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12 Pranks Of Christmas Past

Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 with two of his sons, Archie and Quentin — who put snakes in the pockets of congressmen.
Library of Congress
Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 with two of his sons, Archie and Quentin — who put snakes in the pockets of congressmen.

Ah, the holiday season: Glad tidings. Comfort. Joy. Pranks.

Say what?

For some earlier Americans, Christmas was the yearly open season for playing practical jokes on other people — filching wagon wheels, turning road signs the wrong way, lighting firecrackers to scare animals. A sort of cold weather April Fools' Day, perhaps to make the midwinter less bleak.

Some of the gags were benign; others brutal. In any case, the tradition of holiday high jinks goes back, way back before the founding of the country. Here are the 12 Pranks of Christmas:

  • Dismissal Toe. Founded in 1693, the Virginia College of William & Mary was the site of Colonial misconduct. "Barring professors from classrooms was a common stunt in the 1700s," the Newport News, Va.,Daily Press reported in a 1993 article, "and was seen as a way to hasten the beginning of Christmas break."
  • Slither Bells. Teddy Roosevelt's sons Archie and Quentin "put snakes in congressmen's pockets and smuggled a Christmas tree into the mansion in violation of their father's conservationist edict," the Carbondale, Ill., Daily Free Press reported on Dec. 15, 1930.
  • Home For Christmas. Just after Christmas Day 1993, someone stole the baby Jesus from the Nativity scene in the yard of Ted Laspe, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatchof Dec. 16, 1994. Instead of finding the figurine in the crib, Laspe — who was on disability and suffered from multiple health problems — found a note that read: "Dear Ted, On vacation. Be back Christmas Eve of 1994." Over the ensuing months, Laspe received photographs from various places — including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin — signed "The Baby Jesus." Laspe died in October of 1994; the baby Jesus was delivered to the house by a cab driver on Christmas Eve of that year.
  • Kissing Santa Claus. Today we still participate in a seasonal practical joke dating back more than a century — according to the Detroit Free Press of Dec. 25, 1904 — when we hang mistletoe in a room and kiss someone beneath it.
  • Yule Logs. The best Christmas trick "ever played in our midst," noted the St. Johns Herald in Arizona on Jan. 13, 1900, "was played on Father Curtis. Christmas Eve twelve loads of good dry wood were hauled and unloaded in his yard."
  • Let It Soap. In Brunswick, Ga., the Savannah News noted in a Feb. 21, 1884, report on the Christmas of 1883, "some malicious fellow" put five bars of soap in a water tower near Waycross on Christmas Day so that when the night express steam locomotive stopped for a fill-up, the tank was filled with soapy water "and soapy water will not make steam." As a consequence, the engine was stalled on the track until another engine could be dispatched to clear the tracks.
  • O Christmas Cheese. In 1996, the mayor of Garland, Texas, received a Christmas gift of a 525-pound block of "velvet yellow cheese hauled in by refrigerated truck from the Land O'Lakes farm in northern Wisconsin," the Dallas Morning News reported on Dec. 25 of that year. It took half a dozen men to move the package to the mayor's door.
  • The Last Straw. Police searched the apartment of two men in Somerset, Ky., and found — among other stolen Christmas decorations — a baby Jesus statue that had been taken from a family's creche, the Greenwood, S.C., Index-Journal reported on June 3, 2009. The men were charged with theft and sent to jail for 45 days.
  • Jingled Belles. Early on Dec. 25, 1953, the town of Stony Point, N.C., was rocked by an explosion near the railroad tracks that woke local folks and shattered store windows. According to the Statesville, N.C., Daily Record three days later, "It is believed that for a Christmas prank, someone set off a charge of some explosive, probably dynamite, failing to realize the damage which could result."
  • Holiday Sails. Practical jokes at Christmastime were especially popular among members of the U.S. Navy, the North Platte, Neb., Weekly Tribune observed on Dec. 10, 1909. One of the favorite Christmastide gags on fighting ships was for "a procession of fantastically garbed sailors" to visit the captain's quarters — carrying a bucket of whitewash — and petition the ship's commander to wipe out everyone's demerits.
  • Christmas Chopping. When a pair of guys axed down a 14-foot spruce tree in someone's yard and turned it into a Christmas tree in front of their fraternity house in Highland Park, Ill., they were nabbed by police and fined $100 apiece. According to the La Crosse, Wis.,Tribune of Jan. 4, 1963, they also had to pay the tree's owner $500. "I am not dealing with juvenile delinquents," the police magistrate told the tree-fellers. "You are Northwestern students. I know things are done as pranks, but this is a criminal offense."
  • Do You Hear What I Hear? In her 2013 book The Legacy of Bear Mountain: Stories of Old Mountain Values That Enrich Our Lives Today, Janie Mae Jones McKinley tells of a Christmas prank her grandfather — a railroad man — pulled on his two brothers-in-law in rural North Carolina during the Great Depression. It was customary for neighbors in the valley to shoot shotguns in the air on Christmas Day. People would take turns and the one who had the most ammunition was the winner — and by extension, the most prosperous. McKinley's grandfather figured out a way — using a wooden board and a sledgehammer — to make a noise that sounded exactly like a shotgun blast. So he could outlast everyone. "After it b'come clear I'd won," McKinley's grandfather would explain while laughing, "I kept smackin' the board with the hammer ever few minutes for awhile — to show 'em I still had plenty of shells!"

  • Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

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    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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