Who’s ready for the holiday cheer? Christmas has been a federal holiday since 1870, so we’re used to having a few days off with the family and drinking too much eggnog. However, Christmas was not always such a big celebration. Throughout most of human history, prominent politicians have not let pesky vacations get in the way of their plans.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important historical events that happened on December 25th.
1066: William the Conqueror is crowned king
Have you ever heard of Guillaume, Duke of Normandy? What about his more disturbing nickname William the Conqueror? The man was a big deal. In October 1066, he invaded the British Isles and defeated King Harold II in the legendary Battle of Hastings. After his victory, he was not going to keep his old boring title. What better day to have a new one than Christmas?
On Christmas Day at Westminster Abbey, William was crowned King of England. It was the start of a very influential 21 year long ruler. True to his French roots, the Norman king merged his own culture and language with those of the English people he ruled. In doing so, he changed the development of the English language. He also offered generous land grants to his French allies. This was in part responsible for the birth of the feudal system which continued through most of the Middle Ages.
1776: Washington crosses the Delaware
George Washington was not our first president for no reason. During the American Revolution, he wasn’t about to take a cocoa break on Christmas. Certainly not. At 6 p.m. Washington pushed its exhausted and desperate troops across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania at McConkey’s Ferry. For those who have only seen Delaware as a blue line on a map of the United States, it might not seem like such a remarkable feat. In reality, the crossing was treacherous and daring in the extreme.
When Washington first arrived at the riverside, it was running out of supplies and at least 1,700 of its troops were too sick or injured to fight. Still more of his men were needed to stay behind to keep them. There were 2,400 left to prepare a variety of ships and ferries for the crossing. The river was over 30 feet deep in some areas and freezing cold. The ships were loaded with cannons and artillery, and the crossing began. Over the course of several hours, the men crossed, dodging the floating ice in the night.
Their eventual success marked a turning point in the war for independence. After the crossing, Washington carried out a series of attacks while opposing forces were still offside after nights of merriment. His risky move resulted in victories at Trenton and Princeton soon after the New Year, giving hope to the weathered Continental Army.
1814: The Treaty of Ghent puts an end to the War of 1812
After the victory of the War of Independence, America was far from finished arguing with the British. Britain kept trying to restrict American trade and expand its own territory and America did not have it. The United States faced the naval superpower in a conflict that would last nearly three years. The fighting was destructive and costly, peaking when the British set the White House on fire.
The conflict was not lasting for either party, so they met in Ghent, Belgium, to negotiate a peace deal. After four months of discussions, a settlement was finally found. The treaty essentially called the war a truce, and all captured prisoners and ships were sent back to their countries of origin. The treaty did not come into force until February 1815, so the war did not end instantly. The Battle of New Orleans took place in January after the treaty was signed at Christmas. Yet the Treaty of Ghent was indeed responsible for the end of the war.
1868: Andrew Johnson pardons the Confederate soldiers
The Civil War isn’t exactly America’s brightest moment, but once it was over, the country’s unification was necessary to restore stability. Lincoln’s Vice President and Successor Andrew Johnson did this by handing out a truly huge Christmas present: With Proclamation 179, he offered amnesty to everyone who fought against the United States in the Civil War. .
The proclamation was actually the fourth order of its kind, with previous agreements restoring the legal rights of Confederate soldiers if they signed oaths of loyalty to the United States. The Christmas proclamation put an end to the post-war agreements.
1968: Apollo 8 enters orbit around the Moon
Not all historic holiday events were political. Watching the winter moon on Christmas Eve sounds romantic enough, but in 1968 three astronauts spent the night orbiting it. Originally, the Apollo 8 mission was only intended to be a test for a moon landing. When progress on the lunar module took longer than expected, NASA decided to adjust its mission plan, turning it into a full-fledged lunar mission.
The mission was a great success. Borman, Lovell, and Anders were the first men to escape Earth’s gravitational pull, see Earth from space, and circle the Moon, and it all happened on Christmas Eve! From orbit, the astronauts broadcast a report to Earth, ending with “Merry Christmas and God bless you all, all of you on the good Earth”. This is one of the most watched moments in television history to date.
This article was written by Brittany Sulc and originally posted on WE ARE THE POWERFUL.
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