12 Times the Holidays and the Law Didn’t Mix as Well as Eggnog

shutterstock_231170743The holiday season is upon us. It’s the time for good cheer, decking the halls with boughs of holly, snagging the perfect gifts, and racking up enough billable hours to make that sweet year-end bonus—or at least not to get fired.

Why not add a dash of legal trivia to your holiday celebrations?

Featured image: “Happy business group people in santa hat at Xmas party.” from Shutterstock.

Drunk Santa

12. The Impish Santas

Known as Santarchy, Santa Rampages, SantaCons, the Red Menace, or Santapalooza, strings of Santas flood the streets taking their jolly good time to the next level, often creating mayhem. In the midst of the legal dry season suffered by many law firms over the holidays, Santarchy shenanigans present a hodgepodge of legal problems.

In 2009, a Chicago woman sued one Santa for negligence and battery, alleging that an apparently intoxicated Father Christmas had stumbled into her, knocked her down and fell on top of her, driving her face-first into the pavement.

One incident of Santarchy took place in New Zealand, where as many as 40 Santas ran wild through downtown Aucklan. According to police, the Santarchy began early that afternoon when the Santas threw beer bottles and urinated on cars from an overpass before running through a city park, throwing more bottles, turning over trash cans, and tagging buildings with graffiti.

In 1995, around 50 drunken Santas took on San Francisco purloining holiday decorations, mooning tourists from cable cars, invading parades, and hanging one unfortunate Santas from a stoplight post.

Police in Ohio even had to call for backup when a gang of Santas invaded the Dayton Mall “and apparently scared a lot of people there,” according to a spokesman. Police and mall security in Ohio arrested two unfortunate female Santas and then cleared out the rest of a “large number of people dressed as Santa” who were having a too much of a jolly good time. Despite protestations that Santas who consumed more than milk and cookies before the visit “paced themselves,” some less fortunate Santas were charged with criminal trespassing, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct with public intoxication.


11. Fa-La-La Lawsuits

Despite their cheery and light-hearted nature, holiday songs are a serious—and sometimes cutthroat—franchise that often results in the involvement of the legal industry.

Seventy years after originally dropping the tune, two famous songwriters who penned the famous Christmas classic Let it Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! are still at each other’s throats from beyond the grave. Their estates are squabbling over the untold millions the song has accrued in royalties over the years, and neither party is getting paid until they can learn to work together and get along.

I’m sure there’s a Christmas lesson of love and kindness in here somewhere; however, I wouldn’t hold my breath for either party to find it.

The classic holiday tune I’ll Be Home for Christmas was also spawned from copyright controversy. After the song was written by 16-year-old Buck Ram as a poem for his mother, he set it to a tune for Mills Music, but the production company decided to hold it back a year because they were issuing White Christmas. This plan was thwarted when Ram discussed the song with two acquaintances in a bar one night, leaving a copy with them. Mills Music sued when the two acquaintances, lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent, published a version of the song. While Buck Ram went on to be one of Broadcast Music, Inc.’s top five songwriters in its first 50 years, Kent and Gannon never had another hit song.

Sue Me Maybe

A Russian singer named Aza sued Carly Rae Jepsen, claims that Jepsen’s hit Call Me Maybe is a “carbon copy” of her song Hunky Santa. In her lawsuit, Aza alleged that producers “simply tweaked before adding Carly Rae Jepsen’s voice.”  The lawsuit appears to have been largely baseless, with an obvious lack of similarity of Hunky Santa and Jepsen’s hit, despite a difficulty to tell which is more annoying.

In 2009, an Australian crooner sued Sony Music over country music band Alabama’s holiday hit Christmas in Dixie for royalties dating back to the song’s debut in 1982. Allan Caswell claimed that a tune he penned called On the Inside, which was a smash Down Under, used the same melody as his 1979 Australian hit song On the Inside. He did not allege the melody was stolen from him. Last year, an Australian court found that the claim was baseless since the melodies in both songs used common harmonic patterns found in songs around the musical world.

“The Year Santa Claus is Coming to Town Came to the Wrong Town”

Apparently this Santa Claus is Coming to Town copyright suit recently came to the wrong town. In 2012, a federal District Judge Kenneth Marra in West Palm Beach, Florida rejected a lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction in which the heirs to the Santa Claus is Coming to Town copyright was filed in the incorrect jurisdiction. Perhaps the North Pole would be a better jurisdiction to try?

Maliciously Merry Melodies

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been sued six times over his cruel and unusual Christmas carol torture method. Aghast at having to listen to 12 hours of culturally diverse holiday music every day, inmates sued Sheriff Joe Arpaio for up to $250,000 in damages. In every case brought, the federal courts have found that this musical onslaught was not a violation of anyone’s rights nor does it constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

After the resolution of the sixth suit, the sheriff released a red and green press release noting that song selections included a diverse selection from all religions and ethnicities and stated that “Inmates should stop acting like the Grinch who stole Christmas and give up wasting the court’s time with such frivolous assertions.”

