19. Notorious killjoy Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas during the English Interregnum
The miserable Puritan Oliver Cromwell, ruling England as Lord Protector after executing King Charles I, launched a stringent campaign against all fun in 1653. He banned swearing, made adultery a capital offense, and closed the country’s many popular brothels and taverns. But he didn’t stop there. Disgusted by the spectacle of people having a much-needed day off work and enjoying a slap-up feast during a period in which life was described by Thomas Hobbes as ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, Cromwell passed legislation against the festivities. Like a warty, proto-Grinch, Cromwell stole Christmas from the people in 1656.
Cromwell’s anti-Christmas soldiers stalked the streets, looking for any merriment and sniffing out roasted meat. Shops and market places were scrutinized to ensure that no one had the temerity to spend the day at home. Any food found being prepared for Christmas Dinner was confiscated (and presumably scoffed when no one was looking). Anyone with decorations on their houses would be arrested. And you weren’t even allowed to celebrate the birth of Christ, confusingly, for anyone found or holding a Christmas Day Church service was to be severely fined. This Grinch died in 1558, but Christmas didn’t return until 1660.
While many people around the world were enjoying his films as a family, poor Charlie Chaplin himself croaked his last on Christmas Day 1977. Aged 88, Chaplin had been suffering very poor health for some time, and was confined to a wheelchair, so those closest to him knew it was coming. According to a Variety report on his funeral, Christmas was a big occasion in the fun-loving Chaplin’s household, and so his passing on so auspicious a day was doubly-tragic. Nonetheless, Chaplin died peacefully in his sleep, at home in Switzerland with his loved ones.
But Chaplin’s was a life to be celebrated rather than mourned. A pioneering comic actor best-remembered for his role as The Little Tramp (above) in various films, Chaplin was also a talented and influential director in his own right. And he was also one of the only people brave enough to mock Adolf Hitler, who once described Chaplin as one of his favorite performers, in the 1930s. Chaplin funded The Great Dictator (1941), a parody of Hitler, out of his own pocket, and doubly-insulted the tyrant by playing both a Jewish barber and the instantly-recognizable Adenoid Hynkel. Good on him!
17. All the fun of Christmas was banned in the Soviet Union until 1936
Oliver Cromwell is not history’s only enemy of Christmas. The Soviet Union was governed according to the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of atheism, and many atrocities were committed against the Russian Orthodox Church. Unfortunately for the Soviets, Christmas was the most popular holiday in Russia, and the country’s mostly Christian population took it really seriously. After seizing power in 1917, the communist party made Christmas Day a normal day of work to discourage people from celebrating it. But when this didn’t work, and the Soviets’ boring Christmas substitute failed to catch on, they responded by banning Christmas altogether.
It wasn’t just the religious aspect of Christmas that offended Soviet taste, but its apparent links to the Bourgeois. Thus fir trees were banned (as in the illustration above), the Star of Bethlehem was replaced by the Communist Star, and anyone caught celebrating was in big trouble. Bravely, however, many people celebrated it in secret, despite the risks. The Communists were moreover happy for New Year’s Eve to be celebrated and gave people the day off work and school, meaning that most people simply celebrated Christmas 6 days late, with lots of food, singing, and quality time with the family.
16. Congo Christmas Massacre of 2008 was a cowardly act that saw 620 people murdered
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a Christian terrorist organization that operates in East Africa. Amongst its human rights atrocities are the use of child soldiers, murder, torture, rape, and child prostitution. Their supposedly Christian values also didn’t stop them specifically targeting the Christmas period as the best time to kill as many people as possible who had gathered to celebrate the Birth of Christ – the most important event in the Christian calendar. The massacre of 2008 was carried out in retaliation to the Ugandan Army attacking the LRA’s headquarters on December 14th, and naturally targeted innocent people.
The LRA split into several groups, and dispersed around the Haut-Uele district of DR Congo, where several defenseless villages lay. Lying in wait until Christmas Eve, when people had gathered into large groups with nothing but peace on their minds, the LRA launched its attacks with appalling brutality. Victims were beheaded, hacked to death with axes, or simply burned alive in their homes. The LRA also abducted at least 20 children to fight in their army. Despite the usual widespread verbal condemnation, repercussions have been shockingly few for the LRA, who still operate in East Africa today.
