(MEDIA GENERAL) – It’s the “most wonderful time of the year,” but not always. Just ask the Hessians in Trenton or the crew of the Santa Maria.
Christmas Day, celebrations and religious connotations aside, is a popular day in history. Here are some notable events and announcements in Christmas Day history.
337 – The First Christmas?
Historians can’t quite hammer down the year Christmas was first celebrated by the Catholic Church. Pope Julius I set December 25 as a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ to align with the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, but we do not know what year the declaration was made. Pope Julius I held the authority of the church from February 337 until his death in April 352. The year 337 AD is the first possible year in which Christmas was celebrated on December 25.
800 – Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne
Considered by some historians the “most important occurrence of the Middle Ages,” Pope Leo III and Charlemagne, King of the Franks, gave birth to the Holy Roman Empire during a Christmas mass in Rome in 800 AD. Pope Leo III bequeathed the title onto Charlemagne after intervening on Rome’s behalf to calm differences with surrounding enemies.
The coronation changed the face of Europe, establishing Rome’s independence – and protection – from the Greek Empire in Constantinople and rekindling the fallen Roman Empire under Charlemagne’s line. The empire reigned over a majority of Europe until it was dissolved in 1806.
1492 – Columbus’ Santa Maria runs aground near Haiti
On Christmas Day 1492, Christopher Columbus and his fleet of ships were heading back to Spain to announce his western path to “the Orient,” the Santa Maria ran aground on a reef near what is today northern Haiti. Columbus ordered his men to dismantle the ship and use the materials to build a fort on shore. Columbus befriended a tribe of local natives that provided aid and refuge for his crew.
Because the accident happened on Christmas Day, Columbus named the fort La Navidad, in homage to the holy day. Columbus left 39 crew members at La Navidad to explore the local coast and accrue more gold while the rest of his fleet returned to Spain. When Columbus returned the next year, he found the fort had been burned to the ground and his men had been killed. Guacanagari, the local tribe leader, told Columbus that his town was attacked by a rival tribe and the men were killed by his rivals.
The site of La Navidad still is up to debate for historians and archaeologists, but excavations near a village called En Bas Saline appear to show what may have been the historic fort. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, almost all of the European artifacts found on the island come from the site, including a lead musket ball, Spanish pottery and animal bones from European animals. Radiocarbon dates also tie the structure to the appropriate time frame.
1717 – Coastal flooding kills thousands in Netherlands
A strong northwesterly storm struck the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia late on Christmas Day 1717, completely washing away several Dutch coastal villages and causing widespread structural and infrastructural damage across the region. Local records estimate approximately 14,000 people died as a result of the storm.
1776 – Washington crosses the Delaware
Following months of losses to British forces, General George Washington organized his troops to cross the partially frozen Delaware River on Christmas night to sneak up on a Hessian compound in Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians, German mercenaries fighting for the British, were taken by surprise the next morning and were quickly overwhelmed.
The plan called for two other forces to also cross the Delaware at different points along the river to corner the Hessian forces in Trenton. However, due to the partially frozen river and freezing rains and wind, only Washington’s force made it across the river.
The river crossing wasn’t necessarily the hardest part of the overnight attack. Washington’s force had to march several miles through freezing rain and strong winds just to reach the river. At the crossing point, the Delaware River was only about 300 yards wide. After they crossed the river, Washington’s force had to march 10 miles to Trenton. Washington had planned to attack the town at dawn, but their difficult journey put him hours behind schedule. Regardless, the Hessians were caught by surprise and easily overtaken. Historians note only four American soldiers were killed in the clash with 1,400 Hessian soldiers.
1865 – President Johnson pardons rebels
Following a Civil War that nearly brought the United States to its knees, President Andrew Johnson issued a pardon on December 25, 1865, for those who fought for the Confederacy. All were pardoned as long as they took an oath of allegiance, while leaders and men of wealth were forced to file for special presidential pardons.
1914 – Troops call a truce on World War I battlefield
On Dec. 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested warring countries declare a ceasefire to celebrate Christmas, calling it a “Truce of God.” Leading up to the holy day, no country followed through on the offer. On Christmas Eve, German and British troops sang Christmas carols together across battle lines. At dawn on Christmas, a group of German soldiers left the trenches and approached the Allied lines, shouting “Merry Christmas” in English. At first, the Allied soldiers were suspicious, thinking it was a diversion. Eventually, both sides laid down their weapons and celebrated together. Soldiers recounted singing carols, exchanging presents of cigarettes and plum pudding, and even playing soccer.
Allied commanders were irate at the truce, as photographs of the soldiers fraternizing together found their way home. Orders were issued to end any such activity going forward for fears of mutiny or public criticism of the war effort.