There's an urban legend for every occasion, so it perhaps shouldn't be a surprise that there are loads of them connected to the winter holidays. In fact, when I wandered over to the Snopes page for Christmas stories, I was downright flabbergasted to see how many winter holiday urban legends there are. The question, then, becomes, how many of them are true — so let's take a look, shall we?
It's worth noting that a lot of the holiday-themed urban legends out there aren't what most of us probably think of when we think of the term “urban legend”: There are no killers in the back seat or people with hooks for hands; nor are they typical tales of the “scary stories to tell in the dark” variety. They are, however, still urban legends, which by definition are “[stories] about an unusual event or occurrence that many people believe is true.” (Thanks, Merriam Webster.) The second part of the definition, of course, is “but that is not true” — so the ones here that actually do check out are technically misclassified as urban legends. Do with that what you will.
Here are five holiday urban legends, along with an explanation of whether or not they're true. Spoiler: If it sounds totally ridiculous, it's probably false. Just sayin'.
1. Poisonous Poinsettias
You know poinsettias? Those festive red flowering plants that adorn many a home during the holiday season? Common knowledge says that they're poisonous when eaten—and, indeed, might even be fatal, both to humans and to pets.
Is It True?
Not really. It's not recommended that anyone actually eat poinsettias, but if you do, you'll probably just experience an upset stomach and some vomiting. It's not pleasant, but it's far from a death sentence — and, indeed, you'd have to eat about 500 poinsettia leaves to get sick, according to WebMD (which is unlikely to happen, because poinsettia leaves apparently taste extremely bitter). Furthermore, according to the Pet Poison Helpline, poinsettias are only mildly poisonous to dogs and cats: They might vomit, drool, or suffer from diarrhea if they eat the plant, but that'll probably be about it. Medical treatment isn't usually necessary unless the symptoms are severe.
So how did the whole myth get started? No one really knows, but Snopes points to the 1919 death of a two-year-old child, the cause of which was incorrectly identified as the ingestion of a poinsettia leaf.
2. Why the NORAD Santa Tracker Exists
NORAD's Santa Tracker is one of my favorite parts about the holiday season (and yes, I am a grownass woman; why do you ask?), so I was tickled pink when I first heard the purported origin story of the whole thing. The story states that the tracker is the result of a wrong number printed in an ad in a newspaper sometime during the 1950s — a wrong number that went to a top-secret government phone instead of to “Santa.”
Is It True?
Yep! In 1955, a newspaper ad for a Sears department store in Colorado featured a phone number for kids to call in order to talk to “Santa” at any time, day or night. The number printed, however, turned out to have a typo — and instead of going to the correct number, it rang a secret hotline belonging to Col. Harry Shoup at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), the organization which later became NORAD. “Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number,” said Shoup's daughter, Terri Van Keuren, to NPR in 2014, so it was something of a surprise when Shoup picked up and heard a child on the other end ask, “Is this Santa Claus?”
Shoup just kind of ran with it. The phone was ringing off the hook for the rest of the season, so after that year, CONAD and, in 1958, NORAD began offering a number people could call to track Santa on Christmas Eve. These days, the Santa Tracker has gone digital; you can find it online at NORAD's official Santa Tracker website.
3. Power Companies Hate Your Holiday Lights
You may love your holiday lights, but your power company doesn't — and, in fact, they hate them so much that they'll start charging you extra if you keep them up too long. Yikes.
Is It True?
Nope. Snopes busted this one good: It was a hoax carried off by several local radio stations during the 2003-2004 holiday season. In Rochester, NY, some radio stations broadcast a story that homeowners keeping their holiday lights on past Jan. 16 would be fined according to state legislature; then, a week later, KOB-FM in Alburque pulled the same prank. Rest assured, though, you can keep your holiday lights up as long as you like without fear of running afoul of the lawor having to shell out extra cash. Just, y'know… make sure your neighbors are down with your extended holiday cheer, too.
4. Santa Stunt Goes Terribly Wrong
Warning: This one is a little gruesome. It involves a family who find themselves unable to celebrate together on Christmas, due to the fact that Daddy Dearest has been sent out of town for a business trip. But what's this? The business trip was a ruse? Daddy Dearest's plan was actually to dress up as Santa, climb down the chimney on Christmas Eve, and surprise his family? What a hilarious and impractical way to celebrate!
...And also a deadly one: During his struggle down the chimney, Daddy Dearest gets stuck and dies of asphyxiation. When the family goes to light the yule log on Christmas Eve, they smell a strange scent — and make a horrifying discovery as a result.
So that's where Daddy Dearest really went.
Is It True?
Heck no — well, mostly. Although people have gotten stuck in chimneys before (remember this lady? And this one?), none of them were pretending to be Santa; the old urban legend of Santa/Dad dying a sad Christmas death is just that — a legend. However, I still wouldn't recommend actually entering a chimney for any reason (unless you're a chimney sweep and trained in, I don't know, how to clean a chimney or something like that) — people do die up there. A burglar attempting to break in via chimney in Fresno County, Calif. expired after the homeowner lit a fire just last week.
5. A Wartime Holiday Truce
During the First World War, British, French, German soldiers on the front called a truce for one day. On Christmas, they sang carols together, played football, and exchanged gifts.
Is It True?
Yes. On Christmas in 1914, both Allied and Axis soldiers on the battlefield at Flanders called a truce and celebrated the holiday together. The commanders largely weren't happy about it and ordered the hostilities to resume by New Year's Day — but for a brief time, the Christmas Truce of 1914 made things a little more bearable. Stanley Weintraub's book Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce details the whole thing, if you want to know more.
Images: EliJerma, Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar, chefranden/Flickr; Giphy (3)