5 Beloved Holiday Traditions (That Started Out Crazy Dark)

You might occasionally wonder how all these holiday traditions got started. We'd advise you not to dig too deeply, because you might not like what you find ...
5 Beloved Holiday Traditions (That Started Out Crazy Dark)

Each holiday comes with its own set of traditions. No white after Labor Day, lots of food on Thanksgiving, virgin sacrifice on Easter -- you know, the usual. But while you might occasionally wonder how these traditions got started, we'd advise you not to dig too deeply, because you might not like what you find ...

The First Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Was Covered In Garbage

There are few Christmas events more heavily anticipated than the tree-lighting ceremony in Rockefeller Center in New York City. The massive (and massively expensive) tree is always adorned with beautiful lights and glamour, serving as a shining beacon of prosperity and good old American dick-swinging. But the first Rockefeller tree had a much more depressing message to send: "We're broke."

While the trees today are gigantic 80-90-foot specimens cultivated from around the country, the first Rockefeller tree was a paltry 20 feet -- and it wasn't even Rockefeller's to begin with. In 1931, the country was suffering under the Great Depression, a time when not having to catch your food automatically made you a 1 percenter. But not everyone was suffering. John D. Rockefeller Jr. was making good time erecting his wildly expensive Rockefeller Center. Not that anyone was complaining; if he'd spent that money on cocaine and flapper girls, a lot of construction workers' kids would have had bricks for Christmas presents.

So while they were forced to work on Christmas Eve, the builders of Rockefeller Center were acutely aware of how fortunate they were to be earning enough money to last the winter. And so, while waiting in line in the cold for their paycheck, the workers decided to kill time and celebrate their good fortune by erecting a Charlie Brown tree.

The workers didn't have Christmas ornaments in their pockets like we all do nowadays, but they made do with what they could find around the site: tin cans, string, cranberries they had for some reason, and garlands made out of paper. Rockefeller Center officially opened two years later, and decided to adopt the Christmas tree as a new tradition -- only bigger and gaudier, because rich people.

Overworked Police Came Up With "Black Friday"

Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year (it's not, though), follows Thanksgiving and involves millions of people who haven't heard of the internet mobbing stores for sales and bargains, occasionally trampling each other to death for a cheap Millennium Falcon Lego set. Most people will tell you that the term refers to stores finally turning a much-needed profit after the typical autumn sales slump, thereby moving from red to black on their balance sheets in one day. But the truth is much, much darker.

The term "Black Friday" wasn't some clever marketing pun fabricated by stores, but a dire warning from police signaling the most crime-ridden day of the year. It was first used by the Philadelphia Police Department in the '50s, when they saw the day after Thanksgiving as a hellish marathon to prevent the city from descending into a Thunderdome of bloodsoaked consumerism and holiday cheer. Back then, the city had to combine Black Friday with their annual Army-Navy game, one of the biggest college football games in the country. It was so hectic that cops were forbidden from taking the day off, and had to work ridiculously long shifts to deal with the crowds, mayhem, and a heightened level of mayhem and aggression -- which, for Philly, is really saying something.

The name "Black Friday" eventually got such a bad reputation that in 1961, Philadelphia store owners tried to change it to "Big Friday," but it never quite caught on with the rest of the country. In the late '80s, when merciless greed got a great PR department, national retailers decided to lean into their black mark and reclaim the name as a positive thing, forever blackening the sacrifice of the brave men and women keeping Black Friday safe.

Seriously, just shop online.

Gift-Wrapping Was An Improvised Cash Grab

Much like playing an instrument, being good at math, or knowing how to load a dishwasher, wrapping gifts seems to be a rare talent. But being able to wrap a weird hexagonal box well is only half the battle. Now, it's as important to choose the right paper. There's themed wrapping paper for every occasion, and those who dare wrap a birthday gift in leftover red and green Christmas paper are considered the worst scum in existence. And who do we have to thank for having to keep a dozen barely used rolls of wrapping paper in our cupboards? That would be the Hallmark Brothers.

Though wrapping gifts in paper dates all the way back to ancient China ...

5 Beloved Holiday Traditions (That Started Out Crazy Dark)
Yannick Trottier/Wiki Commons

... the gaudy, holiday-themed paper we know today is a relatively recent invention. Up until the early 20th century, your options for wrapping a gift were a modest variety of "gift dressing" -- red, green, or white tissue paper. So even if the gift sucked, you could at least dry your eyes on the paper.

In the fall of 1917, however, brothers Rollie and Joyce Hall of Hallmark fame were facing a serious shortage of tissue paper. There's something about a devastating world war that makes people a bit sobby. Spotting some brightly colored paper sheets that were meant to line the insides of envelopes, Rollie put them next to the cash register and sold them for 10 cents a sheet. The sturdy, shiny paper was a hit with customers, and the Halls burned through their stock so fast that they heavily increased their orders the following year. The success of the wrapping paper led the Halls to realize they could squeeze consumers for much more than just greeting cards, which led them the monolith of unnecessary crap they're known for today.

The Presidential Turkey "Pardon" Became A Tradition To Distract From A Scandal

The annual turkey pardon is a time-honored Thanksgiving event, wherein the U.S. president frees one turkey from being sentenced to a delicious death. So it's somewhat ironic, then, that the tradition was cooked up in order to distract people from an actual criminal investigation.

Throughout history, turkeys have been occasional gifts to presidents, with one Rhode Island farmer offering a turkey for every presidential Thanksgiving from 1873 until 1913. The official tradition started in 1947 under Truman, but this was for Christmas, and he gladly ate each and every delicious bastard he was presented with. In 1963, JFK was presented with a turkey and spontaneously decided, "Let's keep him." It was the first-ever turkey pardoning, but it did not become a tradition then, as Kennedy was assassinated only days later.

National Archives and Records Administration
Leading some conspiracy theorists to believe it was a bloody message from the stuffing industry.

The first official "pardon" of a Turkey occurred under Ronald Reagan in 1987. Reagan's administration was embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair, having been caught illegally selling weapons to Iran to fund fascist death squads in Nicaragua. Military officials Oliver North and John Poindexter were charged with facilitating the sale, and there were rumors brewing that Reagan was going to pardon them. During the annual turkey presentation, an intrepid reporter demanded an answer as to whether Reagan was going to hand out a Thanksgiving pardon. Reagan deflected the question by pointing at the turkey and saying, "Him?" thereby creating the first ever official turkey pardon.

Though Reagan didn't pardon his final turkey in 1988, George H.W. Bush resumed the practice in 1989, and every turkey since then has been pardoned, getting to live on a lovely farm with their myriad health problems brought on by morbid obesity, rarely living more than a year after being pardoned. Cute!

Modern Christmas Songs Were Written By Deeply Depressed People

One of the clearest signs that 'tis the season is the arrival of Christmas music, which by now starts right around Easter. And while most of the classic carols are from the 19th century, there are plenty of swingin' tunes from the '30s and '40s that have earned their places in the canon. But despite the pleasant melodies behind these songs, they have some rather dark origins.

In late 1934, radio star Eddie Cantor was looking for a new Christmas song to perform on his show. As time was of the essence, he made a deal with one Leo Feist, who promised Cantor he'd have an original song written for him by the end of the week. There was only one problem: Feist wasn't a songwriter. However, he did know a newspaper reporter with a knack for upbeat music named James Gillespie. But when Feist called Gillespie, he had just learned that his brother had died, so he wasn't exactly in a merry mood. However, Gillespie did need money to go home for his brother's funeral, so he gave it a shot. During a subway ride home, he hastily penned a song called "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," using memories of waiting for Santa with his brother as inspiration.

Unexpectedly, the song became a mega success, which was quite unfortunate for Gillespie, who never again could turn on a radio during Christmas without being reminded of his dead brother.

Then there's "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," a lovely little ditty about ... come to think of it, have you ever really listened to the lyrics? They're pretty depressing. That's because it was written by Hugh Martin for the movie Meet Me In St. Louis. In the movie, Judy Garland sings it to her younger sister, in an effort to cheer her up when the family is told they will be moving to across the country.

Martin had gotten the memo that the song was for a sad scene, but missed the part where it was meant to cheer a little girl up. Consequently, he wrote a first draft that was about as cheerful as a Yuletide asteroid hurtling toward the Earth:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It may be your last

Next year we may all be living in the past

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Pop that champagne cork

Next year we may all be living in New York

No good times like the olden days

Happy golden days of yore

Faithful friends who were dear to us

Will be near to us no more

But at least we all will be together

If the Lord allows

From now on, we'll have to muddle through somehow

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Garland and the studio rejected the song, fearing that opening day audiences hanging themselves would have a negative impact on ticket sales. However, Martin stood his ground. Only after much arguing did Martin's friend convince him by shouting, "You stupid son of a bitch! You're gonna foul up your life if you don't write another verse of that song!" Martin finally relented and rewrote it into the version we know today, though he insisted on leaving in the morose lyric about "muddl through somehow." Guess he wasn't feeling very merry at that point.

But no song has such a depressing origin as perhaps the happiest-sounding of them all: "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer," made famous by singer Gene Autry. During the Great Depression, the manager of a Montgomery Ward store in Chicago decided that a Christmas-themed children's book would help boost sales, so he tapped a copywriter in the ad department named Robert May to write it. May was at a rather unhappy with where he was in life, wanting to be a novelist but instead churning out shitty store catalogs. He channeled that into a story about an underappreciated reindeer who had the right skills when the boss needed them most. However, a few months into the project, May's wife died of cancer, and when his manager offered to pull him off the book, May refused, deciding if anyone could guide him out of a crippling depression, it was Rudolph.

The book was a huge success and sold two million copies -- of which May, a company man, didn't see a dime. But the story does have a happy ending. After World War II, a middle-aged May was finally given the rights to his creation by the store's new CEO. He then convinced his brother-in-law to write an original song based on his story. That song was picked up by Autry, who turned into a massive hit, and in the end, May finally had the kind of success story everyone who's ever bitched about their work should worship.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas with the In The Mix Ugly Sweater Cookie Kit.

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