BY MARK JUDDERY│Mental Floss│2 min
1. Lots of Notable People Were Born
For at least 1,656 years, Jesus’s birthday has been celebrated on Christmas day. As a result, those born on December 25 have complained that they only get one set of gifts each year. At least they have some good company. Christmas day is also the birthday of (among many other notables) scientist Isaac Newton, cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubenstein, Egypitian president Anwar Sadat, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. It is also the birthday of several entertainers, including Cab Calloway, Rod Serling, Little Richard, Sissy Spacek, Annie Lennox”¦ and Humphrey Bogart, star of movies like Casablanca and The African Queen.
Bogie’s birthday, however, was long under dispute. According to Hollywood legend, his birth date was actually January 23, 1900, but Warner Brothers Studios listed it as Christmas Day, 1899, when he went from playing thugs to heroic leading men. The reason? If everyone thought that he was born on Christmas, they wouldn’t think that he was such a villain.
It’s dubious logic, of course ““ and the truth is that he really was a Christmas baby. Nonetheless, many film writers and biographers have still fallen for the Hollywood myth that his Christmas birthday was a Hollywood myth. (Got that?)
2. Ten Days Went Missing
In case you think that Christmas sometimes comes too quickly, spare a thought for the Dutch provinces of Brabant, Zeeland and the Staten-Generaal, which adopted the common Gregorian calendar (along with most of Europe) in 1582 ““ and adjusted the dates to cater for this. In those provinces, the final day of the old calendar was December 14. When they awoke the next morning, it was December 25. Hopefully they had all finished their Christmas shopping.
The Gregorian calendar reformed the previous Julian calendar, which had been introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Though Caesar had based his calendar on astronomical data, his scientists had miscalculated the lunar and solar times, so that by the 16th century, the spring equinox (which included Easter) was starting to seem a little wintry. To deal with this, Pope Gregory XIII assembled a team of expert mathematicians and astronomers to create a new, official calendar. Among the reforms, New Years Day was on, er, January 1. Previously, for reasons too complicated to explain, it had been celebrated in late March.
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3. A Christmas Truce
Only six months into World War I, the scale of slaughter was difficult to comprehend. Hundreds of thousands of German and British soldiers had already died (only a fraction of the nine million lives that would eventually be claimed by the war). Yet if you want an example of the power of Christmas, none would be more powerful than the scene in one corner of the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914, when the enemy soldiers climbed from the trenches and greeted each other in the open, making no attempt to shoot each other. The Germans offered cigars and (speaking French) requested English fruit jam (jelly). It was a brief “Christmas truce,” in which they played soccer, exchanged wine and photos, and sang each other carols in their native languages. Though the hostilities would recommence by New Years Day, the British generals were appalled by this truce, and ordered Christmas Eve artillery bombardments each year for the rest of the war (ensuring that nobody would have time to make merry). But they couldn’t completely end the goodwill. A similar truce would held in 1915 between German and French troops, and an Easter truce would be enforced in 1916.
4. Washington Crosses the Delaware
In one of the most famous and decisive moments of the American Revolution, General George Washington led his army across the Delaware River to Trenton, New Jersey, with the password “Victory or Death.” In the evening, they captured 1,000 Hessian soldiers in a surprise attack that raised morale in Washington’s troops and turned the tide of the war.
5. Coronation Day
In Christian nations, Christmas has been a popular date for coronations ““ at least since 800, when Charles the Great (Charlemagne) was crowned Roman emperor by Pope Leo III, technically making his the rightful successor to Augustus Caesar. Over the next few hundred years, many popes, monarchs and bishops have had Christmas coronations. Among them was William the Conqueror, who was crowned king of England in 1066, two months after defeating the Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings. But since then, the tradition has lost favor. Over 900 years later, William’s descendent, Queen Elizabeth II, made it quite clear in her 1991 Christmas Message (televised, as every year, to millions of Britons) that, despite rumors, she would not be stepping aside for her son, Prince Charles.
6. Hirohito Ascends
Japanese Emperor Yoshihito died on Christmas Day 1926, and was immediately replaced by his son Hirohito, who began a record 62-year reign (far longer than any other Japanese emperor, and the fifth longest-reigning monarch in world history). The official name of his reign was Showa, the “time of enlightened peace,” but it would see Japan become a more militaristic and aggressive force. After Japan’s terrible defeat in World War II, however, Hirohito learned the art of humility, and renouncing his traditional divinity. His subjects were now permitted look him in the face.
7. Ceausescu’s Execution
The year 1989 saw the fall of many Eastern European dictators, but none were as dramatic as that of Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, who refused to relinquish his power. Ceausescu had bled the country dry, leaving many Romanians in poverty while he and his family built palaces and lived in luxury. (He burned down the houses of 30,000 families to build a palace in Bucharest, which was never completed.) Eventually, even his army turned against him. He and his equally despised wife, Elena, spent their Christmas on trial for “extremely grave crimes against the State.” Though they weren’t particularly helpful during the trial (“I will answer only to the workers,” said Ceausescu), they were quickly found guilty. By the end of the day, Romanians were treated to an unusual Christmas TV special: the execution of the Ceausecus, by firing squad. Still seemingly deluded enough to think that they were adored by their former subjects, they looked confused and angry in their final moments. The news led to dancing in the streets of Bucharest.
8. Date with Disaster
If you thought burnt turkey and out-of-tune carol-singing with the family was bad, think of all the terrible disasters that have happened on Christmas day. In 1717, floods ravaged coastal provinces in Holland, killing thousands. In 1953, a train plunged into New Zealand’s Wangaehu River, leaving 166 dead. In 1971, a fire killed 163 at the Taeyokale Hotel in Seoul. In 1974, Cyclone Tracy destroyed much of the city of Darwin, in northern Australia. Sixty-five people died, and Darwin was so damaged that fund-raisers, including a hit song called “Santa Never Made it to Darwin,” raised millions for reconstruction. In case Australia needed more Christmas disasters, a fire at a Sydney backpackers’ hotel left 13 dead on Christmas Day the very next year.
A year after that, Egypt’s SS Patria sank in the Red Sea, killing 100. More recently, a 2004 earthquake in south-east Asia, measuring 9.3 on the Richter scale, led to a devastating group of tsunamis the next day, which would ultimately kill over 200,000 people.
Rather than end on such a low note, let’s finish the Christmas list with one of the lighter moments”¦
9. Dick Marries Tess
Dick Tracy has been described as “the first realistic police [comic] strip”, which sounds odd for a strip where the crooks have names like Mr. Bribery, Pruneface and Boris Arson, and look as ridiculous as they sound. Nonetheless, plainclothes cop Dick Tracy did a few things that were surprisingly real for a comic strip. For starters, he became one of the first comic strip heroes to marry his sweetheart, Tess Truehart, on Christmas Day 1949. True, they had been dating for 18 years (during which time they hadn’t aged a day, of course), but as Superman and Lois Lane would take 58 years to tie the knot, and Popeye finally married Olive Oyl after 70 years, that’s not a bad waiting time. Their daughter, Bonnie Braids, was born (in the back of a squad car) in 1951.