gentleman to darken their doorway.

People in Finland buy small tin horseshoes to melt on New Year’s Eve as part of a fortune-telling ritual

People in Finland buy small tin horseshoes to melt on New Year’s Eve as part of a fortune-telling ritual

Melt tin and predict the future in Finland.

You might need a book of symbols and their meanings for this tradition. On New Year’s Eve, Finns purchase small tin horseshoes to melt and ladles. The molten tin is dropped  into a bucket of snow or ice-cold water. Once it hardens, they hold the blob up to the light to see what shape its shadow casts. If it looks like a hill, for example, there will be obstacles ahead. If it looks like a coin, you’ll be coming into some money.

Pesky Greek goblins called the kallikantzari take a break from trying to cut down the World Tree to cause mischief on the 12 days of Christmas

Pesky Greek goblins called the kallikantzari take a break from trying to cut down the World Tree to cause mischief on the 12 days of Christmas

Kallikantzari like to scare humans — and poop in their food

Kallikantzari like to scare humans — and poop in their food

Watch out for goblins in Greece.

According to Greek legend, the hobgoblins called kallikantzari come up from their underground homes on Christmas Day to play tricks on humans until Ephiphany, January 6. They’re particularly fond of sneaking down the chimney like Santa to hide in your home and jump out and scare you. The kallikantzari also rearrange the furniture and, shudder, take dumps in any open containers of food they find.

Grab a colander — it’s one of the best ways to get rid of these Greek goblins

Grab a colander — it’s one of the best ways to get rid of these Greek goblins

If you want to avoid goblin crap on your cookies, burn logs or old shoes, or hang sausages or sweetmeats in the chimney. In addition, many Greeks put a colander on their doorsteps because the goblins will be compelled to count the holes. They don’t make much headway, though, according to A Scary Little Christmas, because the dim-witted creatures can only count to two.

They’re burning Mickey Mouse?! What did  he  ever do to hurt anyone?

They’re burning Mickey Mouse?! What did he ever do to hurt anyone?

Burn effigies in Ecuador.

In their own version of Guy Fawkes Day, Ecuadorians celebrate La Quema de los Años Viejos, the Burning of the Old Years. They make life-size dolls that resemble someone they dislike — maybe a local politician or the ever-popular Osama bin Laden. (I’m going to guess that Trump is a new fave.) People write notes explaining why the dolls should be burned and what changes they’d like to see in the coming year.

The effigies are proudly displayed on balconies or in windows until New Year's Eve, when they’re burned in a bonfire in the street. People jump over the fires for good luck.

Don’t be late on the winter solstice — you’ll be the Thomas Donkey and will end up the butt of jokes all day

Don’t be late on the winter solstice — you’ll be the Thomas Donkey and will end up the butt of jokes all day

Try not to become a donkey in Germany.

Don’t be an ass! In Germany, the Winter Solstice is also known as St. Thomas Day. It’s not a good day to be tardy. In parts of the Sauerland region, if you sleep in or get to work late, you’re given a cardboard donkey. called the Thomas Donkey and you’ll be the butt of jokes all day.

At least you’re rewarded at the end of the day with Thomasplitzchen, iced currant buns.

The Greek goblins known as the kallikantzari like to take dumps in any open containers of food they find.

Put on your skates and grab your cock before hitting midnight mass! Maybe you can incorporate some of these traditions into your Yuletide celebrations! –Wally

The Strange History of Valentine’s Day

From Lupercalia, where young men whipped eager women in the streets of ancient Rome, to St. Valentine’s secret weddings.

Valentine's Day wasn't always about cupids and hearts — or even love

Valentine’s Day is much more than just conversation hearts, boxes of chocolates, flowers and cards. There are some downright outlandish origins to this holiday.

After the flagellation ceremony, men would draw women’s names from an urn — and that would be their sexual partner for the year

Valentine’s Day dates back to a couple of Roman festivals.

The Romans celebrated two ritual festivals that formed the foundation for the holiday we know as Valentine’s Day. Februalia was a purification rite, which occurred on February 14 and gave the month of February its name. It was later combined with Lupercalia, which took place on February 15.

