Tales of Yuletides Past

Late December, especially the 25th day of that final month, has been an important time throughout history, especially in the Western world. To celebrate that auspicious Christmas day here in 2022, I’ve put together a list of some of the historic events from this time of year that have intrigued me in the course of my studies. These may not be the most important events which took place during the Christmas season, but they are all interesting and impactful in their own ways. So, without further ado, here are 12 remembrances of the history of yuletides past (in chronological order) – one for each day of Christmas.

Enjoy, and merry Christmas to all!

Baptism of Clovis I, King of the Franks

  • When: Christmas Day, 508 AD
  • What happened: Clovis I, the first King to unite the various Frankish tribes under one banner, was baptized into the Christian Church after winning a series of victories over his foes, the Alamanni tribes of the region. His wife had already been a Catholic, but Clovis eventually joined the fold later in his life after uniting the Frankish tribes under his kingship.
  • Why it’s interesting/important: Clovis was one of the most important figures in Western Europe in the aftermath of the fall of Rome in 476, and created the idea that became modern France. He cemented his Merovingian dynasty as the rulers of the Franks for quite some time, and his conversion to Catholicism drastically altered the history of France. France has been a Catholic nation ever since, deeply impacting its internal development and global geopolitics for millennia.

Coronation of Charlemagne as Roman Emperor

  • When: Christmas Day, 800 AD
  • What happened: Charlemagne, the powerful leader of the Frankish kingdoms and the progenitor of the Carolingian dynasty of kings, had united most of Western Europe under one crown for the first time since the fall of Rome. He was an incredibly impressive and powerful figure who also was a key protector of the Pope, Leo III. Leo sought to solidify that relationship and build a power base against the larger Byzantine Empire to the east, which saw itself as the rightful heir of the Roman imperial legacy. The Pope thus crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans, setting up an alternate empire in the west, and creating an east-west conflict which simmered for centuries.
  • Why it’s interesting/important: Charlemagne is one of the most critical figures of all of Medieval history, bringing a level of unity and development in Western Europe that had not been since since the days of the late Roman Empire. His coronation as Roman Emperor kicked off a tradition of imperial coronations that lasted nearly 1000 years, causing conflicts and influencing European politics for just as long. The title of Roman Emperor (later Holy Roman Emperor) was created by a Frenchman (Chalremagne) and was destroyed by one too (Napoleon I). The coronation in Rome made that city a center of politics and kept the Papacy at the forefront of European affairs, often ahead of the crowned heads of the Continent. It also bound the Frankish kingdoms (much of modern France, the Low Countries, and Germany) to Italy, a factor which would recur over and over all the way through the 20th century.

William the Conqueror Crowned King of England

  • When: Christmas Day, 1066 AD
  • What happened: William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, cemented his conquest of England by being crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey in London in December 1066, just weeks after defeating Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings that October. William was able to transit the English Channel, defeat the armies of England (weakened by a previous fight at Stamford Bridge against Harald Hardrada’s Norwegian invaders), and crown himself as king, all within the span of 4 months. The full Norman Conquest of England took another 6 years, but by 1073 William was in full control of the country and could mold it to his wishes.
  • Why it’s interesting/important: The Norman Conquest of 1066 was a major pivot in British history, bringing the influence of France into the country and creating issues which would drive many of the conflicts of the Medieval and Early Modern eras. William himself was an important leader militarily and politically, and built castles across a landscape that came to be defined by them over the next several centuries. Some, including the imposing Tower of London, still stand today and have been in use consistently for nearly 1000 years. Not only did he permanently alter the landscape of the island, he fundamentally changed the sociopolitical organization of the country, inaugurating a new set of local elites, forcing emigration and immigration, and altering language and governmental structures. William’s exploits leading to his coronation are famously displayed in the beautiful Bayeux Tapestry.

Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, Travels the Road to Canossa

  • When: Late December 1076 to January 1077 AD
  • What happened: Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV had been involved in a long controversy with the Church in Rome over the investiture of local bishops and religious leaders; essentially the two powers – Church and State – were competing over who could appoint these important public officials. Henry was excommunicated by the Pope, Gregory VII, who had promulgated a series of major reforms to Catholicism which vastly increased the power of the Papacy over spiritual and secular affairs. In further retaliation for Henry’s disobedience, Gregory declared that all subsidiary nobles who had sworn oaths to Henry were freed from their obligations, massively undercutting Henry’s power base. In an effort to conciliate the Pope and save his reign, Henry and his family crossed the treacherous Alps in mid-winter to see Gregory at his retreat in Canossa and beg for forgiveness. After days of penitence – walking barefoot and in a hair shirt in frigid conditions – Gregory received Henry and ended his excommunication.
  • Why it’s interesting/important: This event is interesting for its truly Medieval character and the imagery of an incredibly powerful secular ruler debasing himself at the foot of the Pope. It is important because it was one of the biggest battles of secular and religious authorities in the Middle Ages, consolidating the Papal power and solidifying Gregory’s ambitious reforms as a fact of Christian life. The event would be seen as a totem of the power of the Pope for ages, and deeply influenced both the Protestant Reformation and the future secular state of Germany. Henry was seen by religious reformers as a righteous crusader against papal abuses, and by later Germans as an avatar for the German desire to be free and independent of foreign influence. Gregory was viewed similarly by Italian nationalists centuries later, as a figure of national independence against overbearing German influence from the north.

Birth of Sir Isaac Newton

  • When: Christmas Day, 1642 (January 4, 1643 under the modern Gregorian calendar)
  • What happened: Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most famous and influential physicists/mathematicians/astronomers of all time, was born in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, England. (Sidebar: I adore British place names, they’re wonderful.)
  • Why it’s interesting/important: Newton was an enormous influence on multiple fields of science, revolutionizing our understandings of physics, mathematics, and astronomy – in essence, our understanding of the universe in which we live. He established classical physics as we know it, innovated in the field of optics, and – along with his contemporary Gottfried von Leibniz – developed the idea of calculus. Our modern world has evolved a great deal from the relatively simple physics of Newton, but his theories and writings established our ability to advance in those novel directions. It is hard to overstate his importance to world history and science.

Battle of Trenton

  • When: Christmas Night, 1776
  • What happened: In one of the boldest maneuvers of the American Revolution, General George Washington led a relatively small troop of Patriot soldiers in a nighttime crossing of the semi-frozen Delaware River to attack the Hessian encampment at Trenton. The surprise attack on Christmas Night stunned the Hessian defenders, catching them totally unaware and leading to a resounding American victory. Hundreds of Hessians were captured, over 20 were killed, and more than 80 were wounded, all with only the loss of 2 Americans to exposure and 5 wounded in battle. The trip across the Delaware was famously memorialized by painter Emanuel Leutze in 1851 – a painting which still stands as one of America’s true icons (and which can be seen at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
  • Why it’s interesting/important: The Battle of Trenton was a turning point in the war for American independence, boosting Patriot morale during a period in which the Continental Army was on the ropes and in retreat. The success, despite its relatively small numbers of captured and casualties, had a far grander effect on the war than may have been anticipated. It drew more soldiers into the Patriot fold as volunteers, dispelled the myth of Hessian hypercompetence, and augured well for future engagements. It allowed the Continental Congress to have fuller confidence in its martial prowess and potential for true victory over the British forces. Without the victory at Trenton – driven by Washington’s bold strategy – the successes at Saratoga and beyond may not have been within reach.

Washington’s Resignation Address

  • When: December 23, 1783
  • What happened: General George Washington, the most powerful and influential figure in the newly-liberated American colonies, addressed the Continental Congress to resign his military commission at the end of hostilities with Britain. His address to the Congress is a wonderful piece of 18th century politics and shows Washington’s character as a leader of men who was still humble in his public pronouncements.
  • Why it’s interesting/important: It is arguable that Washington’s resignation of his commission at the end of hostilities in the American Revolution is one of the most important events in American history. Given his immense popularity and his battlefield successes, many rightfully considered Washington to be the ‘father of the nation’, yet he behaved as though he was just an ordinary citizen. Washington very easily could have become the King of a new nation, or at least a King-in-all-but-name. That he chose to quietly retire at the (then) height of his powers spoke volumes as to his character and set a precedent for future American statesmen. His return to the political stage at the Constitutional Convention and later as our first President remained consistent with his principles and his attitude of himself merely as a citizen, not above his fellow men. Washington is the model for American civic republicanism, and his 1783 resignation address was just one example of his statesmanship.

The Christmas Truce

  • When: Christmas Day, 1914
  • What happened: After five months of brutal combat in what would be known as the Western Front of World War I, trenches spanned from the Swiss border to the English Channel, sometimes only being separated by 30 yards. By this point in the war, millions had already been injured or killed across Europe, and a tense stalemate had set in on the Western Front. British and French soldiers stood off with their German counterparts, shooting at one another and undergoing artillery barrages on a daily basis. As Christmas approached, the trenches froze and both sides dug in for the long haul. On Christmas Eve, soldiers along the front communicated with their enemy counterparts and agreed an informal ceasefire for the following day, the first of what would be 4 Christmases in wartime. On Christmas Day, men in some sectors carefully left the trenches, crossed No Man’s Land, and joined one another in sharing food, singing, cavorting together, and, famously, playing soccer. They also mourned the war dead, buried their comrades, and exchanged souvenirs and equipment. After the truce, the war resumed as usual and would be fought until November of 1918, with millions more dead and wounded.
  • Why it’s interesting/important: The Christmas Truce was not a hugely influential event in the war, as its sentiments of peace and amity among foes was clearly not heeded at the time. But it would be seen later as a true testament to common humanity amidst the carnage of conflict, a light in the darkness of total war. The shared experience of the early conflict brought these men together for a brief moment in which they commiserated, sung carols, and saw each other as men, not as Germans, Frenchmen, or Brits. It was also, sadly, the last gasp of the pre-war European culture of honor and duty which would be devastated by the mud, gas, and shells of the Front.

Theft of the Stone of Scone

  • When: Christmas Day, 1950
  • What happened: Four Scottish students, ardent nationalists and supporters of Home Rule for Scotland, stole the Stone of Scone – the ancient stone upon which Scottish kings were crowned and which was taken as a war prize by Edward I back to London in 1296 – from its resting place in Westminster Abbey in London. During the brazen theft, the stone broke into pieces, was too heavy to transport via car, and had to be temporarily left in a field in northern England for safekeeping. Over the next few weeks, the students spirited it secretly up to Scotland and had it repaired by a Glaswegian stonemason, before leaving it at Arbroath Abbey for the authorities to discover. It was returned to England in 1952, but came back to Scotland for good in 1996 – although it will likely make the return journey to be used in the coronation of King Charles III.
  • Why it’s interesting/important: The Stone of Scone has long been a symbol of Scottish nationalism and separatism with respect to the United Kingdom, as it was not only taken by one of Scotland’s greatest historic enemies (Edward I Longshanks), it was deeply associated with an independent Scottish kingdom. The symbolic theft brought a new focus to Scottish nationalism as a movement and became a popular cause in that country. Ever since, Scottish nationalism has been a rising force, with the Scottish National Party holding control of the devolved Holyrood Parliament and many seats in the British Parliament in London. Multiple referenda on the question of Scotland’s independence have been held, and more may come in the future. The theft of the Stone was a big part of reviving the cause which now dominates the land north of the Tweed. Plus, it’s a cool story.

Soviet-Afghan War

  • When: December 24, 1979
  • What happened: After a series of tumultuous internal struggles in Afghanistan and a rumored alliance with the United States, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev deployed his country’s 40th Army to Afghanistan to intervene in the government and install a Soviet client to lead it. This decision led to a war and occupation which dragged on for nearly a decade before the USSR ignominiously retreated from the country in February 1989. The fighters who countered Soviet invaders were covertly supported by the United States with weapons and intelligence, and waged a guerrilla war of attrition which eventually was too costly for the Soviets to bear. (Sound familiar?)
  • Why it’s interesting/important: Not only does it serve as just another notch in the belt of Afghanistan as the ‘graveyard of empires’, it also was critical in the geopolitics of the following three decades. The cost of the invasion and the public failure of such a purportedly powerful country to pacify a small, backward neighbor were significant factors in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union itself, only two years after the Afghanistan withdrawal. Some of those American-backed fighters who expelled the Soviets would return to the stage in the opening days of the 21st century as well. One group allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda before 9/11, while others formed the core of our partners in the American invasion of Afghanistan. The echoes of the Soviet invasion still resound today.

Trial and Execution of Nicolae Ceauşescu

  • When: Christmas Day, 1989
  • What happened: After a revolt against his authority during a speech in late December 1989, Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu fled with his wife Elena from the capital Bucharest by helicopter, seeking safety elsewhere in the country. During this flight, Romanian revolutionaries had fully overthrown the government and proclaimed the end of the brutal Ceauşescu regime. After switching vehicles multiple times, the dictator and his wife were captured by angry soldiers and arrested. They were put on summary trial by a military tribunal for crimes including genocide and acting against the people of Romania, were (unsurprisingly) found guilty, and were executed by firing squad shortly thereafter.
  • Why it’s interesting/important: The fall of the Ceauşescu dictatorship was a major event in the history of the Communist bloc, being the last revolution against a Warsaw Pact government in the tumultuous year of 1989. It was the only one of these revolutions which violently overthrew its government and executed its leader. The overthrow of the Ceauşescus liberated a nation which would become one of the success stories of Eastern Europe. With high growth rates, declining corruption, genuine democratic government, and NATO and EU membership, Romania has shown itself to be much more than the despotism of Nicolae Ceauşescu allowed it to be.

Resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev

  • When: Christmas Day, 1991
  • What happened: Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union since 1985, resigned from his office as Soviet President and Commander-in-Chief, essentially spelling the end of the USSR as a political entity. This came after a volatile year in which coups and counter-coups fatally weakened the Soviet government across its nations, including in Russia. The leaders of the various Soviet nations had agreed to dissolve the Union earlier in December, presenting a fait accompli to Gorbachev and forcing his acceptance of the end of the USSR.
  • Why it’s interesting/important: The fall of the Soviet Union is probably one of the best Christmas gifts the world has ever received. It liberated hundreds of millions of people from the socialism of the Soviets and allowed them to seize their own destinies going forward – what each nation did with that destiny varied widely. The end of the USSR spelled the end of the Cold War and inaugurated a new era of geopolitics, which has deeply influenced the decades since, for good and for ill.

4 thoughts on “Tales of Yuletides Past

  1. Very interesting read as I waited for Christmas dinner.

    I read a very interesting argument about how Wiliam was able to consolidate power so quickly. The tax system needed to collect the Dane Geld meant he could quickly and efficiently centralise the State and build the wealth needed to conquer and control the whole land without the need to rely on other nobles. The complete opposite of the HREs.

    We’re still a centralised as a result

    • Glad you enjoyed it! And that’s a fascinating argument about thr tax system & William’s consolidation of power. I could definitely see that being a major part of it.

  2. Re: your love of the names of UK towns and villages: thanks to Google, I humbly offer Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwiiiiantysiligogogoch, a village on the island of Anglesey in North Wales. Translated into English the name means “St. Marys Church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool of Llantysilio of the red cave.”

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