5 Christmas Parties That Went Right Off the Rails
’Tis the day before Christmas. Now’s the time to buy or bake a fruitcake for this year’s party. Then at the party, dramatically pour liquor over the cake so you can set it aflame. Only, the cake doesn’t light. It turns out you were supposed to use brandy, and the liquor wasn’t strong or warm enough to ignite. Plus, your lighter was never designed to be held upside down like this, and it’s singeing your thumb.
Wow, that did not go off as planned. Still, it could have gone worse. What if, instead of too little fire, you wound up with too much? Such as the time that...
Santa Accidentally Burned Three Dozen People to Death
In Christmas of 1924, a couple hundred people in the town of Babbs Switch, Oklahoma, gathered in the local schoolhouse. Back in those days, people only occasionally hung electric Christmas lights on their trees. Instead, the traditional way of lighting the tree involved individual candles. It makes for a lovely sight, until something knocks a candle slightly and sets the tree on fire. That happened this night, and the culprit was Santa, who was in the middle of handing out toys.
Santa, showing admirable presence of mind, now took it upon himself to extinguish the small fire. Unfortunately, he attempted this by throwing a chair at the fire. The chair knocked over a kerosene lamp, which exploded. The school burned down, killing 36 people.
As buildings go, one-room schoolhouses sound easy to evacuate when necessary, but a few factors complicated the attempts at escape. People panicked. Doors swung inward, which always poses a fire hazard. People also had trouble getting out the windows, which had been covered with metal screens to keep out vandals. Vandals are scary, but you know what’s scarier? Fire.
The Destruction of the Swedish Goat
Other times, vandals are the ones setting the fires. Such is the case in the Swedish city of Gävle, where every Christmas, they erect a massive goat of straw. Nearly every year, someone burns the goat, or destroys it through other means.
Gävle built the first goat in 1966. An arsonist burned it on New Year’s Eve. The goat survived the next two years, with help from a protective fence, but in 1969, someone burned it down again, on New Year’s once more. The following year, someone burned it down mere hours after construction finished. Thirty-eight different goats have been attacked or prematurely destroyed as the decades have passed. These past two years, the goat survived, only thanks to guards standing there 24 hours a day.
Based on our breezy summary of these fires, this might sound like a tradition the public enjoys, a sort of Burning Man that everyone gathers about and cheers. That’s what 51-year-old Cleveland tourist Lawrence Jones said he thought, when police caught him in front of the burning goat in 2001, lighter still in his hand. He was just taking part in the local tradition, he claimed. Police chucked him in jail for 18 days.
Fear of Fire Sent Other Partygoers Trampling Each Other
Scared of fire yet? Bad news: Fear of fire may be even more deadly than fire itself. Consider what happened on Christmas Eve in 1913 in Calumet, Michigan. Copper miners were on strike that year, and the strikers and their families gathered for a party at the headquarters for the Italian Mutual Benefit Society. Suddenly, someone yelled, “Fire!” The party was on the second floor, and people fell over each other trying to get down the stairs. On that one staircase, 73 people died.
Why did someone call out fire, given that there was not in fact any fire? Were they asking to light a yule log? Were they singing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and everyone heard only the final word? We don’t know.
However, given that this was a party for strikers five months into a strike, many speculate that someone deliberately falsely yelled fire, someone who’d slipped into the party and was not a fan of the union. Maybe they merely planned to scare everyone out to ruin the party, but they succeeded at something more than that. The Italian Hall stampede has the distinction of being the state’s most deadly mining disaster — and it didn’t even happen in a mine.
The Time West Point Got Drunk, and Out Came the Guns
In 1826, cadets at West Point were not allowed to drink alcohol while at the academy, regardless of their age. This is very different from today, when only cadet privates are not allowed to drink alcohol while at the academy, regardless of their age. Whatever era you’re in, a simple solution exists for this sort of prohibition: smuggling.
Back then, the drink of choice was eggnog, made with smuggled whiskey. As the 1826 Christmas party escalated, and cadets went out and fetched another gallon of whiskey to add to their brew, they attracted the attention of academy disciplinarians. Some students outside the party, on being accosted about what state they were in, claimed to be merely wandering in search of a drum and a fife they could play. So far, it was really all just mild comic mischief.
Then a lieutenant peeked in on the party, and one of the partiers knocked him out cold. The cadets decided it was time to fight for their right to party, by breaking windows and breaking down the door to the bedroom of one of the faculty who’d banned booze. One cadet pulled out his gun and shot at this guy — Ethan A. Hitchcock, who’d go on to be a general under Lincoln. Someone misheard someone else and concluded the faculty were calling in troops with cannons. The cadets now decided it was time for them all to take up arms.
Somewhat surprisingly, the riot didn’t escalate beyond this point, possibly because everyone was too drunk. Sober cadets managed to calm down the rioters. The event is remembered for 20 cadets getting court-martialed, out of the 70 who were involved. That 70 included one Jefferson Davis. “Next time, maybe we’ll raise a bigger ruckus,” we imagine Davis saying. Then he looked into the distance, thoughtfully.
Someone Brought Seals to the Moscow Embassy
Here’s an old Rodney Dangerfield joke: “I tell you, my old man was dumb. He wouldn’t buy Christmas seals. He said he wouldn’t know what to feed them.” The joke is incomprehensible today if you don’t know what Christmas seals are (it’s something you buy as part of a fundraiser and stick on stuff you mail). You also have to know that the idea of getting the animal the seal for Christmas would be absurd. In 1924, one American diplomat in Moscow didn’t know that last part.
It was Charles Thayer’s job to plan that year’s Christmas party at the U.S. embassy, and for entertainment, he headed to the circus. Rather than do the clichéd thing and hire a trained bear, he hired a team of three seals — Misha, Shura and Lyuba. On the night of the Christmas party, the seals entered the embassy ballroom and performed their tricks. One of them blew into a harmonica, which sounded like a reasonable rendition of a Christmas carol.
To get the seal trainer confident for the evening, Thayer fed him a couple whiskeys. By the end of the act, the trainer passed out, right in the ballroom. With no one directing them, the seals stampeded. One attacked the audience. Another headed into the kitchen, where the Austrian chef there fought it by hitting its head with a frying pan.
To corral the seals back together, Thayer and an assistant picked up the unconscious trainer and gesticulated with his arms, Weekend at Bernie’s-style. They also waved around a dead fish, as though the trainer were offering it. This worked at calming the seals down, and they managed to corral the animals back into the truck whence they’d come. The truck now left, bound for the zoo.
On the way, Lyuba escaped the truck and went sliding through the city streets. The city police had to assemble its police force to surround the fugitive. All told, it was the best Christmas Moscow had ever had.