15. The Daeyeonggak Hotel Fire of 1971 lasted 10 hours and killed 166 people
Many people avoid the horrors of hosting Christmas themselves (to say nothing of clearing up afterwards) by taking a vacation. But on Christmas Day 1971, such festive self-indulgence proved deadly. Finished in 1969, the Daeyeonggak Hotel was a marvel of the Seoul skyline throughout in its heyday. 22 stories high, and boasting 222 rooms, the Daeyeonggak Hotel was reserved only for the wealthy. At Christmas 1971, the hotel was packed with wealthy patrons enjoying a luxurious holiday season. And yet it took only a gas leak to turn this symbol of Korean prosperity into a towering inferno.
The gas ignited, and soon the entire building was ablaze. The building’s great height tragically meant that the local fire department’s ladders could not reach floors 9 to 22, and 38 people died jumping from the windows. Helicopters were scrambled to aid the upper floors, but to little avail. In total, the Daeyeonggak burned for an agonizing 10 hours, killing 164 and injuring another 63. Investigations found that the building had been scandalously erected without an emergency exit, and that the main staircases did not have proper fire doors and so acted like chimneys to spread the fire.
14. In 1717, thousands were killed by a flood in Northern Europe
When Bing Crosby remarked how ‘the weather outside is frightful’, he certainly wasn’t referring to the tempestuous conditions that caused the Christmas Flood of 1717. That Christmas Eve, as Europeans were looking forward to resting in front of a roaring fire, the worst storms in the continent’s history chose to arrive. The storms hit the coastlines around the North Sea, causing widespread flooding across Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany. Even the Netherlands, with its elaborate system of dykes and drainage, could not thwart the fury of the waves, and the waterways of the country simply added to the deluge.
Those lucky enough to have survived the flood were then struck by an Arctic wind that followed the waters like a valkyrie, causing a crippling frost to settle. In all, an estimated 14, 000 people were either drowned or frozen to death. The long term effect of this blackest of Christmases was severe. Entire communities were swept away, land ruined, and the working population severely reduced, leading to years of economic misery and food shortages. To add insult to injury, the Dutch government tried to avoid a repeat of events… by raising taxes to pay for new flood defenses.
13. A race riot erupted in Mayfield, Kentucky, just before Christmas 1896
Although slavery in the US ended after the Civil War, the Reconstruction period and beyond was a dangerous time to be black in the country. Things were especially bad for non-whites in the former Confederacy, amongst which Kentucky was especially bad for racial violence. In December 1896, white vigilantes lynched two black men within 24 hours of each other between the 21st and 22nd, one for a minor disagreement with a white man and the other, Jim Stone, for an alleged rape. A note attached to Stone’s swinging corpse warned black residents to get out of town.
In response to this unambiguous threat, the local African-American population armed themselves. Rumors spread amongst the town’s white population that 250 men were marching on the town, and a state of emergency was called. The whites similarly mobilized, black stores were vandalized, and fighting broke out between the two sides on December 23rd. In the event, only three people were killed, including Will Suet, a black teenager who had just got off the train to spend Christmas with his family. It was all over on Christmas Eve, and a few days later an uneasy truce between the races was called.
12. 585 people died at a fire at the Iroquois Theatre in 1903
Many of us enjoy the Christmas period by going to the theatre or watching a movie. In December 1903, Chicago residents were eager to do just that at the brand-new Iroquois Theatre, which had been officially opened only in October that year. 1700 people in all crammed themselves in to see the zany, family-friendly musical comedy, Mr Bluebeard. But just as the wait was over and the show started, a single spark from a stage light lit the surrounding drapery. The star, Eddie Foy, tried to keep things together as Iroquois employees struggled in vain to put the curtains out.
