336AD: First recorded celebration of the Christmas feast, 3 years after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to the faith.
1066: Two and a half months after his decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings, and with no viable English opposition to halt his plundering progress from the Channel coast up to London, William the Conqueror is crowned king of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury in London’s Westminster Abbey.
1492: Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the carrack Santa Maria, runs aground on a reef off the coast of Haiti close to Cap Haitien. The wreck was a classic case of poor watch-standing; with the captain himself having been up for two full days, he retired to his cabin to get some sleep on the calm night. His helmsmen decided to catch a few winks himself after the captain went below, and ordered a young cabin boy to steer for a while. Lack of skill, lack of seaman’s eye, shifting (light) winds and (not light) currents, and crunch- Santa Maria is hard aground with a broken keel and sprung planking. All the crew makes it ashore before the ship breaks up during the day.
1635: Death of Samuel de Champlain (b.1567), French soldier, draftsman, cartographer and explorer of France’s New World territories; Founded Quebec City in 1603, continued to explore and map the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence River, and established a tight web of trading relationships with the various Indian tribes of the upper Mississippi watershed. You correctly recognize that that long, beautiful waterway between Vermont andNY is named after him.
1776: After a treacherous overnight crossing from Pennsylvania across an ice-choked Delaware River, General George Washington leads 2,400 Continental Army troops into action against Hessian mercenaries stationed in Trenton, N.J. The Hessians, caught completely off-guard by the attack, put up a short, sharp resistance and fighting withdrawal from their initial positions north of the city. But after several moves and counter-moves, the Hessian commander realizes the Americans have completely cut off all chance of escape or reinforcement, and surrenders his 1,500 professional troops to Washington. The stunning victory galvanizes American support and morale throughout the colonies, and confirms Washington’s unique effectiveness in exploiting the strengths of the relatively weak Continental Army against the potential weaknesses of his enemies.
1783: General George Washington resigns his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, an act that stunned the aristocracy of Europe, and caused none other than King George III to declare him “the greatest character of the age” because of it. The event was memorialized by a massive portrait by the great John Trumbull, which now hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
1807: At the request of President Thomas Jefferson, Congress passes the Embargo Act, cutting off all American trade with both Great Britain and France. The act grew out of increasing American exasperation over ship seizures committed by both sides of the renewed Napoleonic wars. Jefferson’s explicit goal was to conduct “economic warfare” with the two European superpowers as punishment for both countries considering American ships and cargoes as contraband of war, rather than neutral trade. Britain, in particular, took not only ships, but American seamen as well, impressing them (i.e., legally kidnapping them) into the chronically under-manned Royal Navy. The Act did its work to halt American shipping in its tracks, which by extension caused Southern agriculture to rot for lack of European markets, for Northern manufactured goods to gather dust in warehouses, for thousands of ships to be laid up without maintenance, for American companies to go bankrupt, and for a crippling recession to set in across all the States. British and French shippers immediately took up the slack on formerly American trading routes, particularly through the Caribbean and South American markets, and got rich. Black marketeering through Canada became endemic, and widespread disgust at the Federal government’s high-handedness led to massive resistance, particularly from the business interests in New England. The Act was repealed two years later, but by then the damage was done to the credibility of Jefferson’s ideal of limited government versus his doctrinaire big government approach to enforcing a decidedly intellectual solution to the economic depredations of the French and English. Even after repeal, the issues on both sides of the Atlantic continued to fester, leading to yet another embargo attempt in 1812, and eventually, war with England.
1808: Ludwig von Beethoven personally conducts the premiers of his 5th and 6th Symphonies, in addition to playing the piano for the premiere of his 4th Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy. The concert itself lasted 4 hours, and although there was the usual kvetching about it being too cold in the theater, the reality of what happened that night remained seared in the memories of those who attended, particularly the musicians who came to realize the stupendous power and lasting impact of Beethoven’s work.
1809: Birth of legendary frontiersman, trapper, Indian fighter, scout and soldier, Kit Carson.
1814: British and American diplomats sign the Treaty of Ghent, formally ending the War of 1812. The terms of the agreement essentially return the belligerents to the status quo ante bellum, which reinforces the notion that this two-year long conflict, never politically popular nor strategically coherent, really was a wasted effort in lost political will, lost commerce, and lives. On the positive side, the US naval victories at sea and the astonishing victory at the Battle of New Orleans convinced Britain that although they need not become close allies with the United States, they now respected us as legitimate power players on the international stage.
