10 Worst Things Ever to Happen at Christmas

People gaze out at the floodwaters in Madras, India, after the December 2004 tsunami. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Christmas is the time of year when Christians celebrate the foundational event of their faith: The birth of Jesus. It's also a season when family and friends of all beliefs get together and enjoy good food, drink and conversation. Greetings of "merry Christmas" and "happy holidays" fill the snowy streets. Television commercials and store windows glow with words like "peace," "joy" and "cheer." It is, to quote one of the holiday's many jolly tunes, "the most wonderful time of the year."

With such high expectations, however, come some pretty big letdowns. Bad weather strands travelers in the airport. Some "lucky" employees are forced to work while everyone else enjoys the day off. Family gatherings get awkward when the topic of conversation turns to politics. And there's always that one uncle who drinks a little too much and starts airing relatives' dirty laundry.

If these and other looming headaches are getting you down, would it help you to know that it could be worse? Yep, some pretty terrible things have happened during the Christmas season. So when Scrooge and the Grinch try to tag team your Santa-day spirit, be sure to remember our list of the 10 worst things ever to happen at Christmas.

Christmas Flood, 1717
Thousands perished in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Michael Gäbler/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

"The snow is snowing/The wind is blowing/But I can weather the storm/Why do I care how much it may storm/I've got my love to keep me warm." When Irving Berlin wrote this classic Christmas tune in 1937, he certainly wasn't thinking of the Christmas Flood of 1717. Love, it turns out, offered little protection against the gigantic North Sea storm that brought massive flooding to the coast of northern Europe.

It was around 1 o'clock on Christmas morning when floodwaters first washed across a large swath of farms and cities stretching from Holland to Denmark. The raging torrent swept thousands of people right out of their beds and sent many more scrambling for the relative safety of trees and tall buildings. There they awaited rescue as severe thunderstorms, rain and hail continued to pound the soggy landscape until water levels reached as high as 10 feet (3.1 meters). It wasn't until the next morning that the storm began to weaken before mustering one last violent punch later that afternoon [source: Baart et al.].

By then, many of those who initially survived the floodwaters had perished from exposure. When skies finally cleared on Dec. 27, as many as 13,700 people were dead, and countless livestock and homes were lost [source: Sundberg]. It was one of the worst disasters not just on Christmas, but in all of modern European history.

Library of Congress Burns, 1851
A view of the U.S. Capitol building a few years before the 1851 fire would destroy thousands of books. John Plumbe/Stock Montage/Getty Images

Some children are disappointed when they tear into a Christmas package and discover a book instead of the latest electronic gadget. But books were exactly what the Library of Congress needed after losing nearly two-thirds of its holdings in the Christmas Eve fire of 1851.

After Congress created the library in 1800, its collection inhabited various locations in the Capitol before settling in a 90- by 30-foot (27.4- by 9.1-meter) room in the center of the west front of the building. It was there that an unattended candle nearly torched the place in 1825, but the flames were contained before any serious damage could occur. That might have been a good time for the government to consider fireproofing the place, but, in an epic example of shortsightedness, they decided it was too expensive [source: Library of Congress, the Buildings].

Fast-forward to Christmas Eve 1851. A faulty chimney flue lit the library ablaze, and this time there was no saving it. Thirty-five thousand of the 55,000 books went up in smoke. Among the ashes was two-thirds of Thomas Jefferson's 6,487-volume collection, which, unfortunately, was intended to replace books lost the last time the library burned: in August 1814, during the War of 1812 [source: Library of Congress, Jefferson]. The Library of Congress reopened in 1853 in a repaired and enlarged room, this time constructed of fireproof materials [source: Library of Congress, the Buildings].

Ku Klux Klan Founded, 1865
This 1866 wood engraving depicts two members of the Ku Klux Klan. The white sheet and hood were supposed to represent the ghosts of Confederate soldiers risen from the dead to seek revenge. MPI/Getty Images

Here's a bit of trivia sure to curb the cheer at your next Christmas party: The Ku Klux Klan, the United States' most infamous hate group, was founded on Christmas Eve 1865.