However, even the spectacle of a Windy City-native in drag couldn’t stop the terrified crowd stampeding for the few exits. These, preposterously, were concealed by curtains, and utterly inadequate in number. When the actors opened their own exit door to escape, a gust of wind sent a fireball through the congested theatre, meaning that hundreds died before the fire service were even called. In all, 585 people died, either suffocated, burned alive, or crushed. The scene was described in a 1904 account as worse than that ‘pictured in the mind of Dante in his vision of the inferno’.
11. 45 people were murdered in the Acteal Massacre, three days before Christmas Day 1997
The politics behind this ghastly event are pretty complicated – one Mexican lecturer described the massacre as ‘the most complicated case in Mexico’ – but here’s an inadequate summary. The small and impoverished village of Acteal, Mexico, was home Las Abejas (‘the bees’), a religious collective that sympathized with a rebel group opposing the Mexican government. Thus, on December 22nd 1997, members of the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party crept down the steep hill slopes above the village. They chose their moment to attack carefully: when they finally slunk into Acteal, people were gathered at a prayer meeting.
Over the next few hours, assassins armed with guns executed 45 innocent people in cold blood. Amongst the dead were 21 women, some of whom were pregnant, and 15 children. Worst of all, investigations into this cowardly act seem to implicate the government itself. Soldiers garrisoned nearby did not intervene, despite being within earshot of the gunfire and horrified screams, and there was evidence of the crime scene being tampered with by local police and government officials. Though some people have been convicted, there are suspicions that they were framed, and that the real culprits remain at large.
10. The Erzincan Earthquake killed around 33, 000 people on December 26th 1939
One of the worst earthquakes in history hit Turkey on Boxing Day 1939. At 1.57am local time, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 shook the country to its core, killing 8, 000 people almost instantly. The aftermath of the quake caused widespread flooding and mudslides and sent a Tsunami through the Black Sea. These were also the days before earthquake-proofing on buildings in Turkey, and so you can imagine the devastation wrought on homes. In total, around 33, 000 people were killed, and the earth still bears the scars in the form of a 360-km long surface rupture.
The earthquake also severely damaged 116, 720 buildings, and the city of Erzincan itself, nearly 2, 000 years old at the time, was so badly damaged that the site was abandoned, and a new city founded nearby. The Erzincan Earthquake was a blow to Turkey, which had not long been a country after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Fortunately, however, the Turkish government responded in a timely manner, and passed legislation the following year that enforced more stringent building regulations. Good job, too, as Turkey was to suffer another 13 7+ magnitude earthquakes over the next 60 years.
9. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring… except the Soviet Union. The Marxist-Leninist Khalq and Parcham parties had ousted the Afghan president in April 1978, but communism was so unpopular in Afghanistan that just over a year later the mujahideen succeeded in toppling them. Khalq and Parcham turned to the Soviet Union for help, and on Christmas Eve that year they obliged by sending 30, 000 troops across the border into Afghanistan by the cover of darkness. Bloody fighting ensued, and soon the Soviet Union had control of the major cities.
The Soviets stayed for nine years, in which time the mujahideen, backed by foreign support and weapons, waged a brutal guerrilla campaign against the invaders. In turn, captured mujahideen were executed and entire villages and agricultural areas were razed to the ground. When the Soviets finally withdrew in February 1989, over 1 million civilians and almost 125, 000 soldiers from both sides had been killed. From the turmoil after the Afghan-Soviet War emerged the Taliban, installed by neighboring Pakistan, and with them Osama bin Laden. This truly was a black Christmas for the world.
8. The Battle of Hong Kong only ended on Christmas Day 1941 after the deaths of nearly 3, 000 people
December 8, 1941 was a busy day for the Japanese army. Four hours after the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops stole over the border from Guangdong into Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a British colony, making it a key target for Imperial Japan, allies of Nazi Germany. With other priorities than defending Hong Kong, Britain had left it under-garrisoned. To say it was a mismatch is an understatement: a Japanese air raid destroy the handful of outdated British biplanes in just 5 minutes, and the 38, 400-strong Japanese army faced only 14, 500 British and Colonial soldiers.