Featured image: “notes and Christmas decorations” from Shutterstock.


10. Lawyers Suing

For some, the holiday season can be a pleasant time with family and friends. For others, it affords them the free time to test the legal boundaries of holly jolly behavior. So sit back, relax, roast your chestnuts over an open fire, and have yourself a merry little Christmas lawsuit.

A Very, Merry Undead Holiday

One Ohio man was given notice to remove a display that featured zombie characters in place of more traditional, fleshy Biblical figures due to zoning requirements. Last year, the display stayed standing through the remainder of the holiday without accruing fines. This year, however, the owner stands to face a $500 fine that accrues every day the display remains set up because the nativity scene allegedly violates a zoning code.

The Plastic Reindeer Rule

The Supreme Court has considered whether the First Amendment prohibited a town from including a creche or nativity scene in its annual holiday display in a park.  The crèche was by no means the only piece included. The display included “a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, cutout figures representing such characters as a clown, an elephant, and a teddy bear, hundreds of colored lights, a large banner that read “SEASONS GREETINGS” and just about every other type of holiday cheer other than partridges in pear trees.

Because the display included the many, many other secular symbols, it was allowed to stay. Future amalgamations of a Menorah and crèche combined with Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus, and even attempts to have Christmas decertified as a federal holiday have prompted the American Bar Association to look into several other local holiday display tests.

Canadapanda / Shutterstock.com


9. No Getting Drunk on Christmas

Some of the numbers may not Blue laws in some areas date to the early 1600s, getting their name from the use of “blue” as a derogatory term for rigid moral codes and “blue noses” for the people who adhered to them (I wonder what that says about Rudolph?).

By 1961, forty-two items ranging from nails and china to air conditioners and knives were prohibited from being sold, a ban that was expanded to encompass most larger stores in some states.

Some state laws require large retailers to shut their doors on Christmas altogether, including Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island.

Most retail stores may not open on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day, and Massachusetts law specifies the limited categories of establishments that may open on those holidays. These include, for example, convenience stores, gas stations, and florists.

Keeping Your Spirits Bright

In Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts,  Oklahoma, and Texas, sale of alcoholic beverages on Christmas Day remained entirely prohibited, even in private facilities.

There are no off-premises alcohol sales on Christmas day in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia.

Other state laws are patchy at best. In New Mexico, restaurants and casinos with the appropriate permits are allowed to sell alcohol along with food on Christmas Day. Although Christmas Day alcohol sales are prohibited in smaller Georgia cities, cities with more than 400,000 residents may allow alcohol sales after 12:30 PM on Christmas.

Indiana recently became the most recent state to shed the ban of alcohol sales on Christmas. South Carolina, on the other hand, became the latest adopt one. In exchange for permitting liquor sales on Election Day, South Carolina law now prohibits liquor stores from opening on Christmas. The law against liquoring up on Election Day was set in place in the 1880s to avoid voter fraud because polling locations were sometimes in saloons, and politicians used that to their advantage by buying shots for voters.

Eat, drink, and be merry.

Worldwide Shoppers

Holiday shopping restrictions are not limited to the United States. The Christmas Day Trading Act 2004 prohibits shops over a certain size from opening on Christmas Day in England and Wales. A Scottish equivalent of this law has also applied to shops in Scotland since 2007.


8. Annoying Lights a’Flashing

One of the best parts about the holiday season is seeing the dazzling lights and over-the-top decorations.

Just because all is bright does not always mean all is calm. This is especially the case with defective or even unwanted holiday lights. Holiday lights are subject to enough lawsuits that one law firm even has a practice area specializing in defective Christmas lights.

While a lot of people decorate their homes, one man in Little Rock, Arkansas took his holiday spirit to the next level by decking his six-acre property with 3.5 million lights for about 35 days from sunset to midnight each day. This continued for several years, growing bigger each year.

People from all over Arkansas journeyed far and wide to witness the spectacle. This man’s neighbors had somewhat different feelings about the watts of Christmas cheer constantly beaming through their windows, leading them to file a lawsuit citing the traffic congestion brought potential danger if emergency vehicles could not get down the street. Allegedly, the traffic the decorations had attracted made trips to the store around the block take two hours. “We were essentially prisoners in our homes,” said one neighbor.

After another three million light were added, the county court ordered Osborne to limit the display to 15 days and to only light it from 7 pm to 10:30 pm. Osborne lost on appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. The display was shut down in 1995.

Worry not, there was still light at the end of the tunnel. Having garnered national attention, the light display was purchased by Walt Disney World for display at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park ever since.


7. This is Not Leslie Knope’s Parks ‘n’ Rec Holiday Party

If you’re going to expose yourself to the liabilities of a holiday party, you might as well go all out.

After a New York Parks Department supervisor was suspended for his part in throwing holiday parties that featured stripper poles, he sued for back pay that he felt he should have gotten during the suspension. This particular parks department is apparently not as wholesome as you might imagine from watching Parks ‘n’ Rec.

With raunchy holiday parties going back as far as 2009, sources say female workers were stripping down to their bras and panties and getting tips for pole tricks.  The crew had fashioned a temporary stripper’s pole out of a large wire spool and pieces of wood that had been left behind in the telecommunications room. A short ladder was set up to allow access to the pole platform, which female employees were encouraged to climb up.

Although initially maintaining he knew nothing about the wild holiday hosted in a so-called “Boom Boom Room” in the facility, but the now-former supervisor of the Parks Department later admitted to the city Department of Investigations that he had been made aware of the holiday party shenanigans.

The Department of Investigations report called the tomfoolery at the Parks Department’s most recent holiday shindig “grossly inappropriate.” When asked  about which supervisors attended the unconventional holiday get-together, many attendees could not remember due to “the large amount of alcohol they had consumed.”

In addition to investigating an influx of sexual harassment complaints, the Department of Investigations was also left to handle the former supervisor’s lawsuit seeking back pay, including both managerial income and perks, for the almost five months he was suspended without pay. Upon returning to work, he had been demoted to his permanent civil service title of administrative parks and recreation manager.

These holiday shenanigans are by no means limited to parks and recreation departments – lawyers apparently know how to get in the holiday spirit, too. An independent survey of U.K. professionals commissioned by lingerie retailer Ann Summers earlier this month found that 74% of lawyers end up pushing workplace boundaries and doing something they regret at their firm’s holiday party. Lawyers came in second on to people working in the IT industry.


6. Christmas Patents Pending

Christmas is the most wonderful time of year to deck the halls with the latest holly jolly patented inventions.

Tech for Trapping Santa

For example, this complex Christmas holiday access, indicator, and mementos key method and apparatus explains how Santa Claus gets into the house to deliver the presents.

This Santa detector, however, does a little more. Under the guise of a mere holiday stocking containing internal light-sensitive triggers, I can only assume this is a holly jolly hidden bear trap. What better way to equip yourself for a night of Santa-hunting than this snowball gun? The 1952 patented device forms and fires off pellets of snow.

Trees, Glorious Trees

Traditionally decked out conifers are so last season. This patent for a cactus Christmas tree filed in 2002. Apparently cacti are all the rage, as a similar cactus tree was also patented again in 2006.

According to IP Watchdog, this 1911 assemblage of hooks and wires is the earliest patented artificial Christmas tree. The design was improved upon again and again until artificial trees finally began to resemble more of something you would see today.

Then there’s this Artificial Christmas Tree and Antler Apparatus, which claims that “The antlers strength keeps the branches from drooping under the weight of the decorations, which leaves the Christmas tree aesthetically pleasing to the eye and particularly attractive for animal hunters and enthusiasts.”

Even better, why stick to trees when you could have this snowman Christmas tree? It was patented in 2003.

Tacky Holiday Fun

If you are stuck with a more traditional tree, one way to add some additional holiday spice may be with this “action ornament.” Operating as a miniature ski slope and ski lift, the action ornament was patented in 1994.

Another weird throwback to my 90s childhood is this festive—and somewhat creepy—reindeer door knob cover that can easily give any room a holiday homemaker, not to mention big, staring, lifeless felt reindeer eyes following you around each and every corner.

If that’s not enough, there’s also this “structural improvement of toy Christmas tree” which entails a “driving rod to activate a toy eyebrow part that is located at the upper part of the foundation unit, thereby, once the power of the invention is switched on, the control circuit board will play happy music and flash LED light (the lamps being installed in the eyeball part), while the motor will drive the eyebrows and mouth of the Christmas tree to flip up and down and open and close, to create a fun image.” The terms “fun” and “improvement” seem to be subjective.

I do not understand this holiday hat, which is really a hat on a hat, but it has been bringing patented holiday cheer since 2006. Others oddities include this “Santa in a barrel blowing bubbles,” a “fragrance emitting snowglobe,” and even a “new and improved Christmas cracker.”


5. Another IP Christmas Story

The actor who played bully Scut Farkus in the film A Christmas Story sued to collect his share of royalties from sales of action figures based on the 1983 Christmas classic. He amended his complaint in August 2012 to include a claim of fraudulent concealment of evidence when he learned a 2009 calendar also included his image, but later dropped the suit.

Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol has also been subject to a copyright dispute. Not even three weeks after it was published on December 19, 1843, Lee & Haddock’s version was “re-originated” by Henry Hewitt, appearing for sale under the title A Christmas Ghost Story. Dickens hired a legal practitioner to seek an injunction and “stop the Vagabonds” at once. Upon receiving the injunction, Dickens is said to have declared “The pirates are beaten flat. They are bruised, bloody, battered, smashed, squelched, and utterly undone.”


4. Merry Messes

A Christmas tree fire in 2009 in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania caused $3.4 million in damages to the Founder’s Hall rotunda of a private boarding school. Travelers and the boarding school filed a suit against an interior landscape company alleging shoddy workmanship that resulted in 5,000 lights installed and connected to an overloaded three-outlet electrical adapter which caused the velvet skirt,  packages underneath the tree, and the 25-foot-tall artificial evergreen to burst into flames. Thankfully, no one was injured.

The Interior design company rebutted that the overloaded adapter was supplied by school officials and that other defendants should include the Taiwanese light manufacturer, the companies that service the building’s fire alarm, sprinkler, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems and Home Depot, who sold the lights.

Featured image: “Guy in a mess with wires from Christmas decoration” from Shutterstock.


3. Grinches Grinching

Fast food restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken sued the Tan Hill Pub after catching wind that the small bar on a hill in England offered a Christmas Day meal dubbed the Family Feast. After initially claiming that the crispy chicken conglomerate owned the words “Family Feast,” KFC decided against being an even bigger grinch and called off the lawsuit.

The Grinch Who Couldn’t Avoid Taxes

It is common for businesses to offer promotions during the holiday season to increase sales. One North Carolina jewelry store owner took this concept to an extreme. He wagered that if three or more inches of snow fell on Christmas Day in Asheville, North Carolina that any purchases on the holiday would be free. On this particular year, it just happened to snow six. 311 customers were reimbursed, but one grinchy customer was not content with his payout of $7,052 for jewelry that, after $564 in taxes, cost $7,616. The $564 difference was because of sales tax, which wasn’t refunded by the jewelry store.

Perry said the sales tax refund exclusion was in the promotion’s rules. Although the jewelry store’s employees did not get a chance to read the rules to every customer, the rules were prominently displayed on a counter in the store and the case was dismissed.


2. Suing Santa

Even the most well-behaved of Santas may be leaving himself open to lawsuits.

A group of law students at Suffolk University Law School even assemble a handy-dandy holiday guide on how to sue Santa Claus. Santa may be exposing himself to a whole heap of liability from intentional infliction of emotional distress for placing coal in naughty child’s stockings to trespassing and cookie theft, use of undomesticated animals, potential elf labor law violations, speeding, airspace violations, and red-nosed employment discrimination.

Featured image: “Santa, overworked from taking wish list orders, is smoking a cigarette” from Shutterstock.


1. A Little Bit of Christmas Legal History

The original war on Christmas was waged during the sixteenth and seventeenth century by Puritans and Protestant Christians who believed that people needed strict rules to be religious and that merrymaking was not only sinful, but should be punished by the long arm of the law.  The English parliament passed a law made Christmas illegal in 1647. Christmas trees and decorations were considered to be unholy pagan rituals, and the laws even banned traditional Christmas foods such as mince pies and pudding. In contrast to modern day Blue Laws, Puritan laws required that stores and businesses remain open all day and that town criers walked through the streets calling out “No Christmas, no Christmas!” The ban on Christmas festivities was finally lifted only when Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell lost power in 1660.

From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston as well, where law-breakers were fined five shillings.

The first United States law designating Christmas Day as a day off was adopted in the state of Alabama in 1836. This law was hardly the first mentioning Christmas, however, and some of the earlier laws even made it a day off for select groups. For example, a 1740 Virginia law made the holiday a day off for tobacco inspectors.

It wasn’t until 1870 that Congress passed a law providing that New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Christmas Day, and “any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fasting or thanksgiving shall be holidays within the District of Columbia.”

Featured image: “christmas woman doing a stop gesture, outdoor” from Shutterstock.


Bonus: Even More Ways to Make The Naughty List

Although mall Santas are commonplace in many areas, this is not the case in the city of Devender in the Netherlands. Whether stemming from the confusion of seeing more than one Sinterklaas, legislative grinchyness, or drivers simply getting too excited at seeing the jolly old elf, Deventer has an ordinance which prohibits anyone from being wholly or partially dressed as Santa Claus while one is on a road or visible from the road. A permit is required to don the red suit and hat.

In Maine, it was illegal for Christmas decorations to still be up after January 14th until the law was changed in 2013. Procrastinators and holiday light aficionados can now breathe easy.

Here’s one more from Supreme Court Justice & Tweeter Laureate of Texas Justice Willet.


Featured image: “Father Christmas or Santa checking his list on a computer to select if a boy or girl is either Naughty or Nice.” from Shutterstock.

Originally published 2015-12-23. Republished 2016-12-23.

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