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9 Historical Events That Occurred on Christmas Day

December 20, 2013 09:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
Many significant events have taken place on Dec. 25, including the rise of famous leaders, the fall of others, and the end of war for a single day.

800: Charlemagne Crowned Holy Roman Emperor

Charlemagne, the son of King Pepin the Short, succeeded his father as king of the Franks in 768. Over the next three decades, he conquered Northern Italy, Northern Spain and much of Central and Eastern Europe, converting the defeated tribes to Roman Catholicism. He promoted art, culture and education, inspiring the Carolingian Renaissance.

In 800, Charlemagne helped restore Pope Leo III to power after a rebellion had forced him from Rome. In gratitude, the pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans at a Christmas Day Mass. According to legend, Charlemagne did not expect or even want to receive the title, but modern historians believe that he was aware of the coronation.

1066: William the Conqueror Crowned King of England

William, Duke of Normandy, led an invasion of England in the fall of 1066 to challenge the reign of King Harold. On Oct. 14 he defeated Harold’s army at the Battle of Hastings, during which Harold was killed by an arrow.

William’s victory broke the resistance of the Anglo-Saxons. He was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, fulfilling the Norman Conquest of England.

1776: Washington Crosses the Delaware

Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army suffered a string of setbacks in 1776, being pushed by British and Hessian troops from Manhattan through New Jersey and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The army’s morale was low and in danger of being crushed.

On the night of Dec. 25, 1776, Washington launched a daring attack on a Hessian garrison in Trenton. He led 2,400 troops across the Delaware in frigid, windy conditions and marched south to Trenton, where they defeated the unsuspecting Hessians in the early morning. They won several other battles around Trenton over the next 10 days, turning the tide of the war.

1868: Andrew Johnson Pardons All Confederate Soldiers

Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson became president following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, less than a week after the Southern army had surrendered. Johnson held sympathies for the South, and clashed with Radical Republicans in Congress who wanted to impose harsh measures on the South. This conflict led to his impeachment in February 1868, but he survived the Senate vote to remove him from office.

One of the most contentious issues was Johnson’s pardoning of Confederate soldiers. He pardoned all common men who were willing to take an oath of allegiance; wealthy landowners were required to apply for pardons, but Johnson pardoned nearly all who applied. Finally, on Dec. 25, 1868, as an outgoing president, Johnson issued a full pardon to all Southerners who participated in the war.

1914: World War I Soldiers Hold Christmas Truce

Five months into World War I, British and German regiments along the Western Front reached spontaneous ceasefires on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to celebrate the holiday together. Soldiers reported singing carols, exchanging gifts and playing soccer with their enemies.

The widespread truces were not repeated in successive years as fighting grew bitter. “It is the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman,” says University of Toronto historian Modris Eksteins.

1926: Hirohito Becomes Emperor of Japan

Japanese Emperor Yoshihito died on Dec. 25, 1926, leaving the Chrysanthemum Throne to his 25-year-old son Hirohito, who took the name Emperor Showa. Hirohito would rule Japan for the next 62 years, the longest reign in Japanese history.

“His era was characterized by the brutal military invasion of China, followed by his country's most disastrous war, then its unprecedented foreign occupation and, ultimately, Japan's transformation into the world's second economic super-power,” wrote Frank Gibney Sr. in Time.

1950: Stone of Scone Stolen From Westminster Abbey

The Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, was used as the coronation stone of Scottish kings from the ninth century to 1296, when it was plundered by English King Edward I and taken to London to serve as England’s coronation stone.

A group of Scottish nationalist students decided to reclaim the stone for Scotland in 1950. They broke into Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve and snuck out with it overnight. They took the stone, which they cracked in two during the heist, to Arbroath Abbey in Scotland, where it was discovered by authorities on April 11, 1951, and returned to England.

1989: Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu Executed

Communist politician Nicolae Ceausescu brutally ruled over Romania from 1965 to 1989. His reign came to an end on Dec. 22, 1989, when he and his wife Elena fled government headquarters by helicopter as it was being overrun by revolutionaries.

They were caught and arrested later that day. The succeeding government decided to stage a quick trial on Christmas Day; the couple was found guilty of crimes including genocide, and sentenced to death. They were killed by firing squad immediately after the trial.

1991: Gorbachev Resigns, Marking the End of the Soviet Union

Since assuming control of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had attempted to reform the Soviet system through liberalizing policies. However, these policies weakened his rule and made the disintegration of the Soviet Union possible.

On Dec. 8, 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine declared that they were forming a new commonwealth; eight other Soviet republics joined the commonwealth on Dec. 21. Gorbachev’s rule became untenable. He resigned Christmas Day, and the following day the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

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