The secret society emerged in the wake of the Civil War during a period known as Reconstruction. That's when the federal government basically told the South what they had to do to be readmitted to the Union. Essentially, they wanted the old secessionist leaders to guarantee full equality to blacks, which, at the time, didn't sit well with many Southerners [source: PBS, Reconstruction].

It was into this climate that six Confederate veterans met in Pulaski, Tennessee, to form an organization that would fight back against these changes through fear and intimidation. Led by "Grand Wizard" Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former Confederate general, this group quickly gained popularity as it threatened, assaulted, raped and lynched thousands of blacks and the Republican carpetbaggers who supported them. The group was so violent that Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which gave the president the authority to use military force against the organization. The Supreme Court eventually ruled the law unconstitutional in 1882, but by then, Reconstruction was over and the KKK's influence had waned [source: PBS, KKK].

Since then, the KKK has experienced a couple of resurgences, first in the 1920s and again in the 1960s. Today, numerous splinter groups using the Klan name boast somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 members [source: Southern Poverty Law Center].

Iroquois Theater Fire, 1903
The newly erected theater was destroyed after an overheated arc lamp on the stage set fire to a curtain that blew out over the audience. NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Today, a lot of people go to the theater during their Christmas vacation, which is why some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters come out in December. The same was true 100 years ago, when nearly 2,000 people (mostly women and children out for Christmas break) packed the Iroquois Theater in Chicago for a matinee performance of the musical "Mr. Blue Beard." Although the production starred comedian Eddie Foy, the Dec. 30, 1903, show turned out to be anything but funny.

Everything was going smoothly until the second act, when a light bulb malfunctioned and set a drape ablaze. The flames quickly spread to the scenery hanging from the ceiling, and panicked cast members fled for safety as flaming bits of fabric rained down on the stage. Terrified theatergoers, serenaded with a dreamy waltz just moments earlier, stampeded for the exits as the stage collapsed and the lights went dark.

Tragically, many of the doors were either hidden by curtains or locked to keep people from sneaking into the theater. Those who couldn't escape quickly fell victim to the smoke and flames. When the fire department arrived, they found 575 people dead; some 30 more would die from their injuries in the coming days. The only bright side to this grim Christmastime tragedy was the implementation of many safety features we know today, including clearly marked exits and out-swinging doors that are always unlocked from the inside [source: Secter].

Black Christmas, 1941
In December 1941, British prisoners of war leave Hong Kong for a Japanese prison camp. Keystone/Getty Images

Everything was going smoothly until the second act, when a light bulb malfunctioned and set a drape ablaze. The flames quickly spread to the scenery hanging from the ceiling, and panicked cast members fled for safety as flaming bits of fabric rained down on the stage. Terrified theatergoers, serenaded with a dreamy waltz just moments earlier, stampeded for the exits as the stage collapsed and the lights went dark.

For a small garrison of British, Canadian, Hong Konger and Indian soldiers tasked with defending the British colony of Hong Kong during World War II, the holiday blues started long before Christmas day. In fact, it was early summer when the threat of Japanese attack became so serious they began to evacuate women and children from the colony. The assault didn't come until Dec. 8, but when it did, the outmanned and outgunned Allied forces faced the fight of their lives.

After a week of fierce combat, the Japanese had muscled their way to the doorstep of the central city on Hong Kong Island. The Axis power demanded that the British surrender the colony, but they refused. The Japanese pushed on, slaughtering Allied soldiers even as they attempted to surrender.

By Dec. 25, things were looking grim for the British; Japanese air raids had cut the city's water mains and destroyed its power plant. The British governor, Sir Mark Young, made the tough decision to surrender at 3:30 p.m. on Christmas day [source: History.com]. By the time the white flags went up, some 4,000 soldiers from both sides had perished in the two-and-a-half week battle [source: Coates].

