These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings

Tim Flight - December 25, 2018

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
The gutted interior of the Iroquois Theatre shortly after the Christmas Day fire of 1903. How Stuff Works

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’.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
A small church built to commemorate the terrible events of 1997 in Acteal village, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
Some of the damage after the Erzincan Earthquake, Turkey, 1939. Wikimedia Commons

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
Soviet soldiers direct tanks on the outskirts of Kabul, January 7th 1980. The Atlantic

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
The Japanese Army attacks Tsim Sha Tsui Station in December 1941. Wikimedia Commons

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
A village on the coast of Sumatra lies in ruins, January 2nd 2005. Wikimedia Commons

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
Winchester Avenue in Ashland, Kentucky, photographed in 1920. Family Images

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
Jefferson Davis, his Egg Nog days long behind him, with his wife Varina in 1845. Wikimedia Commons

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
US Marines move through Agana, Guam, on a Sherman Tank, 1940s. Pinterest

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
The crash site of Pan Am Flight 103, Lockerbie, Scotland, December 1988. ABC News

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
Portrait of the Lawson family, taken a few days before Charles (second from right at the back) committed his atrocious crime, December 1929. Wunc

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.

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings
The KKK on parade in Virginia, 1922. Jstor

1. The KKK was founded on Christmas Eve 1865

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:

“All Mayfield Under Arms: Excitement over the Kentucky Race War.” New York Times, December 24, 1896.

Burns, Ian. “The Christmas Flood of 1717: How one of the most devastating storms in European history killed 13,700 people in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.” The Daily Mail, December 26, 2017.

“Charles Chaplin Dies at 88, Burial in Switzerland.” Variety, December 27, 1977.

Costello, John. The Pacific War. New York: Rawson, Wade, 1981.

“DR Congo: LRA Slaughters 620 in ‘Christmas Massacres'”. January 17, 2009

Fraser, Antonia. Cromwell, Our Chief of Men. Orion Pub Co, 2004.

Geiling, Natasha. “Egg Nog: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Starts a Holiday Riot”.

Goodman, Jonathan. The Christmas Murders. Kent State University Press, 2011.

“Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004”. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Jenkins, Simon. A Short History of England. London: Profile, 2011.

Lacey, Marc. “10 Years Later, Chiapas Massacre Still Haunts Mexico.” New York Times, December 23, 2007.

Morris, Aldon D. Origins of the Civil Rights Movements: Black Communities Organizing for Change. London: Macmillan, 1986.

“Pan Am flight 103”. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Reitherman, Robert. Earthquakes and Engineers: An International History. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2011.

Smith, Trudy J. White Christmas, Bloody Christmas. High Point, NC: DTS Group, 1990 (2015)

Tamkin, Emily. “How Soviets Came to Celebrate New Year’s Like Christmas (and Why Russians Still Do).” Foreign Policy, December 30, 2016.

Taylor, Alan. “The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989.” The Atlantic, August 4th 2014.

Uenuma, Francine, “The Iroquois Theater Disaster Killed Hundreds and Changed Fire Safety Forever”. Smithsonian Magazine.