Merry Christmas to all, from all of us at FEE!
Perhaps it seems odd for such a greeting to appear at the start of an article instead of at its end, but I love saying it. From Thanksgiving until December 25, I greet people with it at every opportunity. I can’t help but smile when I say it, and it almost always evokes at least a smile in return.
Of course, to a Christian, “Merry Christmas” carries a special meaning. But even most non-Christians realize I’m wishing them good things on this day. I don’t recall anyone I’ve said it to ever taking offense, though earlier this month in Asheville, North Carolina a waitress startled me with her response. “Yeah,” she said in a nonchalant, perfunctory way. Maybe she was in a bad mood or was facing some personal challenges of which I was unaware. In any event, I empathized and quietly hoped she would still have a merry day.
Why Do We Celebrate the 25th?
Everybody knows December 25 for one big reason, the birth of Jesus, though the precise day it occurred more than 2,000 years ago is a factoid that we don’t know. The first time the date was celebrated as Jesus’ birthday was apparently in the year 336, in Rome. It was chosen because Romans celebrated the winter solstice on December 25 and Christians of the day—their faith having been legalized by Emperor Constantine only 23 years before—associated Jesus with the Sun (the source of Light).
Over the centuries, notable politicians picked December 25 for their coronation dates, hoping some of the fame and goodwill of the day would rub off on them. For example, Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas Day as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800. And in London’s Westminster Abbey in 1066, William the Conqueror formally assumed the English throne.
Ten years later, on December 25 in 1076, a lesser-known monarch with a name that sounds like a side dish, Boleslaw the Generous, became King of Poland. In 1100, Baldwin of Boulogne was crowned the first King of Jerusalem (even though he wasn’t) at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Americans who know their history will recall that it was Christmas Day in 1776 that George Washington and his ragged but indefatigable Continental Army secretly crossed the freezing Delaware River. Their objective? To get in position to attack Hessian forces the next day at Trenton, New Jersey. It was one of the few battles during the Revolutionary War that Rebels actually won, and an inspiration for new, much-needed recruits.
Here’s a list of other fascinating historical events on this date:
- The Eggnog Riot of 1826. A drunken Christmas Eve party at the US Army’s West Point Academy in New York led to an outbreak of hooliganism that involved about a third of the school’s cadets. Twenty-one were court-martialed.
- US President Andrew Johnson took the Christmas spirit seriously when, on this date in 1868, he issued an unconditional pardon to all Confederate veterans. It was wildly unpopular in certain circles, but likely a necessary move toward sectional reconciliation.
- World War I remains a ghastly folly in human history but it also produced one of the most amazing and unofficial moments of human decency, the Christmas truce of 1914. All across the European front, soldiers on both sides arranged ceasefires, even exchanging food, souvenirs, and gifts and singing carols together. Several films tell the story, my favorite being “Joyeux Noel” from 2006.
- After being thrown out of communist Poland in 1986, I returned in November 1989 as a guest of friends in the newly-elected Parliament of a free, post-communist Poland. While in Warsaw, we learned that next door in Czechoslovakia, the “Velvet Revolution” had begun. I turned to a Polish friend and asked about another domino I hoped would fall someday. “When do you think freedom will come to Romania?” He shook his head sadly and replied, “That may take years. The secret police of the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, is incredibly powerful.” A month later, on Christmas Day 1989, Ceausescu and his tyrant wife Elena, were dispatched by firing squad.
- Just two years later, on December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the last President of the Evil Empire (formally known as the Soviet Union). The communist despotism that bedeviled the world for three-quarters of a century and was proclaimed “eternal” evaporated. Poof!
Among people whose birthday is December 25, none can rival Jesus Christ for notoriety, of course. But they include Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who with Menachem Begin of Israel and Jimmy Carter of the US, signed the Camp David Accords in 1978 and brought peace between Egypt and Israel; Red Cross founder and humanitarian Clara Barton; Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (for you fellow sci-fi fans); actor Humphrey Bogart of Casablanca fame; and Polish-American entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, one of the 20th Century’s wealthiest women.
All-in-all, a pretty good day in history.
I’ll say it again even “louder” than before: MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, FROM ALL OF US AT FEE!