Blog Posts

History of the Christmas Truce of 1914: Peace in the WWI Trenches

December 25, 2019 /
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Truce Gift Exchange

A shared smoke


Over a century ago across the 400-mile battle line of Europe, World War I had claimed almost a million lives over the previous 5 months of battle. The Great War, “the war to end all wars” was about to experience something almost unheard of in two thousand years of warfare: a temporary though unofficial truce. As Christmas Eve fell in the trenches of Flanders Field, German soldiers had erected Christmas Trees with lighted candles.

At about 8:30 pm as the firing of guns began to subside the Germans began to sing “Stille Nacht.” The song was originally written in German, but the British soldiers knew the English words to “Silent Night.” Soldiers wrote in diaries during this time to tell of local armistices established between both sides, occurring across dozens of other locations along the battle line as well. German and British soldiers left their trenches. They crossed “No Man’s Land” to meet and exchanged gifts they’d received from home: chocolate, tobacco, alcohol, articles of clothing, buttons, badges, and hats. The British soldiers bartered tins of plum pudding and tobacco sent to them by King George. The Germans had pipes with a picture of the Crown Prince.

History of Christmas Eve and the Battle of the Bulge: 75 Years Ago

December 24, 2019 /
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Snow Fighters

American troops in the Battle of the Bulge


On Christmas Eve, 1944, my father, Staff Sergeant John Petro, had arrived in Strasbourg with the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division. Eight days earlier, the Battle of the Bulge had begun, and the 42nd Division, along with others, supplied much-needed reinforcements to the biggest and bloodiest battle of World War II involving American forces.

The German Wacht am Rhein “Watch on the Rhine” offensive had begun a week before my father arrived. By Christmas Eve, the American troops at the Battle of the Bulge had taken heavy casualties, and reinforcements were very much needed. The bad weather had weakened the American supply lines. The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in recorded history; temperatures averaged 20 degrees. Frostbite was rampant.

Of all the uniformed American troops in the world at that time, 1/8th participated in the Battle of the Bulge


History of the Santa Tracker: How a Typo began Christmas tracking at NORAD

December 23, 2019 /
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How did a typo in my local newspaper erroneously connect to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center, now at NORAD here in Colorado Springs, with requests for the flight location of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in 1955 — and in years since?

And how can you check in on him this year?


Back in 1955, the home of the Continental Air Defense Command would eventually become NORAD in 1958. You’ve probably heard of NORAD in movies like Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, WarGames, and ID-4. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a joint US/Canadian military installation that sits 1,600 feet deep inside Cheyenne Mountain here in Colorado Springs. When it was built in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was intended to be able to handle a nuclear blast outside. Even in this day of MIRV nuclear missiles, NORAD remains its reputation as a self-contained bunker, and for years has been responsible for scanning the airspace above North America for missiles, aircraft, and near-space objects. I’ve visited the missile command center and seen the “big board” during operations, though the displays have only unclassified information when visitors look in.


History of Chanukah: The Festival of Lights

December 22, 2019 /
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Chanukah Menorah



Today at sundown, December 22th begins Chanukah. It is also spelled Hanukkah, meaning “dedication.” This Jewish holiday traces its roots back more than 2,000 years.


At that time, the Jewish people were living under the oppressive government of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV (a rather ironic name — Epiphanes means “God Manifest”) who was a descendant of Seleucus, the general of Alexander the Great.

When Alexander died, he left no legitimate heir (that survived); instead, his empire was divided among the Diadochi, his surviving generals. For several centuries the divided empire was ruled by the rival dynasties of two of his generals:  Ptolemy controlled the south in Egypt; Cleopatra was the last of his line in the first century BC. In the north, Seleucus controlled Syria; his descendant was Antiochus Epiphanies IV, who controlled Judea in the 2nd century BC. (more…)

Is Die Hard Really A Christmas Movie?

December 21, 2019 /
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Scholars and historians have debated the question “Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie?” for centuries. Or at least during the last three decades since the movie was released. This is why readers have turned to me, your friendly neighborhood historian, to wrestle with this age-old question and help them resolve this dilemma. In this article, I will assemble ancient history, linguistic legerdemain, modern science, and contemporary film criticism to address this question.

The debate has raged amongst the tragically online and is perennially in full bloom during the Christmas season on Twitter. The participants typically fall into two camps, the “Duh!” and the “Nuh uh.”

