In the first part of my festive collection of conspiracy theories and urban legends, I looked at some sinister Santa secrets, an X Factor conspiracy against Christmas songs and mince pies made from human flesh. Part 2 looks at five more hidden ‘truths’ behind the curtain of fairy lights…
1. Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas Day
Claim – Traditionally Christmas is regarded as the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, December 25th being the day he was born. In fact, the true origin of Christmas is nothing to do with Jesus. Before it was ‘Christ’s Mass’, it was a pagan tradition, which Christians re-branded in order to steer people away from paganism.
Truth? – Most scholars, including Christians, agree that Jesus was not in fact born on December 25th and that his birthday is actually unknown. Christmas used to be a pagan winter festival, centred on the winter solstice, and plenty of the traditions we have today have their roots in these festivals – including Christmas trees, gift-giving, Yule logs and decorations. ‘Yule’ used to be a pagan festival in late December in Scandinavia. December 25th used to be the birthday of the Roman sun god. It only became Jesus’ birthday when the first Christian Roman emperor – Constantine – decided it should.
Given that last week I was talking about Christians getting all het-up about a conspiracy to secularise Christmas, there’s a wonderful irony here. Surely you can argue that, since Christians basically hijacked a festival that was originally nothing to do with Jesus, secularists are simply taking it back?
Happy Holidays! 😉
2. A Sony conspiracy to make more money from the Christmas charts
Claim – Last week I talked about an X Factor conspiracy against Christmas songs, because of all the non-festive, pedestrian bore-fests released as winners’ singles, which keep seizing the UK Christmas Number 1. In 2009, Jon and Tracy Morter decided to do something about this, launching a Facebook campaign to prevent X Factor winner Joe McElderry from bagging the top spot. Their plan was to get people to buy Killing in the Name by Rage Against The Machine instead. It worked – Killing in the Name was Christmas Number 1.
However, it came to light that the same company – Sony BMG – was making money from both songs. Both Joe McElderry and Rage Against The Machine were signed to Sony-owned record labels. An elaborate Christmas marketing ploy?
Truth? – I suppose we’ll never know the truth on this one. What we do know is that X Factor’s Simon Cowell was calling the campaign to knock Joe off the top spot “stupid” and “cynical”. And that Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello dismissed conspiracy claims, calling them “ridiculous” and saying that Sony doesn’t even speak to them anymore.
All I know is that I was over the moon that Joe’s bland, puke-inducing ballad The Climb was pipped to the post by epic rock song Killing in the Name – which is now heard at Christmas parties!
3. Santa is DEAD!
Claim – Okay, so Santa himself isn’t dead (someone’s eating the mince pies and sherry I leave out every Christmas Eve). But there is an urban legend that a father once pretended to go on a business trip, dressed up as Santa Claus and went down the chimney to surprise his family. He then became wedged in the chimney, broke his neck and died. It was only when his family lit the fire and smelled burning flesh that they discovered the father’s charred, rotting body stuck up the chimney flue.
Truth? – This story seems to come in several forms and is generally regarded as a myth. An archetypical urban legend juxtaposing joy and tragedy. Interestingly, the urban legend was used as character backstory in the 1984 movie Gremlins. Phoebe Cates’ character, Kate, told a story about how her father, dressed as Santa, got stuck in the chimney with a bag of toys and died.
And similar incidents have happened in real-life. In 2010, a doctor tried to sneak down the chimney into her ex-lover’s house and died after getting wedged in the chimney flue. She was discovered three days later when the house-sitter noticed a smell and, urm, fluids coming from the fireplace. Grim!
4. The Band Aid Conspiracy
Claim – Band Aid 30 has been hugely controversial this year. Many people have denounced Band Aid’s latest efforts to raise money, this time to fight Ebola in West Africa, with yet another version of Do They Know It’s Christmas? Some have called it patronising, misleading and hypocritical. Aging rocker Bob Geldof, the man behind the campaign, has said that he enjoys the criticism because it gives Band Aid more publicity.
Ah, but publicity for who? Lurking behind the smokescreen of fighting poverty and Ebola, is Band Aid really just a PR stunt for Bob Geldof? Is Band Aid simply about making Bob Geldof rich?
Truth? – We’ll never know what goes on in Bob Geldof’s head, behind all that hair. But let’s look at the facts. Before the first Band Aid release of Do They Know It’s Christmas? in 1984, Geldof was the lead singer of fledgling band The Boomtown Rats, who were failing in the charts.
But Geldof’s involvement in Band Aid, Live Aid, Live 8 and all his other anti-poverty campaigns have turned Geldof into a multi-millionaire. Interest in The Boomtown Rats was rekindled, leading to a sell-out tour shortly after the first Band Aid. Then Geldof’s 1986 autobiography, Is that It?, became a UK best-seller. And over the last thirty years, he has proceeded to make bags of cash for doing public speaking about Third World poverty. I read in one article that he was paid $100,000 to do a short speech in Australia on the subject.
The Boomtown Rats reformed in 2013, released a greatest hits album and are currently touring. A new version of Do They Know It’s Christmas? was released in late 2014 to massive chart success and huge press attention for Geldof – good and bad. Coincidence?
What else do we know? Bob Geldof likes to keep a firm hold on his millions. He’s known for using tax avoidance schemes. Given that a proportion of our tax goes towards foreign aid, this has led to many people branding him a hypocrite for demanding that the public buy the new Band Aid 30 single. How much money has Geldof actually donated himself to all his causes? We don’t know, but according to some websites, Geldof – an anti-poverty campaigner – is worth $150 million. What’s wrong with that sentence?
5. Flying Reindeer and Magic Mushrooms
Claim – Where does the tradition of Santa and his flying reindeer come from? There’s a theory that it originates in Lapland with the indigenous Sami people. They would eat a certain species of magic mushroom called Fly Agaric (the red and white spotted toadstool you often see in fairytales), a mushroom that’s also eaten by reindeer. Its hallucinogenic effects include visions of flying and are said to have caused the Sami people to see flying reindeer, leading to the birth of the popular myth about Rudolph and his pals.
Truth? – This is just one of several theories about the origin of flying reindeer. Another very different theory is that the myth comes from a misreading of the famous Christmas poem, The Night Before Christmas. This is thanks to the frequent use of the words “fly” and “flew” and the reference to the reindeer moving “as fast as eagles”. But some argue that “fly” and “flew” in the poem are actually just metaphors for moving really fast.
For example, there is a line where the narrator says, “Away to the window, I flew like a flash”, which doesn’t mean he’s flying around his house. There’s another line referring to the moon shining on “objects below”, which the narrator then identifies as a sleigh pulled by reindeer. This suggests the sleigh is being driven through the snow on the ground. When “up to the housetop the coursers they flew”, the reindeer could simply be leaping up onto the roof. At the end, St Nick “drove out of sight”. Surely author Clement Clarke Moore wouldn’t have used the word “drive” if he imagined St. Nick and his reindeer to be in flight?
Alas, we may never know.
Next week: My examination of the world’s most famous conspiracy theory – the Roswell UFO encounter – continues. The first article looked at the events of 1947 and the second article looked at the events in the 1970s, when interest in Roswell rekindled. Next week’s third article looks more closely at all the stories about the recovery of alien bodies…