The British, Canadian, Indian, and Hong Kong resistance fought bravely against the odds, but their efforts ultimately proved futile. Within hours the Japanese took the high ground of Shing Mun Redoubt, the most important strategic position. Still the resistance fought on as the Japanese army simply shelled the life out of the city. Christmas Day on Hong Kong proved the Allies’ last stand, and after yet another day of heavy losses the allied commander General Maltby surrendered at 3.15 pm. In just 17 days of fighting, 645 Japanese soldiers and 2, 113 Allied troops were killed, the rest captured.
7. On Boxing Day 2004, an Earthquake and Tsunami in the Indian Ocean wiped out at least 225, 000 people
The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 is still a by-word for the callousness and immense power of nature. On Boxing Day that year, at 7.59am local time, an undersea earthquake with a staggering magnitude of 9.1 shook the hell out of the earth near the coast of Sumatra. There followed a Tsunami that lasted 7 hours, with waves as high as 30 feet (9 metres), so powerful that East Africa felt its force. Worst hit however were Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Maldives. In all, 225, 000 people lost their lives in the disaster.
South East Asia relies heavily on tourism, and Christmas was a particularly bad time of year for the Tsunami to strike. The thousands of hotels in the region were full to the brim with tourists, and so the area was at its highest level of population that Boxing Day morning. The very conditions that attracted the tourists to the area – isolation, minimal modern intrusions, the beautiful ocean – proved deadly, as it they left the area vulnerable to the Tsunami and incredibly difficult for urgent medical assistance to reach. As mentioned in the introduction, nature has no respect for human traditions.
6. The Ashland Tragedy of Christmas 1881 saw three teenagers brutally murdered
Alcohol, indigestion, and forced proximity to close family make arguments a crucial component of Christmas. There are also a shocking number of murders that take place on what’s supposed to be the happiest day of the year, including this one in Ashland, Kentucky. On December 23, 1881, teenage siblings Robert and Fannie Gibbons and their friend Emma Carico, a next door neighbor, were home alone and enjoying Christmas cheer. Emma’s mother was alarmed when she saw that the Gibbons house was on fire, and gathered neighbors to help. But no one was prepared for the scene that awaited them.
The three teenagers had been brutally beaten to death with an axe and crowbar before the house was set on fire. As the town lamented this tragic and needless loss of young lives, a local bricklayer, George Ellis, confessed to the crime. He admitted that he and his fellow workers, William Neal and Ellis Craft, had broken in to the house and murdered the youngsters. Neal and Craft were hanged for their crime, but Ellis was given only a life sentence. Demanding that Ellis suffer the same fate, a lynch mob broke into Cattlesburg Jail and hanged him anyway.
5. The Egg Nog Riot ruined Christmas 1826 for many soldiers, and the young Jefferson Davis was involved in the mayhem
On a cheerier note, The Egg Nog Riot of 1826 saw a third of the military cadets at the West Point military academy run, well, riot. West Point was once a disorganized and ill-disciplined academy, but in 1817 the keen disciplinarian and professional party-pooper Sylvanus Thayer took charge, and banned alcohol, gambling, and tobacco for cadets. They were, however, permitted a Christmas Party, and in 1826 the beleaguered cadets were determined to have a roaring time. On December 22, the plot commenced: 40 gallons of whisky were smuggled into West Point to make a then-popular alcoholic form of Egg Nog.
By Christmas Eve, the Egg Nog was ready, and that night around a third of the cadets got completely wasted. The soldiers on duty did their best to stop the fun, but were simply outnumbered by the number of parties taking place in dormitories. The cadets used their wonderful military training to threaten the sober disciplinarians with guns and swords, and Dutch Courage to vandalize West Point. On Christmas morning, around 85 hungover cadets were indicted, with 20 eventually court-martialed. One of the riot’s perpetrators was none over than future Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, who narrowly escaped a court-martialing.