I divide this debate thusly:


Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker [No Plot Spoilers]

December 20, 2019 /
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The Rise of SkywalkerMOVIE REVIEW: STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER [No Plot Spoilers]

When George Lukas originally discussed Star Wars, he intended it to be a series of three trilogies. He started with the middle trilogy, beginning with Star Wars (my history on it here,) later called Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. He followed that trilogy with the prequel trilogy, Episodes I-III, featuring the earlier life of Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader. Lukas sold the franchise to Disney, who began the sequel, the third trilogy. Now, we have the conclusion to the final trilogy: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. Lukas’ idea was that this nine-episode saga would be told from the perspective of two droids: C-3PO and R2D2. And there are in every movie, the only characters across all nine moves.

It’s been two years since the last installment of Star Wars, with The Last Jedi, reviewed here, and fans have been waiting expectantly — notwithstanding the non-saga movie Solo: A Star Wars Story.

TLDR; Let me say at the outset that I found this film deeply gratifying. As I said in my review for the previous movie, I hadn’t cared for it as much as the others — though it was a great popcorn movie. (more…)

Science of the Winter Solstice

December 20, 2019 /
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As we’ve mentioned before, the Romans celebrated a holiday known as the Saturnalia beginning on the Winter Solstice. The word Solstice comes from the Latin “solstitium” meaning “Sun, standing still.” This year it will occur on December 22 at 04:19 GMT (or UTC) and marks the first day of the Winter season in the Northern Hemisphere from an astronomical perspective.


Earth enjoys different seasons because the planet is tilted 23 degrees and 27 minutes off the perpendicular to the plane of orbit. This means that the earth revolves like a tilted spinning top. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of sunlight as the Sun is at its lowest arc in the sky, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. The farther north one is from the Equator, the more pronounced this is in Winter. However, as the Earth continues its orbit, the hemisphere that is angled closest to the sun changes, and the seasons are reversed.


History of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas

December 19, 2019 /
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On December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” was published in London, its first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. No other book or story by Dickens, or anyone else (except the Bible,) has been more enjoyed, referred to, criticized, or more frequently adapted to other forms of media: theatre, opera, radio, film, TV, or comics. One of my favorite versions was watching Patrick Stewart performing his one-man version of the play at the Old Vic Theatre in London back in the early ’90s.

Reinventing Christmas

None of Dickens’ other works is more widely recognized or celebrated within the English-speaking world. Some scholars have even claimed that in publishing A Christmas Carol, Dickens single-handedly invented the modern form of the Christmas holiday in England and the United States. The movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas” argues that very point.

Indeed, the great British thinker G. K. Chesterton noted long ago, with “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens succeeded in transforming Christmas from a sacred festival into a family feast. In so doing, he brought the holiday inside the home. He thus made it accessible to ordinary people, who were now able to participate directly in the celebration rather than merely witnessing its performance in church. I wrote about the life of Charles Dickens a few years ago on the anniversary of his 200th birthday here.

History of the Christmas Star: Natural or supernatural?

December 18, 2019 /
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The Star of Bethlehem has puzzled scholars for centuries. Some have skeptically dismissed the phenomenon as a myth, a mere literary device to call attention to the importance of the Nativity. Others have argued that the star was miraculously placed there to guide the Magi and is, therefore, beyond all natural explanations. Most, however, take a middle course that looks for some historical rationale for the Christmas star. Several interesting theories have been offered.


  • The Greek term for star in the Gospel account, “aster,” can mean any luminous heavenly body, including a comet, meteor, nova, or planet (Greek: wandering star).
  • The Chinese have more accurate and more complete astronomical records than the Near East, particularly in their tabulations of comets and novae.
  • In 1871, the English astronomer John Williams published his authoritative list of comets derived from Chinese annals. Comet No. 52 on the Williams list appeared for some seventy days in March-April of 5 B.C. near the constellation Capricorn and would have been visible in both the Far and Near East. As each night wore on, of course, the comet would seem to have moved westward across the southern sky. The time is also very appropriate. This could indeed have been the Wise Men‘s astral marker. Comet No. 53 on the Williams list is a tailless comet, which could well have been a nova, as Williams admitted. No. 53 appeared in March-April of 4 B.C. — a year after its predecessor — in the area of the constellation Aquila, which was also visible all over the East.

Was this, perhaps, the star that reappeared to the Magi once King Herod had directed them to Bethlehem in Matthew 2:9? Comets do not display all the characteristics described in the full Nativity story. A planet or planets seems more likely.