5 hoaxes not to fall for this Christmas

The season of goodwill may be upon us but that hasn’t stopped the hoaxers from peddling their pranks, lies and festive fakery across social media.

Here are five hoaxes to watch out for this Christmas.

1. Something wrong with Brighton’s lights

“What has Brighton Council done to annoy the person that put up their lights?”

That was the title card to a 2012 video which went massively viral because of its rude depiction of traditional Christmas lights.

From a distance the scenes look perfectly normal: adorning trees and buildings with neon and shine, giving the main shopping street a sparkling canopy of Christmas cheer.

But as the video continues and the cameraman moves through the scene, the lights appear to show something very different when viewed from a precise angle.

“I hate my job” spell the lights in one tree. “Buy more shit” reads another. An angel appears to be getting very hands-on with a neon Santa over Brighton’s Churchill Square and elsewhere the un-Christmassy image of a male appendage seems to loom over the road.

But the video was originally published by satirical website The Poke and Brighton council were quick to confirm it was a hoax, taking the prank with seasonal good spirit.

“It’s a funny thing,” said Gavin Stewart, who managed the team which installed the lights at the time. “We’re taking it as tongue in cheek.”

2. Making Christmas great again?

As the Trump family unveiled the White House Christmas decorations in late November, a familiar story began circulating through the angry, pro-Trump social media sphere.

Not only was The Donald making America great again but he was bringing Christmas back to the White House, alleged the claim, after the Obamas had “banned” the nativity scene from festive displays of previous years.

In reality, the exact same nativity scene has sat in the East Room of the White House every Christmas for more than 25 years and was snapped by visitors and officials throughout Obama’s presidency.

The rumour appears to have originated from a 2009 profile of President Obama’s social secretary in the New York Times.

Desiree Rogers, responsible for planning and carrying out social events at the White House for the Obamas, said there had been internal discussions about whether to display the scene but the creche was placed in the same spot as usual.

3. Candles and baubles

Seemingly inspired by earlier successes in tweaking pictures of Christmas lights with viral virility, one enterprising prankster decided to focus on Dover for this 2014 hoax.

In mid-November, an image started to circulate widely on Twitter featuring an original arrangement of candles and baubles to create something rather rude.

It has since “appeared” in locations as diverse as Bromley and the Bronx, but is regularly debunked by local officials when people claim the lights have popped up in their neighbourhood.

As hilarious as it may seem, local councils have not decked the halls with cocks and balls.

4. Far-right propaganda

Just weeks before Donald Trump retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda by the deputy leader of a UK hate group, the same group was sharing a video with the title “Muslims destroy a Christmas tree in Sweden!”

It received hundreds of shares and views across social media but, as with many Islamophobic claims, the truth of the video is very different.

In the footage, men and boys are seen clambering up a large Christmas tree in a shopping centre, pulling lights and baubles down as they go. Bystanders are chatting and wearing Christmas hats while the climbers laugh and pass ornaments down to out-stretched hands in the crowd.

The earliest example of the video on YouTube, dated January 2016, puts the location of the tree in Egypt, at Cairo’s Mall of Arabia.

A quick scour of the mall’s social media shows regular festive celebrations and detective work by hoax-busting website Snopes found another picture of the tree posted on Facebook by an Egyptian news organisation over Christmas 2015, just two weeks before the video.

Picture of the day: Egyptians prepare to celebrate #ChristmasA Christmas tree is displayed to celebrate the upcoming…

Posted by Ahram Online on Sunday, December 20, 2015

Cross referencing both the video and the picture with an online map of Mall of Arabia, using the shops in the background, puts the tree firmly in Cairo, Egypt, not Sweden.

But what were people doing up the tree in the first place?

Many of the comments on YouTube condemn the tree-climbing as “barbaric” in Arabic, but others point out the joy of many of the climbers.

One explanation, offer some commenters, is the old tradition of “tree plundering”, in which gifts and sweets are placed in the tree for children to pull down once Christmas is over.

This celebration has its roots in 17th century Sweden, which may explain how the location was initially misplaced before being co-opted by the far right.

In addition, Sweden and Egypt have a “unique relationship”, according to the Egyptian foreign ministry. As the first Arab and African country to establish an embassy in Sweden, Egypt was among the top holiday destinations for Swedes for decades until the Arab Spring.

So while the reason for people climbing the tree and pulling off ornaments is unclear, the location of the tree itself is crystal: The Mall of Arabia, Cairo. Not Sweden.

5. Coca-Cola Claus

The claim that Coca-Cola invented the traditional image of Father Christmas – complete with red suit, white beard and a belly-rubbing laugh – is a mainstay of modern Christmas time, appearing as soon as the soft drink adverts hit television screens.

The drinks company first started using Santa in its adverts in the 1930s, and the company even tries to claim it “did help to create” the modern depiction on its website, but the jolly fat man dressed in red and white had already been a popular figure for decades.

Christmas cards and posters from the early 19th century show St Nick visiting children and peering in windows in exactly the same garb, leading many to believe the Coca-Cola marketers pinned their advertising on an existing image which matched the same corporate colour scheme.

And, in fact, red and white were the colours of bishop’s robes which the original St Nicholas would have worn and how Holland’s Sinterklaas – imported to the English-speaking world as Santa Claus – still appears.

So, much like Santa himself, this rumour is of unknown origin and – sorry, kids – simply not true.

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