Despite the surrender, violence continued in Hong Kong. Japanese soldiers tortured, abused and starved their enemy prisoners and wreaked havoc on the colony's Chinese population by plundering and destroying villages, murdering civilians and raping as many as 10,000 women [source: Economist]. It's no wonder the British surrender is known as "Black Christmas."

Charlie Chaplain Dies, 1977
Film director and actor Charlie Chaplin arrivies in Plymouth after a 10-year absence from England. Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For many people Christmas is a time to get together with family, so it's particularly sad when a loved one passes away on that day. This is especially true when that person brought more smiles and laughter into the world than just about anyone else. Such was the case with actor and comedian Charlie Chaplin, who died surrounded by family at his home in Switzerland on Christmas Day 1977.

Chaplin made a name for himself during the era of silent films. He brought audiences to tears with his knack for pantomime and slapstick, not to mention his iconic routines. One of his most famous personas was "the tramp," a good-hearted but bumbling hobo dressed in baggy pants, a tight coat and his trademark bowler hat. The film legend was also a master of satire, famously mocking German tyrant Adolf Hitler in the 1940 film "The Great Dictator."

It's hard to explain just how much people loved Chaplin. During his early career he was so popular that one New York theater screened his movies exclusively from 1914 to 1923. Paris declared a public holiday when Chaplin's film "The Kid" premiered in 1921. By the time Chaplin passed away at age 88, he had been involved in 80 movies over a 53-year career and was widely viewed as one of the most influential figures in the history of motion pictures [source: Crowther].

Star Wars Holiday Special, 1978
Mickey Morton (as Malla) and Peter Mayhew (as Chewbacca) starred in George Lucas' least-favorite production ever to exist. CBS via Getty Images

A lot can go wrong when you try to force Christmas on something that isn't inherently Christmas-y; just ask almost every rock artist who's ever released a Christmas album. So when Star Wars creator George Lucas presented the idea of a Star Wars holiday special to CBS producers, someone probably should have stopped that sleigh before it ever left Santa's workshop. Instead, the cringe-worthy television event went forward, only to have Lucas cancel all rebroadcasts and video releases immediately after the premier.

But how bad could it really be? For starters, the plot centered around Chewbacca's family and their celebration of Life Day, a Wookiee holiday that seemed to be based on Thanksgiving or Christmas, though no one seems to know for sure. The three family members — Chewbacca's wife, Malla, father Itchy, and son Lumpy — alienated viewers early on with a 10-minute conversation in Wookiee-speak, a series of grunts and howls without subtitles. Rounding out the show was a series of bizarre guest performances, the most uncomfortable of which was an appearance by actress and singer Diahann Carroll, whose scene with grandpa Itchy was awkwardly sensual for a family program.

In the end, the Star Wars holiday special was almost universally panned, and both Lucas and the cast seldom speak of it to this day. However, Lucas did say this about the show: "If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it" [source: Warren].

Beagle 2 Spacecraft Lost, 2003
The late Colin Pillinger, lead scientist, posed with a model of Beagle 2 in 2003. The aim of the mission was to look for life on Mars and see how its mountains and rocks formed. The aim of the mission is to look for life on Mars, and see how its mountains and rocks formed.

When scientists at the European Space Agency launched the Mars Express orbiter in 2003, it carried with it a little package known as the Beagle 2 spacecraft. If everything went well, it would land on Mars and open, appropriately, on Christmas Day. But this Christmas miracle of modern space travel was not to be.

Mars Express arrived in the red planet's orbit in December 2003. Right on schedule, it released Beagle 2 on Dec. 19, sending the spacecraft hurtling into the planet's atmosphere at 12,400 miles per hour (20,000 kilometers per hour). A parachute and three airbags were installed to break Beagle 2's blistering fall and bring it gently to rest on the Martian landscape. There, four solar arrays were supposed to open and expose the radio antenna by which the spacecraft would communicate with Earth [source: Knapton].

When Beagle 2 failed to make radio contact after its scheduled landing, scientists worried they wouldn't get the Christmas gift they had desperately hoped for. After five years of design and development, six months of travel, and $65 to $80 million spent, scientists declared it lost on Feb. 6, 2004 [sources: NASA, European Space Agency]. Making matters worse, they wouldn't know what truly happened to it for another 12 years. That's when NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a photo of the wayward craft, showing that it had indeed landed, but the solar panels didn't deploy properly.

Indian Ocean Tsunami, 2004
Sri Lankan residents pick through debris from a massive tidal wave. RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

On Dec. 26, 2004, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake rocked the bottom of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia, releasing the energy equivalent of 23,000 Hiroshima-level atomic bombs. If the damage had been contained to the seafloor, it wouldn't have been a big deal. But the powerful quake displaced a tremendous amount of water, sending massive waves of destruction surging toward surrounding coastlines [source: National Geographic].

As tsunami waves measuring no more than a foot (30 centimeters) high swept stealthily across the open ocean, people in surrounding countries went about their daily routines. But soon, strange things began to happen. Some people reported that the ocean was rapidly receding while others heard a roar like a jet engine. As the waves pushed closer to shore they grew taller, reaching as high as 98 feet (30 meters) before crashing onto homes, cars and people in low-lying areas [source: Paris et al.].

Most victims were caught completely off guard because the Indian Ocean region didn't have a tsunami warning system in place. When the waters receded, they left behind 230,000 victims in 15 countries and $14 billion in property damage [source: Kuhne]. It was the deadliest tsunami in recorded history.

Underwear Bomber, 2009
A few years before he would become known as the "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab looked like any other kid taking a class trip to London. Barcroft Media / Getty Images

Holiday travel is always a headache, and the relatively recent threat of terrorism has given fliers one more unlikely but horrifying thing to stress about. Luckily for passengers aboard a Christmas Day 2009 flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan, when these attacks do happen they aren't always successful.

The would-be attacker's name was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who attempted to detonate a bomb concealed in his underwear as the plane made its approach into Detroit. Passengers reported hearing a noise like a firecracker, which turned out to be the sound of the bomb as it failed to detonate. Abdulmutallab was nevertheless engulfed in a fireball and flames soon spread to the plane's carpet and walls. Fortunately, passengers were able to subdue the man and extinguish the flames, and the plane landed without further incident.

Later investigations determined that Abdulmutallab was radicalized by Yemen-based Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and sought to carry out the attack in revenge for what he felt was the killing of innocent Muslims by the United States. He remained unrepentant as he faced eight charges, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism. A judge ultimately sentenced him to life in prison. But best of all, the 289 passengers and crew on that harrowing flight were able to return to their families for the holidays [source: Ariosto and Feyerick].


The Story Behind Those Christmas Carols You Can't Stop Singing

The Story Behind Those Christmas Carols You Can't Stop Singing

Parson Brown? Yuletide? Do you have a clue what the lyrics of Christmas carols are talking about? Find out at HowStuffWorks.

