Urban Legends

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Urban Legends

In addition to traditional Nativity legends, Christmas has inspired a number of urban legends over the years. An urban legend is a story about some mundane aspect of contemporary life that is usually believed by its teller to be true even though it is, in fact, false. While traditional legends often concern magical or supernatural creatures and events, urban legends generally treat everyday situations and events familiar to both listener and teller. They often contain an implied warning or commentary on some aspect of contemporary life. Urban legends spread by word of mouth, e-mail, faxes, the media, and the World Wide Web.

Poisonous Poinsettias

One urban legend concerning an everyday aspect of the Christmas holiday takes the form of a dire warning about the leaves of the poinsettia plant. It claims that they contain a deadly poison. Each year, it declares, small tots die from sampling the enticing, bright red leaves. Apparently, this legend took shape in 1919 when a child in Hawaii died suddenly, and people simply assumed that the culprit was a poinsettia leaf. This myth acquired so much power that in 1975 a petition was submitted to the Consumer Products Safety Commission requesting that poinsettias be sold with a warning label. After looking into the facts of the matter, the Commission denied the request.

According to the POISINDEX®, a reference source used at most poison control centers, poinsettia leaves are not poisonous. The U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees, although some researchers suspect that consuming sufficient quantities of the plant's milky sap may cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. Poinsettia leaves taste terrible, however, making it extremely unlikely that anyone would consume enough to get sick. The myth of the poisonous poinsettia persists in spite of the evidence against it. A 1995 poll of American florists showed that about 66 percent of them still believed that poinsettias were poisonous.

Crucified Santa Claus

Another urban legend concerning Christmas tells of a tasteless holiday store window display in Japan. According to the legend, the personnel at a Japanese department store attempted to boost Christmas sales by setting up a cheery, crucified Santa Claus in their display window. One version of this legend claims that this event took place in 1945, others claim it happened in the 1990s. One variant describes the Santa as a billboard image, another claims that the department store in question prepared a number of doll-sized, crucified Santas. The location at which this event supposedly took place also varies from story to story.

The legend implies that there is something deeply wrong with the way in which the Japanese celebrate Christmas. The crucifix is the central symbol of the Christian religion, hence the image of the crucified Santa seems to suggest that, whether out of ignorance or greed, the Japanese in question have made Santa Claus into the central figure of the Christian religion. Japan is a non-Western nation, and Christians constitute only a small minority of the population. Thus, the story seems to confirm the fears of those who suspect that non-Western, non-Christian foreigners like the Japanese simply cannot or will not grasp our cherished symbols and values. Or perhaps the legend serves to transfer guilt about the Western obsession with the commercial aspects of Christmas onto the Japanese. The legend implies that it is they, not we, who have replaced Jesus with Santa Claus in our holiday observances.

Candy Cane Symbolism

Another recent legend suggests that hundreds of years ago candy makers encoded Christian symbols into the red-and-white design on candy canes. The story asserts that the red stripes represent the blood of Christ, and the white background his purity. Some versions of the legend assert that the three thin red stripes on some candy canes stand for the Holy Trinity. Other versions of the tale add that the J-shape of the candy cane stands for Jesus, and that the hardness of the candy cane stands for the idea that Jesus' church is founded on a rock.

In fact, the history of the candy cane is uncertain. Some researchers believe that it was invented in Europe in the seventeenth century and that the shape was intended to resemble a shepherd's crook rather than the letter "j." One tradition maintains that it was invented by clerics from the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, as a treat for children attending Christmas services held around the Nativity scene. The suckable candies also kept the children quiet during the services. The original candy cane was pure white. American candy manufacturers added the red stripes in the early twentieth century.

"Santa" Dies in Chimney

One final legend tells of a family's Christmas tragedy. A man regretfully informs his wife and children that he must go out of town on a business trip for the Christmas holiday. The wife and children resign themselves to celebrating Christmas without him. He finishes his business earlier than expected, however, and returns home on Christmas Eve. He decides to surprise his children by dressing up as Santa Claus and coming down the chimney with a sack of toys. He gets stuck in the chimney and suffocates to death. Meanwhile, his wife and children decide to celebrate Christmas Eve by lighting a fire in the fireplace. The smoke refuses to be drawn up the chimney and pours into the living room, accompanied by a funny smell. The children investigate what is blocking the chimney and find the lifeless body of their father, dressed as Santa Claus.

The impact of this tale hinges on the contrast between the wholesome, family Christmas celebration and the macabre discovery of the father's dead body. Like other urban legends, many variations of this morbid tale circulate throughout the population. The exact reason for the man's return, the cause of his death, and clues that lead his family to investigate what's blocking the chimney may vary, but the outline of the story remains the same. No verified account of any such event exists. Nevertheless, there have been several documented instances of burglars and would-be Santas getting stuck in chimneys and having to be rescued by police and fire departments. The legend of the dead, smoked Santa lives on, however.

Further Reading

Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Mexican Pet: More "New" Urban Legends and SomeOld Favorites. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1986. ---. "Urban Legend." In his American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996. Comfort, David. Just Say Noel! New York: Fireside Books, 1995. Ellis, Bill. "Legend, Urban." In Thomas A. Green, ed. Folklore: An Encyclo-pedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Volume 2. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997. Smith, Paul. "Legend, Contemporary." In Thomas A. Green, ed. Folklore: AnEncyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Volume 2. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997. Turkington, Carol. The Home Health Guide to Poisons and Antidotes. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society, California, on urban legends: (click on "Holidays," then "Christmas")
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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