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Historical events that took place on Christmas Day

Reliquiary of Charlemagne in Aachen cathedral
Reliquiary of Charlemagne in Aachen cathedral treasure taken by Beckstet | Wikipedia | CC BY-SA 3.0

Whilst the 25th of December is synonymous with the birth of Jesus Christ, festive gatherings, turkey consumption, present giving and all-round merriment, the date also marks some major historical moments, many of which are anything but joyful.

We take a look at some of the most significant events to have taken place on Christmas Day…

800 AD: Charlemagne crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’

Charlemagne is often referred to as the 'Father of Europe' since during his lifetime he managed to unite most of Western Europe under the Carolingian Empire - considered to be the first phase in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, an Empire that would last for a thousand years.

On Christmas Day 800 AD, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne the ‘Emperor of the Romans’, reviving the title some 300 hundred years after the fall of the ancient Western Roman Empire.

His thirteen-year reign ushered in a period of Christian expansion and cultural revival across Europe.

1066 AD: William the Conqueror crowned King of England

On 14 October 1066, Duke William of Normandy (better known as William the Conqueror) defeated the army of King Harold II of England at the Battle of Hastings, arguably the most famous and era-defining battle in English history.

After the battle, William advanced on London picking off any final resistance and completing his conquest of the English mainland. On the 25th December 1066 in Westminster Abbey, William was crowned King of England becoming the country’s first Norman king, ending a period of over 600 years of Anglo-Saxon rule. The Norman era brought about huge cultural, social and political changes that would have a massive impact on English as well as European history.

1642: Isaac Newton was born

We’ve all heard the legend of the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, prompting the scientist to come up with his law of universal gravitation. Whilst historians debate whether or not the apple actually landed on his head, what is not debated is the impact Newton has had on science as he’s often heralded as one of the most influential scientists of all time.

Born on Christmas Day 1642, the brilliant Englishman came into this world like a festive gift to all mankind. Not only would he go on to characterise what gravity was, but he would also define the laws of motion and become a pioneer in many other fields, including maths, astrology and philosophy. His contribution to humanity via our understanding of the world around us cannot be understated.

1776: George Washington crossed the Delaware River

By the time Christmas approached in 1776, the American Revolutionary War looked all but over for the American colonies. A series of defeats by the British had not only crushed moral in the Continental Army but also depleted numbers via desertions.

In desperate need of a victory, General George Washington, the future first president of the United States, led his 2,400 strong army in a dangerous and bold operation across the icy Delaware River during the night of the 25th of December, 1776. On the other side of the river was a Hessian garrison (German mercenaries under British command) enjoying festive celebrations and oblivious to the army slinking towards their position.

Washington and his men defeated the enemy easily and without much bloodshed, capturing provisions and prisoners, which they swiftly took back with them across the river. The daring raid had paid off; the colonial forces had been given a well-needed morale boost that quickly resulted in further victories on the field of battle. The tide of war had been turned and American history was changed forever.

1914: Christmas Day truce in the trenches

It is one of the most famous examples of kindness, humanity and peace, a shining beacon of hope during a time of bitter bloodshed and war.

The First World War was a bloody and miserable affair; modern weaponry combined with shambolic leadership created a grim scenario where only death seemed to thrive. Amongst all the mud, bullets, shells and blood came a moment on Christmas Day 1944 that gave many a hope that humanity could still exist even on the killing fields.

British, French and German troops spontaneously decided to put down their arms and met in No Man’s Land to exchange gifts, sing songs and perhaps (historians still debate this one) kick around a football together. Although the unofficial ‘Christmas Truce’ would last but a few hours, its message of hope during the darkest of times still echoes to this day.

1977: Charlie Chaplin died

Christmas Day has witnessed the passing of numerous people who’ve had a profound impact on this world, one of those being Charlie Chaplin. With a career spanning more than 75 years, the comedic British actor is regarded by many as one of the most significant figures in the history of the film industry.

Chaplin found fame during the era of the silent film, his 1915 film ‘The Tramp’ gained him worldwide recognition. A master of physical comedy, Chaplin was ever the perfectionist, often writing, directing, producing, composing, editing and acting in most of his movies. Many of his films are regarded as some of the greatest of all time including ‘City Lights’ (1931) and “The Great Dictator’ (1940).

On the 25th December 1977, Chaplin passed away in his sleep at the age of 88; the world had lost one of film’s first global superstars.

1991: The resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev marked the fall of the Soviet Union

Formed in 1922, the Soviet Union played a monumental role in global politics during the majority of the 20th century. On numerous occasions the world held its collective breath as America and the USSR flirted dangerously with the prospect of nuclear annihilation.

In the end, the USSR would crumble and on Christmas Day 1991 the last president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned from his post. The very next day, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. As one era ended, another began for Russia, this time under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin.