Why you should care
Because the birth of Jesus is just one anniversary that falls on December 25.
Most Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth on December 25. Of course, it is rather unlikely that Jesus was actually born on Christmas Day. There are, however, plenty of important events from history that we do know occurred on December 25. From eggnog riots to executions, here are a few of the more interesting and significant ones:
Washington Crosses the Delaware (1776)
You’ve likely encountered Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 oil painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, but were you aware that the legendary crossing during the American Revolution took place on Christmas night? History has had its fair share of warriors who were willing to put down their weapons in deference to the holy day (see below), but Gen. George Washington was not among them. Hoping to surprise a force of Hessian mercenaries near Trenton, New Jersey, Washington and roughly 2,400 soldiers crossed the freezing river just before midnight. In the Battle of Trenton the next morning, Washington’s men scored a stunning victory against the Hessians, many of whom were still recovering from the holiday festivities. Patriots 1, Holiday Hangovers 0.
I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence. It was a short peace in a terrible war.
British World War I veteran, quoted in The Observer
The Eggnog Riot of 1826
Speaking of soldiers and hangovers: Many cadets at West Point Academy stumbled from their barracks on Christmas morning in 1826 to find broken windows, smashed furniture and chaos. It was the result of a massive on-campus riot fueled by the cadets’ consumption of a home-brewed holiday eggnog spiked with about 4 gallons of whiskey that future Southern leader Jefferson Davis and several others had smuggled into the alcohol-free academy. Nineteen cadets, not including Davis (who passed out early in the riot), were eventually expelled.
Andrew Johnson’s Christmas Amnesty (1868)
The men surrounding Jefferson Davis, however, would be treated more leniently over half a century later. In the wake of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, debates raged about whether former Confederates should be granted amnesty for conduct during the war and allowed to become U.S. citizens again. Many Radical Republicans in Congress argued that wartime loyalty should be the test for restoration of citizenship because it better “preserved the Union’s moral victory.” President Andrew Johnson, however, took a different tack, and on Christmas Day, 1868, he issued a proclamation that restored “all rights, privileges and immunities under the Constitution” to almost all former rebels (but not leaders like Davis). Johnson’s Christmas gift would be significant. “President Johnson’s amnesty of ex-Confederates generated intense controversy,” says Drake Law School professor Anthony Gaughan, “because many of those pardoned later became key figures in suppressing the civil rights of African-Americans in the South during the late 19th century.”
The Christmas Truce of 1914
Another half-century later, thousands of soldiers decided to grant themselves a form of temporary Christmas amnesty. Five months after the outbreak of World War I, a martial miracle occurred on the Western Front when on Christmas morning, 1914, British, Belgian and French soldiers emerged from their trenches to peacefully engage with their German adversaries. They exchanged cigarettes and gifts, sang carols and kicked around makeshift soccer balls. Historians are still unsure how the Christmas Truce of 1914 started or spread, but it is believed that around 100,000 troops participated. It was a rare moment of peace — and quiet — in an ugly war that would last years and claim 15 million lives. “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence,” one British veteran later recalled to The Observer. “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
Nicolae Ceausescu Executed (1989)
The long, terrible reign of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was silenced in one quick volley on Christmas Day, 1989. After 34 years in power, Ceaușescu and his wife were arrested in the wake of a bloody rebellion. On Christmas morning, the two were tried for genocide before a tribunal in a cramped room in a cavalry barracks. After two hours of testimony, they were convicted and summarily executed by firing squad in the adjoining courtyard. A video of the event was supposed to have been recorded, but the soldier-executioners began firing at their former tyrants before the cameraman was ready. To this day the bullet marks in the courtyard and the painted outlines of where their bodies fell are still visible.
Mikhail Gorbachev Resigns (1991)
Two years later, in another sea change in leadership, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev resigned during a televised speech on Christmas Day. “We’re now living in a new world,” Gorbachev declared in recognition of the transformation his country had undergone during his stewardship, including the end of a Cold War, a communist economy and a nuclear arms race. Four days earlier, 11 of the former Soviet republics had formed the Commonwealth of Independent States under his political rival and successor, Boris Yeltsin. And so Gorbachev’s rule and the USSR both came to an end that Christmas. Even as Gorbachev gave his farewell speech, Kremlin guards prepared to lower the red Soviet flag, which had flown above Red Square and Lenin’s tomb for decades, for the last time.