Author's Note: 10 Worst Things Ever to Happen at Christmas

I am genuinely happy to see my family and friends when I make the 1,500-mile (2,414-kilometer) trip home for Christmas each year. I really am. But that doesn't mean I stop complaining about the early morning flights, travel delays, and relentless schedule of parties, meals and visits that have become mainstays of my holiday homecoming. When looking at my petty problems next to the horrific incidents on this list, however, there's really no comparison. It's difficult to think about what the people affected by these and so many other holiday tragedies must have gone through while the rest of us were tearing into gifts and sharing conversation by a warm fire. That doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy Christmas. Rather, we should savor every moment thanks to our healthy new dose of perspective.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Ariosto, David and Deborah Feyerick. "Christmas Day Bomber Sentenced to Life in Prison." CNN. Feb. 17, 2012. (Dec. 4, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/16/justice/michigan-underwear-bomber-sentencing/
  • Baart, F. et al. "Using 18th Century Storm-Surge Data from the Dutch Coast to Improve the Confidence in Flood-risk Estimates." Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences. Oct. 20, 2011. (Dec. 1, 2015) http://www.nat-hazards-earth-syst-sci.net/11/2791/2011/nhess-11-2791-2011.pdf
  • Coates, Stephen. "Hong Kong Remembers 'Black Christmas' of 1941." Yahoo. Dec. 25, 2011. (Dec. 3, 2015) https://sg.news.yahoo.com/hong-kong-remembers-black-christmas-1941-020112231.html
  • Crowther, Bosley. "Charlie Chaplin Dead at 88; Made the Film an Art Form." The New York Times. Dec. 26, 1977. (Dec. 3, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/30/reviews/chaplin-obit.html
  • The Economist. "The History of Hong Kong: Empire Discontinued." June 5, 2003. (Dec. 3, 2015) http://www.economist.com/node/1825845
  • European Space Agency. "Mars Express Frequently Asked Questions." Feb. 18, 2009. (Dec. 4, 2015) http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Mars_Express/Frequently_asked_questions2
  • History.com staff. "This Day in History: British Surrender Hong Kong." History.com. 2009. (Dec. 3, 2015) http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/british-surrender-hong-kong
  • Knapton, Sarah. "Beagle 2 Found on Surface of Mars After Vanishing for 12 Years." The Telegraph. Jan. 16, 2015. (Dec. 4, 2015) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11349163/Beagle-2-found-on-surface-of-Mars-after-vanishing-for-12-years.html
  • Kuhne, Michael. "Ten Years Later: Remember the Deadliest Tsunami in Recorded History." Accuweather.com. Dec. 26, 2014. (Dec. 4, 2015) http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/10-year-anniversary-tsunami-indian-ocean/39122355
  • Library of Congress. "The Buildings." Jan. 11, 2006. (Dec. 1, 2015) https://www.loc.gov/loc/legacy/bldgs.html
  • Library of Congress. "Thomas Jefferson." (Dec. 1, 2015) http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefflib.html
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Beagle 2." Aug. 26, 2014. (Dec. 4, 2015) http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=2003-022C
  • National Geographic News. "The Deadliest Tsunami in History?" Jan. 7, 2005. (Dec. 4, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/12/1227_041226_tsunami.html
  • Paris, R. et al. "Coastal Sedimentation Associated With the December 26, 2004 Tsunami in Lhok Nga, West Banda Aceh (Sumatra, Indonesia)." Marine Geology. Vol. 238, Iss. 1-4. Pages 93-106. March 27, 2007. (Dec. 4, 2015) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025322706003653
  • Public Broadcasting Service. "Rise of the Ku Klux Klan." 2015. (Dec. 2, 2015) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/grant-kkk/
  • Secter, Bob. "The Iroquois Theater Fire." Chicago Tribune. 2015. (Dec. 2, 2015) http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-iroquoisfire-story-story.html
  • Southern Poverty Law Center. "Ku Klux Klan." (Dec. 2, 2015) https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/ku-klux-klan
  • Sundberg, Adam. "Claiming the Past: History, Memory, and Innovation Following the Christmas Flood of 1717." Environmental History. April 12, 2015. (Dec. 1, 2015) http://environmentalhistory.net/environmental-history-journal/claiming-the-past-history-memory-and-innovation-following-the-christmas-flood-of-1717/
  • Warren, Robert Burke. "The 'Star Wars' Holiday Special George Lucas Wants to Smash Every Copy of With a Sledgehammer." Salon. Dec. 25, 2014. (Dec. 4, 2015) http://www.salon.com/2014/12/25/the_star_wars_holiday_special_george_lucas_wants_to_smash_every_copy_of_with_a_sledgehammer_partner/
  • Wormser, Richard. "Jim Crow Stories: Reconstruction." Public Broadcasting Service. 2002. (Dec. 2, 2015) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_reconstruct.html