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Six Christmas-themed legal legends

From bans of celebrations to elaborate displays, the holidays have certainly been a source of controversy over the years. The stories of some disputes over our penchant for merry-making have passed into myth, such as the general belief that Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas and mince pies when he was Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.

The holidays have continued to be a source of the weird and wonderful, and as you’ll see in the following round-up, some well-publicized legal headaches.

1. Christmas outlawed

There are several examples of Christmas celebrations being banned, particularly in the 17th century. In 1640, the Scottish Parliament passed a law that made celebrating ‘Yule vacations’ illegal.

In England, Christmas was first banned in 1644 as it coincided with a monthly day of prayer, repentance, and fasting which had been legislated in 1642. An outright ban was introduced in 1647 confirming abolition of the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun with fines for non-compliance. As for Cromwell, some argue that he did not initiate the ban himself and that it should be considered within the wider context of Puritanism.

In 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made it a criminal offense to publicly celebrate the holiday. The penalty for observing Christmas was five shillings, paid “as a fine to the country”.

Although Christmas was legalized again in England following the restoration of monarchy in 1660, the ban remained in place in Massachusetts until 1681 but it did not become a public holiday until 1856. In Scotland, celebrating Christmas continued to be frowned upon and it wasn’t until 1958 that 25 December became a Scottish public holiday.

2. Santa Claus cited for fake ID (State v Hayes)

In 2001, an Ohio man was involved in a minor collision. Following the incident, he displayed his Ohio Identification Card to a police officer who saw that it was in the name of Santa Claus. The man was charged under an Ohio statute prohibiting the use of “fictitious” names.

At court, he produced eight documents in support of his argument which included a certificate of birth for one Santa Claus born at the North Pole on 25 December, 383 AD, and copies of Ohio identification cards which indicated residence at 1 Noel Drive, North Pole USA.

Ultimately, the case centered around the question of whether, by displaying this identification card under these circumstances, the card was “fictitious”. In the end, the court found that the state hadn’t successfully proved that “Santa” knowingly displayed a fictitious identification card. Further, it was found that his relationship with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles was ongoing for 20 years and was not “indicative of ‘artificiality or contrivance’ for, in fact, under the publicly held records of the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Santa has been a “real person” since as early as 1982.”

As such, the court granted Santa’s motion and the case was dismissed.

3. The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is perhaps best known as a feature at Walt Disney World until it was discontinued after a final performance in January 2016. It began life in the 1980s as a display at a family home in Little Rock, Arkansas which became so ornate and detailed, it drew news crews and thousands of visitors.

In 1993, several neighbors sued the Osbornes on the grounds that the display was a public nuisance. The family responded by making it even more elaborate. Details of the display reportedly included a whopping 3.2 million lights; a giant globe and an electric church steeple complete with choirboys. When a local judge ordered the family to limit the display to 15 days between the hours of 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., the Osbornes appealed the decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court. In the end, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that the display be shut down entirely. It debuted later that year at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida.

4. Pudding with a side of legal waiver

In 2009, a story emerged that more than 350 diners at a London restaurant had been asked to sign a legal indemnity form before they were served its Christmas pudding. 

The restaurant was situated in the City of London, London’s primary financial district. As such, many of its regular customers were lawyers who reportedly advised the owner to produce the indemnity form on account of the silver lucky charms which were embedded in the puddings.

5. Lynch v Donnelly 1984

The city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, annually erects a display during the holiday season. Back in 1984, the display included such objects as a Santa Claus house, a Christmas tree, a banner reading “Seasons Greetings,” and a crèche or nativity scene.

The crèche had been included in the display for over 40 years. A group including residents of the city and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union brought an action in the Federal District Court challenging the inclusion of the crèche on the basis that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The District Court upheld the challenge.

Ultimately, on a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court ruled that the city had a secular purpose for including the crèche. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor filed a separate concurrence advocating an endorsement test. She concluded that the crèche did not communicate endorsement. Over the years, the court has used O’Connor’s endorsement analysis in other cases.

6. The Candy Cane case (Morgan v Swanson)

In December 2003, a Texas man, Mr Morgan, attended a class winter party with his eight-year-old son. There was a traditional student gift exchange, during which his son intended to distribute candy canes bearing a religious message. The principal informed Mr Morgan that religious material was not permitted in the classroom, but he noticed that other students were allowed to exchange gifts while his son was excluded.

In 2004, the Morgans, along with other parents at the school in Plano, filed a complaint on claims their son’s rights to free speech had been restricted.

At the time, some court watchers described the case as “one of the most important First Amendment cases of the past decade”.

The court, sitting en banc, agreed with the plaintiffs that the Morgans’ son’s rights were violated. But it granted principal Swanson qualified immunity, finding relevant law too “abstruse” and “complicated” for her to know how to handle this situation.

Mr. Morgan then sued on his own behalf on the grounds that his rights had been violated by Swanson’s “viewpoint discrimination.” The result was the same. In 2014, the case was again considered by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, following which immunity was affirmed.

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