The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Christmas! Does “Jingle Bells” have anything to do with it? And is Colonel Sanders in fact the real Santa Claus? Let’s open our stockings and pull out some Christmas facts, myths and, yes, lies.
Lie #1: Hey, This Santa Guy Seems Friendly!
It really depends how you’ve behaved — while there might be gifts headed your way, there might also be a complete shit-kicking.
A lot of the modern idea of Santa comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St Nicholas,” more commonly known as “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” There were various Dutch, Scandinavian and British traditions that overlapped in some ways but differed wildly in others, and Moore’s poem was huge in galvanizing one idea: a fat bearded man in red, traveling by reindeer-drawn sleigh, delivering presents to children by coming down their chimneys at night. It’s a beloved poem with a big everyone-join-in finish (“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”), and firmly part of the fabric of Christmas.
However, two years earlier, the poem “Old Santeclaus With Much Delight,” which is thought to have influenced Moore, painted a slightly less jolly picture of the portly stocking-fondler. While it codifies elements like Santa coming on the night of Christmas Eve (rather than the feast day of St. Nicholas, two and a half weeks earlier on December 6th), it also gives him a darker side.
While good children are rewarded with gifts like “an apple, or a tart / Or wooden gun, or painted cart,” bad ones are left a stick for their parents to use to pound the living fucking shit out of them. In the words of Santeclaus himself: “Where I found the children naughty / In manners crude, in temper haughty / Thankless to parents, liars, swearers / Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers / I left a long, black, birchen rod / Such as the dread command of God / Directs a parent’s hand to use / When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”
Merry Christmas! If your child said “shit” this year, beat them with a stick. God wants you to!
Lie #2: “Jingle Bells” Is a Christmas Song
“Jingle Bells” is much more of a “woo woo, fuck shit up” anthem than a song about a religious festival. Written by James Lord Pierpont — a turd, as we shall soon see — in 1857 and originally entitled “The One Horse Open Sleigh,” it has more in common with the drag-racing songs of a century later than most festive anthems tend to. After the bit that everyone knows come a few more verses in which the narrator details crashing a sleigh while, possibly, getting up to a bit of drunken sexy time with a lady:
A day or two ago
I thought I’d take a ride
And soon, Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot
(“Upsot” seems to be a crap gag combining “sot,” meaning a drunkard, with a kind of “Look, I’ve changed the word ‘upset’ to force a rhyme, aren’t I a fucking scream?” thing.) It continues:
Now the ground is white
Go it while you’re young
Take the girls tonight
And sing this sleighing song
Just get a bobtailed bay
Two forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you’ll take the lead
Get drunk, do some banging and win races — pretty risque stuff for the 19th century, and not a mention of Christmas to be found. The song is thought to have actually been debuted at Thanksgiving, before slowly being cleaned up and becoming a Christmas favorite. Oh yeah, and it was first performed in, uh, a kind of, um, a minstrel show, in blackface. Ooooooof.
Despite being the son of a noted abolitionist, Pierpont wrote a bunch of minstrel songs as well as pro-Confederate anthems. Historian Kyna Hamill has written of “the song’s veiled history as part of the antebellum blackface minstrel tradition.” Lots of beloved traditions have incredibly sketchy beginnings, and the song is long out of copyright — it’s not like anyone evil is making money out of it or anything.
Still though. Woof.
Lie #3: The Most Important White-Bearded Man on Christmas? Santa!
Not if you’re hungry and living in Japan — Colonel Sanders is your guy then. KFC does enormous business in Japan at Christmas, thanks to an advertising campaign in the 1970s successfully making it a holiday tradition for millions of families.
In 1974, Japanese KFC manager Takeshi Okawara had a vision in a dream, a vision arguably as powerful as that presented to shepherds and Magi announcing the birth of Jesus. In his dream, he had a vision of a “party barrel,” a chicken bucket rebranded into a Christmas must-have. It worked, thanks in part to his other idea — selling it with wine.
These days, having a Japanese KFC Christmas requires booking in advance or being willing to stand in line for hours. It might also involve getting extremely drunk: one KFC in Tokyo has a whisky bar in it. God bless us, every one!
Lie #4: World War I Briefly Stopped at Christmas So the British and Germans Could Play Soccer in No-Man’s-Land
It’s a lovely idea, and one that has been immortalized in statue form, used for sentimental Christmas ads and is frequently used to demonstrate the basic decency of people. Two sides locked in combat put their differences aside for one day to kick a ball around, showing that both trenches were filled with ordinary working men, and the real evildoers were those pulling the strings. Tommy and Fritz might be fighting on opposite sides in this hideous conflict, but today they’re just two rad bros having sports-based fun!
It’s not true, obviously. The thing with soccer fields is, they’re pretty flat. The thing with no-man’s-land is, it’s lumpy at best and landmine-ridden at worst. While there were a few incidents of curious soldiers wandering into the middle to meet up, and at least one documented incident of an Allied soldier cutting a German soldier’s hair, there is no evidence at all of a soccer match.
Even at the time, the significance of these pockets of friendliness within a giant war was felt. Letting a soldier from a side usually trying to kill you snip away at your head with a big pair of scissors is a pretty incredible thing. In early January 1915, The Guardian wrote: “Since Christmas there has come over in the soldiers’ letters home from the trenches in Flanders the news of all those spontaneous little groups of truces which on Christmas Day and its Eve sprang up at intervals all the way down those trenches. It was the simple and unexamined impulse of human souls, drawn together in face of a common and desperate plight.”
However, there were also plenty where curious soldiers wandered out of the trenches and got fucking shot through their fucking heads. And, even where there were truces, they were short-lived. One soldier wrote home: “We were all standing in the open for about two hours, waving to each other and shouting, and not one shot was fired from either side. This took place in the forenoon. After dinner we were firing and dodging as hard as ever; one could hardly believe that such a thing had taken place.”
Lie #5: “He Did It All, and Infinitely More; And to Tiny Tim, Who Did Not Die, He Was a Second Father”
These lines from the end of A Christmas Carol are heartwarming, sure, but they’re bullshit: However nice Ebenezer Scrooge might have become after his nighttime spirit visitors, Tiny Tim died. A Christmas Carol was written in 1843 and set in the then-present. If Tiny Tim was five at the time, he’d now be 182 years old. He’s dead as fuck, yo.
A 1992 paper in the American Journal of Diseases of Children looked at what small Timothy was probably suffering from based on the descriptions given in Dickens’ text, concluding it was probably distal renal tubular acidosis (type I). It’s fairly treatable with alkali therapy. Still though, 182? Never gonna happen. Dead. Dead dead dead dead dead! Dead.