4. The Agana Race Riot saw black and white US Marines fight it out from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day 1944
Guam in the Pacific Ocean was host to both black and white US Marines in 1944. But instead of fighting the enemy, the white troops elected to turn on the all-black Marine 25th Depot Company. The white Marines would stop their fellow soldiers from entering Agana, pelt them with rocks, and shout racist obscenities at them. On Christmas Eve 1944, 9 members of the 25th on official leave were seen talking to local women, and white Marines opened fire on them. Then, on Christmas Day, 2 black soldiers were shot dead by drunken white Marines in separate incidents.
Guam’s white Marines were decidedly short on festive cheer and goodwill to all men. Not content with these murders, a white mob attacked an African-American depot on Boxing Day, and a white soldier sustained an injury when the 25th returned fire. Sick of their treatment by their fellow soldiers, 40 black Marines gave chase to the retreating mob in a jeep, but further violence was prevented by a roadblock. Can you guess what happened next? Yes, the black soldiers were charged with unlawful assembly, rioting, and attempted murder, whilst the white soldiers were left to nurse their aching heads.
3. The Lockerbie Bombing of December 21st 1988 killed all 259 people on board Pan Am Flight 103
The town of Lockerbie, just over the border in Scotland, is a fairly unremarkable place where little of note ever happens. That all changed under tragic circumstances one night in December 1988, as locals prepared for the Christmas season. At around 7 pm, Pan Am Flight 103, traveling to New York from London carrying mainly US Citizens home for the holidays, was over Lockerbie when it exploded. A terrorist had hidden a time-bomb in a cassette player on board, which was so powerful that it spread the wreckage over an 850-mile radius. All 259 people on board were killed.
As for Lockerbie, 11 residents were also killed as 21 buildings were destroyed by the falling debris. Amazingly, it wasn’t until 2001 that anyone was convicted, in large part due to Colonel Gaddafi’s refusal to turn in the suspects identified in 1991, and the time it took for 15, 000 people to be interviewed and 180, 000 pieces of evidence to be analyzed. The guilty party was Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, a Libyan, who was given 20 years in a Scottish jail but released in 2009, to great public outcry, because he was suffering from terminal cancer.
2. On Christmas Day 1929, Charlie Lawson killed his wife and 6 of his 7 children
Old pictures, such as the one above, are creepy at the best of times, but just wait until you hear this Christmas horror story. This family portrait of the Lawson family, from Germanton, North Carolina, was taken a few days before Christmas Day 1929. On Christmas Day, Charles Lawson (standing, second from right) took a shotgun to everyone in the picture besides his 16-year-old son Arthur (rear, far left), whom he had sent out on an errand. The baby, Mary-Lou, was bludgeoned to death. Charles then turned the gun on himself, having posed his family’s bodies with their arms crossed.
Imagine how poor Arthur felt when he discovered the bodies of his entire family. The photograph, a rarity for a 1920s working-class family, suggests some premeditation, but Charles offered no explanation for the massacre in his suicide letters. So what lay behind this tragedy? Charles suffered a blow to the head a few months before the event, but an autopsy of his brain found nothing of note. According to a relative, Charles’s wife Fannie (back right) discovered her husband’s incestuous relationship with their daughter, Marie (left of Charles), and soon afterwards he committed his awful crime out of shame.
If the above haven’t made you think about Christmas in a different light, this one certainly will. Racial tensions in the former Confederate States, which led to lynchings and violence such as the Mayfield race riot above, also resulted in the foundation of the notorious Ku Klux Klan. On Christmas Eve 1865, 6 Confederate Army veterans met in Pulaski, Tennessee, to form a group to deal with the great danger posed by other human beings having equal rights. After naming their Nathan Bedford as their first leader (or Grand Wizard), the group soon attracted scores of new members.
The KKK, as it is usually called, carried out lynchings, assaults, harassment, and rapes against African-Americans and anyone who tried to help them. Only 6 years after its foundation Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, allowing the President to use military force against them. The KKK remains a repulsive and dangerous organization today. What would a Middle Eastern Jew, who preached tolerance and peace amongst all men regardless of creed or color, and crucified for his faith, make of the foundation of a hateful and violent group preaching death to all non-white-Protestants to celebrate his birthday?
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: