History Articles

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

December 22, 2020 /
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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.


Science of the Winter Solstice

December 21, 2020 /
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As I’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 occurs on December 21 at 10:03 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.


5 Christmas Myths, Not Found in the Nativity Story

December 20, 2020 /
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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.

St. Matthew was a companion of Jesus during his ministry.

St. Luke was not. Instead, he was a companion of the Apostle Paul during his journeys. Still, 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 Myths frequently associated with our celebration of Christmas, which are not actually found in the Nativity story in the Bible. Here’s a fresh look at what the sources say. (more…)

History of Coronavirus: How Will It End?

December 19, 2020 /
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On December 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Emergency Use Authorization to the first COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S., making the Pfizer-BioNTech injection the first to be administered.

Yesterday, the FDA also approved the second candidate from Moderna-BioNTech.

While having a vaccine is a necessary ingredient, it alone is not sufficient to end the pandemic.


What will it take to arrest the progress of COVID-19 that has already killed 1.6 million people worldwide?

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, people have been wondering that very question.

“If we only had a vaccine. Then it would all be over, we’d be back to normal!”

Not so fast.

There are several additional steps we must take correctly, learning from the way past pandemics ended, as I wrote about here.


History of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas

December 19, 2020 /
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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 media forms: 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 Christmas: Caesar Augustus

December 18, 2020 /
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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 Early Life

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 a senator’s son, 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 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. (more…)

History of Beethoven: 250th Anniversary — 5 Things You Didn’t Know

December 17, 2020 /
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The renowned German composer and virtuoso pianist Ludwig van Beethoven celebrates his 250th anniversary today. Anniversary of what?

Here are 5 things you may not have known about the famous composer who came to fame between the Classical and Romantic periods of European music.


Beethoven's Birth Place1. We don’t know when Beethoven was born

We know that he was baptized 250 years ago today, on December 17, 1770, in Bonn, Germany — but not when he was born. Church records kept track of baptismal dates. In Germany, at this time, it was common for a baby to be baptized the day after they were born.

For example, 300 years earlier, Martin Luther was baptized in Eisleben, Germany the day after he was born, on St. Martin of Tours Day, taking the saint’s name.

So Beethoven was likely born on December 16.

Is Die Hard Really A Christmas Movie?

December 17, 2020 /
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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:


History of the Magi: Who were the Wise Men?

December 16, 2020 /
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Every Christmas season, you hear 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:

  1. We don’t know how many visitors there were
  2. But we know they weren’t kings
  3. They did not originate in the Orient, meaning the Far East

Here’s what we know about these Wise Man.

Home of the Wise Men

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.”

Wise Men In the East?

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…)