1826: A huge contingent, over a third, of the Corps of Cadets at the United States Military Academy flaunted the school’s rules against the consumption of alcohol in a level of binge drinking that earned an actual place in history as The Eggnog Riot. The subsequent court-martial of 24 of the most culpable young gentlemen. One of the participants, who was not one of the court-martial-ees, was the future President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis.
1856: Birth of Frank B. Kellogg (d.1937), U.S. Representative and Senator from Minnesota, and later Secretary of State for Presidents Coolidge and Hoover. He was the namesake negotiator for one of the more esoteric pieces of international diplomacy, the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlaws war as an instrument of national policy, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929. Believe it or not, the treaty remains in effect to this day.
1864: Five weeks after taking his leave from the smoldering ruins of Atlanta, Union General William T. Sherman telegraphs President Lincoln with the news of his capture of the port of Savannah, Georgia. “I beg to present to you a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.” Lincoln accepted the gift.
1868: President Andrew Johnson grants an unconditional amnesty to all former Confederate soldiers.
1878: Birth of Louis Chevrolet (d.1941), Swiss-American race car driver and businessman.
1898: Concluding a year of experimentation and discovery on the properties of radioactivity, Marie and Paul Curie announce the isolation of Radium, the central element of their comprehensive analysis of uranium, X-rays, and other naturally occurring “electrical” transmissions, which they recognized as fundamentally different than electricity, and for which they coined the term “radiation.”
1905: Birth of movie mogul, aircraft designer, pilot, businessman and legendary eccentric, Howard Hughes.
1913: President Woodrow Wilson signs into law the Federal Reserve Act, which establishes the Federal Reserve, creating a U.S. Central bank. The “long title” of the law, helpfully included with the Wikipedia entry, reads: “An Act to provide for the establishment of Federal reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes.”
1914: Five months into the widely spreading combat of the Great War, and just weeks after completing the “Race to the Sea” that established a continuous line of trenches from the Swiss border to the North Sea, on this Christmas Eve, soldiers from both sides of the trenches find themselves singing Christmas carols to each other, and then tentatively, but with increasingly greater frequency, climbing out of their trenches under an unofficial truce to exchange cigarettes and small gifts with soldiers from the other side. Christmas Day saw a generalized truce that saw not only light fraternization, but also several episodes of soccer games between British and German soldiers in No Man’s Land. The Christmas Truce was a completely spontaneous and un-authorized pause in the fighting that the soldiers who were there remembered for the rest of their lives. In subsequent years, particularly after the shocking bloodletting and gas attacks of 1915, there was little need for the commanders on both sides to remind their soldiers that their job was to kill, not socialize with, the enemy on the other side of the trenches.
1919: Boston Red Sox first baseman George Ruth is sold to the New York Yankees.
1923: Birth of Vice Admiral James Stockdale (d.2005), one of the Navy’s greats, whose life defined both the glory and the agony of our country’s Vietnam experience. He was flying one of the two F-8s dueling with North Vietnamese patrol boats during the first Gulf of Tonkin event, and was again overhead when the destroyers USS Maddox & Turner Joy were blazing away at the empty ocean two nights later during an event President Johnson used to justify a massive expansion of the US military engagement in that benighted country. Stockdale was shot down over the North in September of 1965, and was quickly recognized as a uniquely effective leader by both his POW peers and their North Vietnamese captors. The distinction earned him exceptional levels of beatings and torture; his resistance and strength of character under extraordinary duress became a touchstone for all of us in Naval Aviation. His keen intellect and moral integrity allowed him to remain on active duty, despite the lingering physical limitations from his imprisonment and advanced him to the rank of Vice-Admiral and Presidency of the Naval War College. His public life ended on something of a sour note when Ross Perot asked him to run as Vice President in his third party stab during the 1992 election. Never an actual politician, at the first Vice Presidential debate with Al Gore and Dan Quayle, the moderator asked him to introduce himself. Stockdale smiled and said, “Who am I? Why am I here?” a rhetorical device designed to lead to follow on explanations, but the levity that surrounded those questions, and his verbal fumbles later in the debate, made him appear to be a bumbling old man, instead of the towering intellect and brilliant leader he actually was.
1938: In South Africa, discovery and documentation of the first “modern” coelacanth, a fossil fish long believed to be extinct. It wasn’t, and isn’t still. The story of its re-discovery is a terrific fish tale, blending the somewhat obscure disciplines of paleontology and ichthyology. There was a wonderful book written about it in 1966: “Search for a Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth” by Eleanor Clymer and illustrated by Jerry Robinson.
1941: Admiral Chester Nimitz arrives in Hawaii to take command of what’s left of the still-smoldering Pacific Fleet of the United States Navy.
1943: American General Dwight D. Eisenhower is named Supreme Commander for the Allied invasion of Normandy. Ike’s extraordinary skills in planning and diplomacy with the fractious British and French allies were the key to creating a success from this incredibly complex operation.
1944: A week into the German onslaught through the Ardennes Forest, which created a huge salient splitting the Allied drive toward Germany, the local Wehrmacht commander sends a team under the white flag to dictate surrender terms to the completely surrounded American force defending Bastogne. The American commanding general, Anthony McAuliffe, gave the German delegation a memorable sendoff: after hearing their terms, he looked them in the eye, snarled “Nuts!” and walked away from the astonished Nazis.
1944: Just days after General McAuliffe’s dismissal of German surrender conditions, Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third Army breaks through the encircling German lines to relieve the American garrison in Bastogne.
1963: The Beatles release their first two musical cuts for the American market. The songs “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” the opening salvo of Beatlemania and the great British Invasion of the 1960s.
1964: First test flight of the SR-71, the hugely successful derivative of the less-than-sterling YA-12 interceptor program.
1968: Three days after making their trans-lunar injection (TLI) rocket firing, the astronauts of Apollo 8 fire their Service Module’s main engine and enter a stable lunar orbit. If you were sentient at the time, you will remember the stunning live color TV transmission* from the Command Module, when we earth-bound travelers witnessed with the astronauts the first “earth rise” over the limb of our celestial partner, punctuated with breathtaking poignancy as Mission Commander Frank Bormann read the opening verses of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” Jim Lovell and Bill Anders took turns with subsequent readings of the Creation story, closing with, “…and from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”
1968 : After 20 hours in orbit around the Moon, the crew of Apollo 8 fires its service module main engine* to perform a trans-earth injection burn, putting the craft onto the perilous trajectory back to our home planet. It is probably worth repeating: the re-entry window from the lunar orbit to the earth’s atmosphere is a mere 2.5 degrees. Anything less than that, and the capsule will skip off the outer fringes of the atmosphere to be lost in an indefinite solar orbit; any more than that would cause massive deceleration and structural failure, with the re-entry heat completely consuming the capsule and crew.
1970: The north tower of the World Trade Center is topped off at 1,368 feet, making it the tallest building in the world.
1986: In an aircraft designed and built by his brother Burt, pilot Dick Rutan and co-pilot Jeanna Yeager land their flying machine at Edwards AFB, completing an un-refueled circumnavigation of the world over the course of 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds. Total distance traveled (after their 14,500 foot takeoff roll was 26,366 statute miles, breaking the previous record set by a B-52 in 1962.
1989: Surrounded by joyously chanting and singing Germans from both sides of the Wall, the Brandenburg Gate re-opens to two-way travel in Berlin, effectively ending the division of East and West Germany.
1991: Former First Secretary of the Supreme Soviet, Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as President the Soviet Union, at the same time declaring the end of the Soviet Union and beginning of the non-communist Russian state. He turned over his office and the launch codes for the Soviet nuclear forces to the popular former mayor of Moscow, Boris Yeltsin, who became President of Russia. To punctuate the moment, the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin, and the traditional tricolor of Russia was raised in its place. This effectively ended the Cold War, leaving the United States as the sole superpower as the already tottering Russian state slipped inexorably into financial collapse.
2001: Self-identified Islamic jihadist Richard Reed, tries to ignite his explosive-filled shoes on American Airlines Flight 63 over the mid-Atlantic between Paris & Miami. Alert passengers wrestle him to the deck and subdue him. He is convicted of eight criminal counts of terrorism, attempted murder and will remain in in the Colorado supermax prison until he dies. You and I, meanwhile, still need to take off our shoes to satisfy the TSA that we’re not trying to duplicate Reed’s stunt.