HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914
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: POLISH CHRISTMAS WAFER
My friend Phil gave me Opłatek, or Christmas wafers as part of his Polish Christmas tradition. This practice is now common in many countries across Eastern Europe — among Lithuanians, Czechs, and Slovaks — but in Poland it is a legacy from the past to celebrate the vigil of Christmas Eve, going back to the 10th century. During the 17th century, it spread from there, and was emblematic — especially since the 19th-century partitioning of Poland — of the country becoming independent again. During WWII, families would send pieces of oplatek to relatives dispersed around the world wherever they were.
Each wafer is embossed with an image from the Christmas story, usually the nativity scene or the Star of Bethlehem. An empty place is set at the family table in memory of ancestors, departed loved ones, and the Unseen Guest, Jesus Christ. There is high hope that the “Unexpected Guest” will come and bless the gathering. As Christmas Eve marks the end of the Advent fast, to be followed by the 12 Days of Christmas, at the start of dinner just after grace, the male head of the house takes the wafer and expresses his hopes for his wife in the year to come. It might be good health or a request for forgiveness for his shortcomings. His wife breaks off a piece and eats it, then returning the blessing and shares the wafer with her husband. The ceremony continues with older relatives, guests, and children from oldest to youngest.
IS DIE HARD REALLY A CHRISTMAS MOVIE?
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 in full bloom on Twitter. The participants typically fall into two camps, the “Duh!” and the “Nuh uh.”
I divide this debate thusly:
I’m often asked to explain the history behind a holiday or the origin of a popular tradition. Is it based on history, tradition, or legend? The best historical sources we have on the birth of Jesus are found in two of the Gospel accounts in the New Testament. Matthew was a companion of Jesus during his ministry. Luke was not. Rather, he was a companion of Paul during his journeys, but Luke shows a detailed knowledge of primary sources, appearing to have spoken directly to Jesus’ mother Mary, perhaps during his travels while she was living in Ephesus with the Apostle John. Luke’s account contains much more detail and is four times longer than Matthew’s.
Below are 5 things frequently associated with our celebration of Christmas, which are not actually found in the Nativity story. Here’s a fresh look at what the sources say. (more…)
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 21 at 22:23 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.
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.
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. One of my favorites was watching Patrick Stewart performing his one-man version of the play at the Old Vic Theatre in London back in the early ’90s.
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 and 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 CHRISTMAS: CAESAR AUGUSTUS
Perhaps it is fitting that our last historical Nativity character in the History of Christmas series should be the first person mentioned in St. Luke‘s story of the first Christmas. But he was not Jewish, nor a shepherd, nor a Magi. Instead, he was 1500 miles away, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, after whom is named the month of August. Were it not for his imperial decision, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth, the home of Mary. And this would have messed up all the Old Testament prophesies.
Augustus succeeded Julius Caesar. Octavius, as he was previously known, was about 18 when Julius died. Julius was his maternal great-uncle who was assassinated in 44 B.C. His mother was the daughter of Julia, the sister of Julius. Octavius was the son of a senator, placing him in the upper class of patricians in Roman society. Julius himself launched Octavius’ career when the latter delivered the public funeral speech for his grandmother Julia when he was only 12. At the age of 15 or 16, he was elevated to the exclusive College of Priests. At 17 he accompanied Julius in the triumph over his opponents defeated in Africa.
Julius’ will was kept by the Vestal Virgins at their temple in the Roman Forum. While some alleged it was forged, the will named Octavius as his adopted son and heir. While Augustus (Octavius, Octavian, Octavianus) would become the first Emperor of Rome (think: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,) he would not have called himself that, rather he would have called himself “First Citizen of Rome,” and his rule, the Principate.
It was because of Augustus’ decree that Mary and Joseph, descendants of the often-married King David, returned to Bethlehem, the City of David. It was here that Mary’s firstborn child was born, according to Luke, and laid in a manger. Certainly, they had not called ahead, and there were a lot of travelers at the time, being the Christmas season and all. Not to mention the census.
HISTORY OF THE WISE MEN
Every Christmas season you’ve heard this song. It has been sung for over 150 years. You’re familiar with the lyrics from this famous 19th century American Christmas carol that begins with the line “We Three Kings of Orient Are…” but it is inaccurate in at least three ways:
- We don’t know how many visitors there were
- But we know they weren’t kings
- They did not originate in the Orient, meaning the Far East
Here’s what we know about these Wise Man.
So how could they have seen the star “in the East” and have arrived in Jerusalem unless they had begun their journey somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? It says in the Gospel of Matthew 2:2
“We saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.”
One natural explanation is to see it in the sense of “We saw his star when we were in the east and have come from the east to worship him.”
Several traditions place their number at three, with the conjecture of three gifts for three givers: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some earlier traditions make quite a caravan of their visit, setting their number as high as twelve. (more…)