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Reliquiary of Charlemagne in Aachen cathedral

Historical events that took place on Christmas Day

Image Credit: Wikipedia | CC BY-SA 3.0 Beckstet | Background: | Above: Reliquiary of Charlemagne in Aachen cathedral treasure taken by Beckstet

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.

1831: The Great Jamaican Slave Revolt

A bloody turning point in the history of slavery which directly helped to bring about its abolition, the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt – also known as the Baptist War and the Christmas Rebellion – began in a deceptively quiet fashion. Enslaved workers, led by Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe (who was himself a slave), went on a peaceful general strike across colonial sugar cane estates in Jamaica, demanding a working wage and more downtime.

The strike soon escalated to a violent uprising involving more than 60,000 slaves, who set fields and buildings on fire. The colonial overlords retaliated against the rebels with the unlikely help of Jamaican Maroons, the descendants of freed slaves who had signed treaties with the British.

Hundreds of slaves were killed during the brutal crackdown, and more would be executed in the aftermath. One of the people hanged was Samuel Sharpe, who famously said, ‘I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live my life in slavery.’

While the revolt itself was short-lived, its effects were deeply felt across the Atlantic Ocean in Britain. Parliamentary inquiries into the massive loss of life and property helped spur the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Enshrined in the former colony’s lore for his heroic bravery, Samuel Sharpe was made an official National Hero of Jamaica in 1975.

1899: The birth of Humphrey Bogart

Christmas Day 1899 saw the birth of the person ranked by the prestigious American Film Institute as the greatest-ever male star of the big screen: Humphrey Bogart. In a peculiar twist, the fact he was born on the festive day became a contentious issue during the early part of his Hollywood career.

That’s because he was originally known for playing hoodlums, thugs and other villains, and his studio – Warners Bros – was concerned that if audiences knew he had a Christmas Day birthday it somehow softened his bad guy image. So, the studio simply made up a new birthday, 23rd January, which was reproduced in articles and biographies for a long time after.

Bogart eventually escaped his villainous typecasting, establishing himself as one of the most beloved heroes of the silver screen – cynical, world-weary but with a heart of gold – in classics like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Casablanca, and The African Queen.

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.

1950: The taking of the Stone of Destiny

It may be a simple, unadorned slab of sandstone, but the ancient Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, has been an integral part of coronation ceremonies since the days of the early Scottish kings. During the English invasion of Scotland in the 13th century, Edward I took the Stone of Destiny to London – a fact that rankled with four Scottish students who decided to steal it back in 1950.

The students – Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matherson and Alan Stuart – carried out their daring heist in the early hours of Christmas Day. Following an 18-hour drive down from Scotland, they broke into Westminster Abbey and removed the Stone of Destiny from under the coronation chair, at which point it fell and broke in two.

Undaunted, Ian took the smaller chunk to one vehicle, where he and Kay had to pretend they were a courting couple to allay the suspicions of a passing policeman. The second chunk was also taken by the group, who got a Scottish stone mason to put them back together. Some months later, satisfied with the publicity they’d generated for the cause of Scottish nationalism, the group left the relic in an abbey for the authorities to find.

The Stone of Destiny was returned to Westminster Abbey (and would be formally handed back to Scotland in 1996). As for the robbers, they managed to avoid prosecution and were widely feted as heroes in Scotland, with Gavin Vernon later saying he ‘never had to buy a beer again’ at his university bar.

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.

1989: The execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu

When Nicolae Ceaușescu became the leader of Communist Romania in 1965, it seemed to signal a more liberal era for the nation. He relaxed restrictions on the press and even endeared himself to the West by challenging the policies of the Soviet Union. But this period was short-lived and Ceaușescu became one of the most brutal and notorious dictators of the Eastern Bloc.

Following in the footsteps of Stalin and Chairman Mao by establishing a cult of personality, he used his terrifying secret police organisation, the Securitate, to crush dissent. He also implemented extreme policies aimed at boosting the population, making abortion largely illegal, removing contraceptives from sale and giving financial incentives for people to have as many children as possible.

The ensuing massive baby boom led to over-burdened schools and a grim network of underfunded orphanages which were largely used to house kids whose parents couldn’t afford to keep them.

Food shortages, plummeting living standards and general hatred for the dictator led to his toppling in December 1989. On Christmas Day, he and his wife Elena were tried before a rapidly convened court and shot by a firing squad that very day. Broadcast on Romanian television, the execution ranks among the most dramatic moments of the Cold War.

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.