Valentine’s Day as we know it began with an unusual Roman fertility rite

The crazed men, nude save for a goatskin loincloth, would take the hides of slain animals cut into strips and flagellate the women of the village in hopes of bestowing fertility.

This someecard points out just how strange Lupercalia was

Lupercalia involved some bizarre practices, including beating women with animal pelts.

For this affair, young Roman men would congregate in the Lupercal, the sacred cave in the mountains where Romulus and Remus, the twins who suckled the she-wolf Lupa, were supposedly reared. Romulus would later found Rome and sacrifice Remus, but that’s another story.

The Luperci, the Brotherhood of the Wolf, would sacrifice a dog for purity and a goat for fertility.

Ancient Romans believed being whipped by blood-soaked animal skins would help you get knocked up

The crazed men, nude save for a goatskin loincloth, would take the hides of the slain animals that had been cut into strips and flagellate the women of the village in hopes of bestowing fertility.

 

Saint Valentine has become the patron saint of love

Valentine was also the patron saint of epileptics

Saint Valentine performed secret marriages when the institution was outlawed.

In this painting by David Teniers III, Valentine receives a rosary from the Virgin Mary

During the 3rd century CE, Roman Emperor Claudius II, wanting to increase the size and strength of his military empire, saw marriage as an obstacle. He believed that men were unwilling to fight due to their strong attachment to their wives and families. In an effort to circumvent this, he forbade all future marriages and engagements.

Whether Valentine was a bishop or priest has been lost to history, but he began performing clandestine ceremonies. He was soon discovered and imprisoned for his betrayal.

His legend is associated with having sent a note to his jailer’s daughter on the eve of his execution, signed, “From Your Valentine.” No historical evidence exists to back the authenticity of this myth, though.

Valentine was beheaded, died a martyr and in death was elevated to the patron saint of love.

The skull of Saint Valentine resides in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, Italy

Pope Gelasius I used an ingenious sleight of hand, merging the pagan Lupercalia with the feast of Saint Valentine into a single holiday celebrated on February 14.

 

The Cadbury boys found a way to extract a delicious byproduct of cocoa — what we know know and love as chocolate

Cadbury created the first chocolate candies — and the first heart-shaped box of chocolates.

One of the first heart-shaped box of chocolates

In 1882, John Cadbury, an English proprietor and founder of the Cadbury candy empire, opened a tea and coffee shop in Bournville, Birmingham, England. His shop also sold drinking chocolate, which he prepared using a mortar and pestle. This was a luxury item even among the upper class. The resulting beverage was coarse and grainy but popular.

A vintage ad for Cadbury chocolate

Cadbury’s sons Richard and George visited the Van Houten factory in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, which specialized in the manufacture of cocoa powder. The brothers integrated this method into their manufacturing facility. The process allowed them to extract pure cocoa butter from pressing cocoa beans and adding sugar, reducing its bitter taste. Cadbury used this byproduct to produce several varieties of “eating chocolates.”

The retail division of the business was passed on to Richard in 1861, who recognized a great marketing opportunity and revolutionized sales by packaging Cadbury chocolates in the world’s first heart-shaped box for Valentine’s Day. The box could be kept and used to store mementos after the chocolates had been eaten.

 

Victorians began the tradition of sending valentines — some of which were downright cruel.

Do you remember making a mailbox to hold your cards and exchanging valentines with your classmates in elementary school, or perhaps receiving a pink or red carnation in high school? I did accrue a fair amount of cards through my formative years, though I do remember wishing I would get a carnation from a secret admirer.

Valentines pre-date Hallmark and were the preferred token to celebrate romantic love by the prudish 19th century Victorians in England. The first mass-market cards were introduced then, and the penny post made it possible to send them easily and inexpensively.

Plus, you could send notes anonymously, something the Victorians prized. This allowed them not only to exchange serious or humorous cards but downright mean-spirited ones as well, aptly called vinegar valentines.

“Senders would use the anonymity of the card to comment on the inappropriate behavior of a couple or the distasteful political views of a feminist friend,” Slate writes. “Women seemed to be the targets of many of the surviving examples, but balding men, pretentious artists and poets, and smelly fat guys made appearances as well.”

So the next time you send a valentine to a loved one, think about how whipped women, a beheaded saint and mean, anonymous cards are all part of this holiday. –Duke

How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

The surprising origins of Jolly Old St. Nick include a tie to prostitution, kids chopped into pieces, a devil named Krampus and a racist tradition around his helper Zwarte Pieter, or Black Peter.

Our beloved Santa Claus started out as a bishop from Asia Minor named Nikolaos

Growing up, I can vividly remember nearly peeing my pants when I was 6 years old. It was early Christmas morning and I was afraid that if I left my room I would startle Santa and he wouldn't leave me any gifts. The willpower of a child is strong, but the pull of a tree with gifts beneath it stronger.

Fast forward to the sad rite of passage in learning that this being you believed in was a lie. Maybe you discovered your parents’ hiding place for gifts (my dad’s office) before they put them under the tree, or perhaps a friend told you.

A butcher welcomed three children into his shop, slayed them and unceremoniously tossed them into a tub of brine to cure, with the intent to sell their flesh as ham.

What most of us don’t know is that the inspiration for Santa Claus came from a real man whose historic generosity would become a legacy for the ages.

 

11 Little-Known Facts About St. Nick

A children’s book about Sinterklaas, the bishop who became Santa Claus

1. He didn’t live at the North Pole.

Far from his home and workshop at the top of the world, in the south of present-day Turkey, lived a 4th century bishop whose full name was Nikolaos of Myra, a city now known as Demre. An ancient Byzantine church dedicated to St. Nicholas and containing his tomb still stands in Demre. Legend holds that it was built on the foundation of a Lycian Temple of Apollo.

St. Nicholas came into money at a young age, and was always very generous with it

2. Saint Nicholas was born into a wealthy family — and had a penchant for charity.

Born a rich man’s son, Nikolaos donated his inheritance to the poor by giving them gifts, which he’d toss through open windows. Details changed as the story was retold with later iterations of him having tossed them down chimneys — the vehicle for Santa Claus to enter homes.

 

3. The tradition of putting out stockings was to protect young maidens from being sold into sex-slavery.

Many stories are told of his generosity, such as the tale of the father and his three daughters. To save the maidens from being sold into prostitution for want of dowries, Nikolaos tossed a bag full of gold into the man’s house. It landed in one of the stockings the eldest daughter had hung up to dry. Now she could be married and was spared from selling her body to survive. The other two daughters quickly hung up stockings for Nikolaos to fill with gold, so that they, too, could be married.

Note the bags of gold, which saved three young women from a life of prostitution, in this depiction of a young, hot St. Nick

(As an interesting aside, the three golden globes that have come to symbolize a pawn shop are attributed to these three purses of gold.)

Yeah, it’s kind of creepy that Saint Nicholas comes while kids are sleeping — but, hey, they get some toys out of it

4. Stockings shifted to shoes after Nicholas’ death.

The Feast Day for Saint Nicholas is celebrated annually on December 6, the anniversary of his death. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or, later, placing their shoes out with carrots and hay for the saint’s horse, hoping that Saint Nicholas would fill them with fruit, candy and other small gifts.

 

5. Early iconography depicts him as a white-haired bishop atop a horse.

Known as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, he is a stately and resolute man with long white hair and a full beard. He wears a lengthy red cape over a traditional white bishop’s alb, or tunic, holds a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top and rides a majestic white horse.

Saint Nicholas resurrected three kids who had been chopped into pieces by a butcher and left in a salted tub to be passed off as cured ham

6. A not-so-pretty ditty tells of the murder of children and Saint Nicholas’ role in their resurrection.

A 16th century French song titled “Le Légende de Saint Nicholas” recounts the unfortunate and gruesome fate of three children.

The song, inspired by a miracle performed by Saint Nicholas tells of a butcher, who during a time of famine, welcomed three children into his shop, slayed them and unceremoniously tossed them into a tub of brine to cure, with the intent to sell their flesh as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry seven years later, not only saw through the butcher’s horrific crime but also miraculously resurrected the three boys.

If you’ve been good, St. Nicholas will bring you gifts. If you’ve been naughty, you’re screwed

7. He hangs out with a devil, so be good for goodness’ sake!

Saint Nicholas was occasionally portrayed in medieval iconography taming a chained devil, who would later become the cloven-hoofed half-goat, half-demon Krampus. Children who have behaved get gifts from Saint Nicholas. Those who have not suffer a terrible fate: They get beaten with a birch switch by Krampus and are packed away in his bag to be taken to Hell.

 

8. Saint Nicholas’ helper wasn’t an elf — it was a slave.

In Holland, Sinterklaas doesn’t have elves helping him deliver gifts. He has the arguably racist companion Zwarte Pieter (Black Peter).

To this day, parade participants don blackface, red lips, nappy wigs and colorful period attire.

Saint Nicholas’ helper is Black Peter, a controversial character that inspires people in the Netherlands to actually think it’s OK to wear blackface around the holidays. Illustration from a book by Rie Cramer

By Dutch tradition, Zwarte Piet was the servant of Sinterklaas — most likely a “blackamoor,” the name given to Africans who were captured and sold into slavery. The Dutch had the preeminent slave trade in Europe, and one of their roles was acquiring and transporting slaves to the Americas. Slave trade was abolished in the Netherlands in 1863, and while some locals perceive wearing blackface and dressing up like Black Peter as an innocuous tradition, others view the practice as a distasteful connection to the past.

Eventually Saint Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus

9. He morphed into Santa Claus in the U.S.

The Reformation attempted to erase the image of St. Nicholas, without success. The tradition was brought to New Amsterdam, the original name for New York, established at the southern tip of Manhattan island, via Dutch settlers as the beloved and saintly bishop Sinterklaas. After years of mispronunciation, the name evolved into Santa Claus.

St. Nick lost much of his bishop’s attire and began wearing red cloaks before he got his telltale suit

10. Washington Irving played a part in our conception of Santa as well.

In 1809, author Washington Irving’s satire History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, he introduced the “Knickerbocker,” a New Yorker who could trace his ancestry to the original Dutch settlers. It was also a reference to the style of pants the settlers wore.

In its pages, Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long-stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad-brimmed hat. The familiar phrase “laying his finger beside his nose” first appeared in this story.

Naughty Santa! I guess people started leaving out milk and cookies so he wouldn’t drink their Cokes and eat their leftovers, as seen in this vintage ad

11. Things really do go better with Coke.

In 1822, Clement C. Moore wrote a whimsical poem for his children, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which was published the following year and is more commonly known by its opening line “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Coca-Cola commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to create an image of a wholesome, realistic Santa Claus, which was inspired by Moore’s poem. His popular image of a pleasantly plump Santa debuted in 1931 and is the one that endures, setting the standard for renditions that followed. –Duke

Guy Fawkes Day / Bonfire Night: A Bizarre British Holiday

The British remember, remember the 5th of November. But who exactly was Guy Fawkes — and why do kids burn his effigy?

Bonfire Night can be a bit scary — a time when Brits burn effigies and, apparently, even crosses

To the outsider, November 5, Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day, can seem horrifying. I mean, who wouldn’t be creeped out by children creating effigies of Fawkes as well as the Pope — and then throwing them atop bonfires and cheering as they burn?

Here’s the story behind this bizarre British holiday.

The authorities had quite the execution planned for the traitor. They were going to lop off his testicles and cut his stomach open so he could watch his own guts spill out.

 

It goes back to the British struggle between Catholics and Protestants.

King James I, despite having a Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed, continued the persecution of Catholics begun by his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I. In 1604, he condemned Catholicism as superstition and ordered all priests to leave the country. The next year, 13 young men decided to take violent action in protest.

Guy (who preferred to be called Guido) Fawkes and his cohorts in the Gunpowder Plot. There were two Wrights involved, though hopefully they weren’t related to me

Guy Fawkes wasn’t the leader of the terrorists.

A man named Robert Catesby led the group, devising the plan: blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the king — and hopefully throw in the next in line, the Prince of Wales and some members of Parliament.

“In the meantime, as Fawkes escaped by boat across the River Thames, his fellow conspirators would start an uprising in the English Midlands, kidnap James’ daughter Elizabeth, install her as a puppet queen and eventually marry her off to a Catholic, thereby restoring the Catholic monarchy,” the History channel reports.

 

The plot involved 36 barrels of gunpowder — which, it turns out, wouldn’t have done much.

The gunpowder was placed in the cellar below the House of Lords. In theory, it could have blown Parliament to bits. But some experts think it had decayed to such a state it might not have fully ignited, according to The Telegraph.

 

And he wasn’t even born Catholic.

While his maternal grandparents were Catholic, Fawkes’ parents were Protestant. But after his dad died, his mom remarried a Catholic when Fawkes was 8. He converted to the faith when he was a teenager.

An effigy of Guy Fawkes before it’s burned on Bonfire Night in England

One member of the group seems to have betrayed the plot.

Some of the rebels started to realize that innocents — and even those sympathetic to their cause — would be what we today call “collateral damage” and began having second thoughts. There’s a theory that someone in the gang sent a letter detailing what would become known as the Gunfire Plot to Lord Monteagle.

The letter eventually found its way to the king.

 

Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed.

The reason Fawkes is the best-known British traitor is that the poor sucker was in the cellar when the king’s forces raided. He must’ve drawn the short straw, for it was his job to light the explosives.

Incidentally, that cellar no longer exists. It was part of the 1834 fire that destroyed much of the medieval structure.

Every year at the opening of session, the yeoman of the guard checks to make sure there aren’t any conspirators plotting in the cellars. “This has become more of a tradition than a serious anti-terrorist precaution,” The Telegraph writes.

Bonfire Night celebrations take place in front of Windsor Castle in this illustration from 1776

The tradition of lighting a bonfire began that very night.

The people celebrated the king’s escape by lighting bonfires. Nowadays, the tradition continues, along with setting off fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope and sometimes politicians (Trump, anyone?) and celebrities.

“In 1677, an elaborate Pope effigy was burned with live cats in its stomach, so their cries would symbolize the sound of the devil whispering in the Pope’s ear,” according to Vox.

 

Fawkes wasn't actually executed.

The authorities had quite the execution planned for the traitor. They were going to lop off his testicles and cut his stomach open so he could watch his own guts spill out before his eyes, The Telegraph reports.

But Fawkes foiled them. He leapt to his death, dying from a broken neck.

 

That didn’t stop them from chopping him into pieces.

One of the favorite ways of disposing of the bodies of those who were executed was a practice known as drawn and quartering. It’s a bit like it sounds: The body was divided into four parts. Fawkes’ mutilated corpse was sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” — to teach would-be traitors a lesson, one would imagine.

 

King James admired Fawkes.

Before his suicide, Fawkes was tortured for two days straight, refusing to admit his part in the Gunpowder Plot. At one point, he was asked why they had so much gunpowder and he replied, “To blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains.”

He eventually caved, but lasted long enough to have the monarch say he was impressed by his “Roman resolution.”

 

Guy preferred to be called Guido.

He felt the Italian variant of his name better suited a Catholic. In fact, when he was forced to sign a document admitting his role in the Gunpowder Plot, he signed it Guido Fawkes.

This is one of the more horrific effigies created for Guy Fawkes Day

Children wheeled around their effigy, begging for “a penny for the Guy.”

As they went along, they’d sing this song, which dates back to around 19870:

 

The Fifth of November
 

Remember, remember! 
The fifth of November, 
The Gunpowder treason and plot; 
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!


Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive, 
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive. 
Threescore barrels, laid below, 
To prove old England’s overthrow. 
But, by God’s providence, him they catch, 
With a dark lantern, lighting a match! 
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake! 
 

If you won’t give me one, 
I’ll take two, 
The better for me, 
And the worse for you. 
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, 
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him, 
A pint of beer to wash it down, 
And a jolly good fire to burn him. 
 

Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! 
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! 
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

A scene from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta graphic novel

Guy Fawkes masks have swept the world, as seen in this group in Vienna, Austria

Popular culture has referenced Fawkes.

The masks in the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta feature Guy Fawkes. The masks have become the go-to for the hacker group Anonymous.

Dumbledore’s phoenix, Fawkes, from an exhibit on The Making of Harry Potter

And in the Harry Potter books, Headmaster Dumbledore’s phoenix is named Fawkes for its propensity to spontaneously combust. (Don’t worry — phoenixes always rise from the ashes.) –Wally


24 Vintage Halloween Cards That Are Nostalgic — But a Bit Creepy, Too

Halloween greetings from the past featured common Halloween symbols: the witch, black cat, jack-o’-lantern, ghost, devil — and one that has been forgotten.

A pumpkin-headed boy and an owl decorate this vintage Halloween card

There's something charming and yet disturbing about vintage Halloween cards. They're loaded with the symbols that are still associated with All Hallow’s E’en: witches, black cats, devils, jack-o’-lanterns and ghosts.

But one once-common symbol seems to have fallen by the wayside: the owl. Maybe the creepier, blood-sucking bat won out.

Owls were associated with Halloween back when the Celts would build bonfires at Samhain, their autumn festival. The light attracted insects, which in turn drew bats and owls to feast upon them.

From the time Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, had an owl as her symbol, the birds have been thought of as wise (though I've read that they're not too intelligent actually).

Mirror magic was common on October 31, as seen in this vintage Halloween card

At Halloween, when the veil between our world and the spirit realm is at its thinnest, we have the power to learn hidden knowledge. And witches took owls as well as cats as their familiars. So perhaps it makes sense that owls were once popular icons of the holiday.

You'll see some owls, along with the other, more lasting, symbols of Halloween in the selection of vintage cards below. –Wally

The Strange History of Halloween

Ever wondered why we carve pumpkins, dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating? Learn the pagan origins of Samhain, when spirits roam the Earth and we can see into the future.

Halloween is the best time to cast divination spells

Halloween: You love it or you hate it.

Our office manager dreads Halloween. She’s religious and sees it as an evil night, when devils and witches and demons and ghouls literally roam the streets.

That, of course, is why many of us love it. It’s a chance to become someone else for a night. To embrace our dark (or sexy) sides.

To the pre-Christian Celts of Western Europe, it was referred to as Samhain (actually pronounced “sow-en”) — a term still used by Wiccans. It’s the one day of the year when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest.

Halloween has its dark side — but it can also be a time of good luck

That means it’s the ideal opportunity to try to glimpse into the future. Divination spells work best on All Hallow’s E’en.

Young women would try to glimpse their future lover’s face in the mirror on Halloween night

Witchy Ways

If you want to get into the Samhain spirit, try these spells: 

Contact a Deceased Loved One
See a Vision of Your True Love

Witches, black cats and jack-o’-lanterns have become associated with Halloween

But it also means that ghosts and other unpleasant wraiths have the opportunity to invade the world of the living once darkness falls. People felt they had to protect themselves.

How did these origins lead to our traditions of carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, dressing up in costumes and asking for candy with thinly veiled threats of mischief? What’s the history of Halloween, our strangest holiday?

Here’s an infographic I wrote (and the talented Kevin LeVick designed) for a website that’s sadly now defunct. –Wally

 

21 Vintage Halloween Photos That Are So Creepy They'll Give You Nightmares

Halloween costumes of the past were scary as hell.

 

They’re like stills from the opening credits of an American Horror Story

Maybe it’s the grainy quality of these black and white photos. Or maybe it’s the handmade roughness of the freaky masks and costumes the kids are wearing. But there’s no denying that these vintage shots of Halloweens past are the stuff of nightmares. 

Scroll through them — if you dare. –Wally

Bastille Day Q&A: Pretty Much Everything You Want to Know About the French Independence Day

La prise de la Bastille  by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1789

La prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1789

Why did the French people storm a prison? What caused the French Revolution? What celebrations take place on le 14 juillet? We answer these and other burning questions about Bastille Day.

 

Down with the king! Long live the republic!

That’s the general sentiment behind Bastille Day in France.

His head was put on a stake and paraded around Paris as a sign of victory.

Bastille Day, or the French National Day, is celebrated on July 14th every year in France. It’s a day to celebrate and remember the beginning of the French Revolution. It became a national holiday in France in 1880, less than 100 years after the Storming of the Bastille.

 

Is it true the French don’t even call it Bastille Day?

Oui. I’m sure most French people would know what you’re talking about nowadays, but for them the holiday is named simply for its date, le 14 juillet (pronounced “le cat-tour jwee-yay”).

 

What caused the French Revolution?

The population of France had grown dramatically, from about 20 million people in 1700 to 30 million by 1789.

Most were peasant farmers who had to rent their lands from wealthy lords and pay them high taxes to grow crops. The nobility in turn had to give some of this to the king, though they kept most for themselves.

It got so bad that most farmers lived below the poverty level. When the cost of flour rose, people began to starve. And we all know you don’t deprive the French of their beloved baguettes.
King Louis XVI wasn’t able — or simply didn’t care — to solve the problem. He was busy living lavishly and spending an obscene amount of money at his palace in Versailles. Louis XVI had also driven France into bankruptcy by taking the side of the revolutionaries in America, supplying them with a naval fleet.

There were, of course, myriad other factors, including the growing popularity of Enlightenment philosophy. But the long and the short of it is that the downtrodden peasants and politically powerless bourgeoisie eventually had had enough.

The Storming of the Bastille on the 14 July 1789

The Storming of the Bastille on the 14 July 1789

Why storm the Bastille?

On the morning of July 14, 1789, a group of craftsmen and merchants rose up and invaded Les Invalides, a military hospital, to steal weapons. They successfully ended up with 28,000 rifles — but didn’t have gunpowder to fire them off.

The mob knew that there was a stockpile of gunpowder in the Bastille, the fortress prison that held those who opposed the king. The Bastille was also symbolic to the revolters, representing the monarchy’s absolute and arbitrary power.

 

Siege of the Bastille  by Claude Cholat, 1789

Siege of the Bastille by Claude Cholat, 1789

What happened when the mob got to the Bastille?

There weren’t that many soldiers guarding the prison. Still, they weren’t too impressed by the mob — perhaps because the revolutionaries had no way to actually use all those firearms they carried.

The governor of the invalides, Marquis Bernard-René de Launay, met with some representatives of the revolutionaries inside the Bastille. Negotiations ended abruptly when part of the mob found its way into the fortress. The guards were ordered to fire into the crowd, killing hundreds.

De Launay was hoping to gain time until backup appeared. Trouble is, when the so-called rescue team showed up, it decided to fight not for the marquis and the king — but instead on the side of the revolutionaries. Armed with canons, the professional soldiers took over the castle in a few hours’ time.

 

What happened to the Marquis de Launay and the Bastille guards?

At 4 p.m., the marquis surrendered, and the revolutionaries swarmed in. The guards were killed and de Launay himself was beheaded. His head was put on a stake and paraded around Paris as a sign of victory.

Later that night, 800 or so people ended up burning down the Bastille.

 

Who were the prisoners at the time?

While Voltaire was one of the more illustrious, previous captives held at the Bastille, at the time of the storming, there were only seven prisoners: one so-called deviant aristocrat, two “lunatics” and four forgers.

 

What was the king doing about all this?

Historians later found Louis XVI’s diary. On that day, he had only noted the result of his day’s hunt: “Nothing.”

That’s quite an understatement, as the storming of the Bastille became a turning point in the French Revolution, in which Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, would be guillotined.

When the king did hear what happened at the Bastille, he famously asked his advisor, “Is this a revolt?” The man answered, “No, Majesty. This is a revolution.”

 

How do the French celebrate the holiday?

In Paris, there’s a military parade along the Champs-Elysées, which has been decorated with flags. Then the president gives a speech.

In smaller French towns, the mayor gives a speech, followed by the laying of a war memorial wreath.

I know that doesn’t sound overly exciting, but rest assured there are also fireworks, dances, music, food and street celebrations around the country.

Other cities celebrate Bastille Day in style, including Milwaukee, where the festivities go on for four days and involve a replica of the Eiffel Tower.

 

Bonus Fun Fact!

The British band Bastille takes its name from the fact that July 14 is the birthday of lead singer and songwriter Dan Smith. –Wally