10 Key Historical Events That Happened on Christmas Day | History Hit

10 Key Historical Events That Happened on Christmas Day

Peta Stamper

23 Dec 2021
Emanuel Leutze's 1851 painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River.
Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

Across the world for Christians and non-Christians alike, 25 December is often characterised by family, food and festivities. Yet like any other day, Christmas Day has witnessed its share of incredible and transformative historical events over the centuries.

From extraordinary acts of humanity reflecting the spirit of Christmas to the momentous changing of political regimes, here are 10 of the most important historical events to have happened on Christmas Day.

1. The first recorded celebration of Christmas on 25 December in Rome (336 AD)

Under the first Christian emperor, Constantine I, the Romans began celebrating the birth of Jesus on 25 December. This date coincided with the pagan festival of Saturnalia, traditionally held on the Winter Solstice. Paying tribute to Saturn, the Romans would take time off work, light candles and exchange gifts.

These traditions were upheld when the empire embraced Christianity, and whether or not you celebrate the Christian festival, the Roman calendar still determines how many of us spend each December.

2. Charlemagne is crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor (800 AD)

Today, Charlemagne is known as the ‘Father of Europe’ for uniting European territories for the first time since the end of the Roman Empire.

For this feat – achieved through multiple military campaigns during which he converted much of Europe to Christianity – Charlemagne was awarded the title and responsibility of Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III at St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

During his 13 years as emperor, Charlemagne implemented educational and legal reforms that sparked a Christian cultural revival, forging an early medieval European identity.

How did Charlemagne manage to unite much of Europe? Why did the Pope crown him emperor? How did his legacy inspire Adolf Hitler? History Hit’s Rob Weinberg asks the big questions about this hugely influential figure to Dr. Sinead O’Sullivan of Queens University Belfast.
Listen Now

3. William the Conqueror is crowned the King of England (1066)

Following Harold II’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, had his coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day. He was king for 21 years, during which Norman customs shaped the future of life in England.

The new monarch quickly consolidated his rule by building powerful symbols such as the Tower of London and Windsor Castle and distributing land among his Norman lords. William’s reign also began a gradual change of the English language by introducing French.

4. Christopher Columbus’ flagship the Santa Maria runs aground near Haiti (1492)

Late at night on Christmas Eve during Columbus’ first exploratory voyage, the Santa Maria’s tired captain left a cabin boy at the ship’s helm.

Despite the mild weather, the young boy did not notice the currents softly carrying the Santa Maria onto a sandbank until it was stuck fast. Unable to free the ship, Columbus stripped it of timber which he used to build the fort ‘La Navidad’, named for Christmas Day when the Santa Maria had wrecked. La Navidad was the first European colony in the New World.

Woodcut depicting the construction of the fort of La Navidad in Hispaniola by the crew of Columbus, 1494.

Image Credit: Commons / Public Domain

5. George Washington guides 24,000 troops across the Delaware River (1776)

By late 1776, having suffered a series of defeats and a drop in his troops’ morale during the American Revolutionary War, Washington was desperate for a victory. Early on Christmas morning, he guided 24,000 men across the Delaware River into New Jersey where German soldiers held the city of Trenton.

Reaching the far side of the half-frozen river, Washington’s troops attacked the surprised Germans and took the city. However, there weren’t enough of them to hold it, so Washington and his men crossed back over the river the following day.

Nonetheless, the river crossing was a rallying cry for American troops and Washington’s daring was immortalised in a painting by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze in 1851.

6. US President Andrew Johnson pardons all Confederate soldiers (1868)

Following the American Civil War, there had been much debate over what to do with Confederate soldiers, whose loyalty to the United States lay in question.

Johnson’s blanket amnesty was in fact the fourth in a series of post-war pardons since the conflict ended in 1865. Yet those earlier pardons only included specific officers, government officials and those holding property over $20,000.

Johnson issued his Christmas pardon to “all and every person” who had fought against the United States – an unconditional act of forgiveness that marked a move towards reconciling a divided nation.

7. Opposing British and German troops hold a Christmas Truce (1914)

This is the story of history’s most memorable Christmas - a celebration in the midst of slaughter. Featuring historians Peter Hart, Robin Schäfer and Taff Gillingham. Narrated by Shuna Snow.
Watch Now

On a bitter Christmas Eve along the Western Front of World War One, men of the British Expeditionary Force heard German troops singing carols, and saw lanterns and small fir trees decorating their trenches. The British soldiers responded by singing carols of their own before soldiers on both sides braved ‘No Man’s Land’ to greet one another.

The soldiers shared cigarettes, whisky, even a game or two of football, before returning to their trenches. The Christmas Truce was a spontaneous and unsanctioned ceasefire that remains an extraordinary example of brotherhood and humanity amidst the horrors of warfare.

8. Apollo 8 becomes the first manned mission to orbit the moon (1968)

The spacecraft launched on 21 December 1968 from Cape Canaveral carrying 3 astronauts – Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman – onboard.

Just past midnight on Christmas Day, the astronauts ignited the boosters that propelled them out of the moon’s orbit and back towards Earth. They had successfully circled the moon 10 times, seen the dark side of the moon and broadcast a lunar sunrise to some 1 billion viewers in one of the most-watched moments in television history.

The Apollo 8 mission paved the way for the first moon landing just 7 months later.

A photograph of an Earthrise, taken aboard Apollo 8 on 24 December 1968 at 3:40 pm.

Image Credit: NASA / Public Domain

9. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is executed (1989)

Romania’s bloody revolution began on 16 December and spread like wildfire throughout the country. Under Ceausescu, Romania suffered violent political repression, food shortages and a poor standard of living. Earlier that year, Ceausescu had exported the Romanian harvest in a desperate attempt to pay off debts caused by his over-ambitious industrial projects.

Ceausescu and his wife Elena, the deputy prime minister, were apprehended on 22 December. On Christmas Day the pair faced a short trial lasting less than an hour, during which they were convicted of genocide, damaging the economy and abusing their power.

They were immediately taken outside and executed by firing squad, marking a brutal end to 42 years of Communism in Romania.

10. Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as leader of the Soviet Union (1991)

By this point, Gorbachev had lost the support of his government and there was little left of the USSR to resign from. Just 4 days earlier on 21 December, 11 of the former Soviet republics had agreed to dissolve the Union and form the alternative Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Nonetheless, Gorbachev’s farewell speech described that he was resigning because “the people in this country are ceasing to become citizens of a great power”, a final salute to 74 years of Soviet rule.

Peta Stamper