When we think of Christmas, we think about good times with family, exchanging presents, perhaps celebrating with our religious community, and enjoying the feeling of love and togetherness. In short, Christmas is normally viewed as an all-round positive holiday. But tragedy can strike at any time of the year, and when December is marred by disaster then Christmas can be a real downer. Whether it’s due to a breakup, a death in the family, injury, or illness, sometimes the holidays aren’t quite what we’d expect.
Fate has been known to have an ironic sense of timing, and never is this truer than when tragedy occurs at the “most wonderful time of the year.” Whether the source of disaster is man or Mother Nature, the following are fifteen tragedies that have marred the festive season for individuals, families or whole communities.
15. Richmond Theatre Fire – 1811
On December 26, 1811 a fire ignited from a lit chandelier devastated the Richmond Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, killing 72 people, including 54 women and 18 men. Among the dead was Virginia’s governor George William Smith, and former senator Abraham B. Venable. Many of the dead included those trying to save their children from the devastation. Even though numerous exits were used, there weren’t enough to allow for the escape of hundreds of people who were attending the play and pantomime benefit.
At the time, the fire was considered to be the worst urban disaster in America. A monument was later built to remember the victims of the disaster. One man, Gilbert Hunt, was hailed as a hero, as he helped save numerous people from a fiery death.
14. The Mayfield Race Wars – 1896
In 1896, long after the Civil War ended, African Americans in the United States were still struggling for true freedom and equality. In fact, many black communities still feared for their lives: Lynchings were all too common, and after the lynching of one Jim Stone the African American community of Mayfield, Kentucky had had enough.
News spread of a race war just before Christmas, and women and children were ordered to stay off the streets after 6:00 PM. People barricaded themselves in their homes, and the streets became a scene of devastation. Homes were shot at, people were killed, and windows smashed. It was only until people from both sides were willing to negotiate that the bloodshed stopped. Needless to say, Christmas was ruined for all involved that year.
13. Christmas Blizzard – 1909
On Christmas of 1909 in New York City, residents of the city were hit with a massive blizzard that caused the death of eighteen people. Six of the eighteen people who perished died from exposure, being unable to find shelter. The rest died from accidents caused by the blizzard.
The snowfall totalled about 10 inches, and while that seems low by modern standards it was a potentially devastating level in the early 1900s. Difficulties were compounded when wire communication was interrupted, preventing help from getting to the city in time.
12. Italian Hall Stampede – 1913
It was the early 1900s, and hundreds of mineworkers and their families were enjoying a Christmas party at a theater in Calumet, Michigan. The party was soon cut short when someone yelled, “Fire!” in the room.
Hundreds of people began stampeding towards the door, trying to exit to safety. Unfortunately, 73 people were trampled to death, 59 of those children. Many more people were injured. The small community was devastated by the tragedy, and no one ever found out who prompted the false alarm. Whoever they were, they destroyed the lives of hundreds of families at Christmas.
11. Muck Dam Disaster – 1924
On Christmas Eve of 1924, the towns of Saltville and Palmertown, Virginia were going about their business as usual. Many were at the movie theater, at church, or in their homes when the Muck Dam broke, releasing 30 acres of water and muck it was holding back. The two small towns were nearly swept away.
Many people who went outside to watch were caught in the current. In total, eighteen people were killed. It may seem like a small number, but given the size of the towns involved, it was a cataclysmic tragedy: Almost everyone either knew or was related to a person who was lost, and the structural damage was massive enough to threaten to shut the towns down for good.
10. Lawson Family Massacre – 1929
It may sound like the title of a horror film, but this is the true story of the Lawson family, who resided in North Carolina. On Christmas day of 1929, the patriarch of the household, Charlie Lawson, sent his eldest son, Arthur, on a shopping trip. After Arthur left, Charlie grabbed his shotgun and murdered his wife and four of his children by shooting them at close range. He then bludgeoned his four month old daughter to death.
Charlie then laid all the bodies outside in a line with their hands across their chests, wandered into the forest and shot himself. What makes the tragedy even darker is that Charlie’s brother, Marion, then opened the house up as a tourist attraction so people could see in person what it looked like when the entire family died. The house was eventually demolished.
9. Tangiwai Disaster – 1951
On Christmas Eve in 1951, over 150 people were killed in a tragic train accident. The train was carrying 285 people to their destination at around 10:21pm when it traveled over the Whangaehu River in New Zealand.
Little did the driver know that just minutes prior, a flood had weakened the bridge’s support beams. As the train rolled down the river, the bridge gave way and passengers fell to their death. Twenty of the crash victims’ bodies were washed down the river and were never recovered. Five second class cars and one first class car went into the river – and all this happened when the train was just minutes from its destination.
8. Cyclone Tracy – 1974
From Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, the city of Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia was hit by a tropical cyclone named Tracy. The extent of the damage caused by Tracy, including over 70 fatalities, was unexpected and as such people were critically unprepared. Previous cyclones had never done much damage, so no one evacuated or even left their homes when this one hit.
Nearly the entire town of Darwin was destroyed. 80 percent of the homes were wiped out and 70 percent of the buildings were destroyed. 41,000 people were left homeless. In less than 72 hours, the town was destroyed and almost wiped from the map.
7. Air France Hijacking – 1994
On Christmas Eve of 1994, Air France Flight 8969 was hijacked by four men who were part of a militant Islamic sect. The men were armed with grenades, machine guns, and dynamite, and they were planning to fly the plane to Paris, over the Eiffel Tower, and make it explode. What was even more terrifying was that the hijackers showed no interest in negotiating. The plane had departed from Algeria, which was in a state of war at the time. Three people were executed and 220 people were held hostage throughout the course of the flight. When the plane landed in Marseille on the 26th of December, French troopers stormed the plane and the four hijackers were killed.
6. JonBenét Ramsey – 1996
On Christmas Day in 1996, six-year old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey disappeared from her home in Boulder, Colorado; a ransom note was the only clue to her disappearance.
Her parents called police and they searched tirelessly for eight hours until her body was recovered in the basement of the house. She had been gagged and hidden under a white blanket. DNA samples were taken from the body, and didn’t match any family members or anyone that knew the family. There were no signs of parental abuse. To this day, the identity of the beauty queen’s murderer remains unknown.
5. Bam Earthquake – 2003
At two in the morning the day after Christmas, the city of Bam, located in Iran, was hit with an earthquake of magnitude 6.6. Even though the quake lasted just 8 seconds, it was long enough to destroy 90% of the city’s buildings and kill 26,271 people as they slept in their beds. 300,000 people were seriously injured and over 100,000 people were left homeless.
Although Iran is prone to earthquakes, the city’s buildings and homes were not built to the safe earthquake-proof guidelines that you might see in other more developed parts of the world, which was why the city literally fell as the ground shook.
4. Indian Ocean Tsunami – 2004
An earthquake in the ocean depths that had the force of 23,000 atomic bombs would trigger one of the biggest tsunamis in history on December 26, 2004. Waves of over 50 feet in height overtook cities and villages around the Indian Ocean. With a disaster this vast, over 230,000 were dead or missing in fourteen different countries. Many of the victims included tourists who were vacationing for Christmas, locals in Thailand and Indonesia, and residents of Indian beach resorts. Oceans literally swallowed and overtook these places, and some villages and towns would never recover.
Indonesia was hit the hardest, followed by India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. The world came together to help, donating $14 billion towards humanitarian aid to help the affected areas.
3. Congo Massacres – 2008
The 2008 Congo Christmas massacres took place between the 24th and 27th of December in Uganda, as members of the Lord’s Resistance Army entered churches in numerous villages, taking machetes to kill the congregations. Those that they didn’t kill, the LRA tortured by cutting off numerous body parts, including ears and lips. The children that survived were either used as soldiers or sold into sex slavery.
It’s believed over 400 civilians were killed in the attacks..
2. Badger Girls Tragedy – 2011
One Christmas Day in 2011 in Stamford, Connecticut, three young girls named Lily, Sarah, and Grace were killed in a fire along with their grandparents. The cause of the fire was hot embers that had been discarded in the back of the house. The only survivors were the girls’ mother, Madonna Badger, and her boyfriend Michael Borcina. As ABC reported, Stamford’s mayor stated “There probably has not been a worse Christmas Day in the city of Stamford.”
The tragedy devastated the town and shocked the nation. In the wake of the tragedy, the girls’ father, Matthew Badger, recently started a fund in his daughters’ memory. Since they loved art, his fund will support arts programs in local elementary schools.
1. Grapevine Murder-Suicide – 2011
A family of seven was brutally wiped out on Christmas Day in an apparent murder-suicide in Grapevine, Texas. Members of the Yazdanpanah family – four women and three men, aged from 15 to 58 – were found dead. Along with the bodies, two loaded handguns were found among scattered wrapping paper and other Christmas presents.
The shooter, who was believed to be the family patriarch, was wearing a Santa suit. Police believe that the murder-suicide was caused by the parents’ split earlier that year, and that the father, Aziz, couldn’t handle the separation and was also dealing with financial stress.