Christmas 1261: Blinded by Power
Poor John IV Lascaris, things started out well enough for him, as he was born on Dec. 25, 1250, and inherited the throne of emperor of Nicaea at the age of seven, when his father died. Unfortunately, in a plot that could be described, well, as Byzantine (get it? Nicaea was formed from fragments of the disintegrated Byzantine Empire), aristocrat Michael Palaiologos finagled his way into the court and managed to declare himself co-emperor. Michael VIII was actually John’s second cousin 12 times removed or something. After Michael conquered Constantinople, though, he left John behind and then ordered him blinded on his 11th birthday. That would be Dec. 25, 1261. Being blind was a deal-breaker for being an emperor and so was deposed. Fortunately, people didn’t really like this, Michael VIII was excommunicated and John became a monk named Joasaph, Michael’s son lager sought his forgiveness and he eventually was recognized as a saint. Things turned out OK and all, but that birthday/Christmas in 1261 was pretty crappy.
Christmas 1621: No Games Allowed
Gov. William Bradford, leader of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, forbade game playing on Christmas Day in this year. Imagine if the Governator in California did that this year? There’d be a riot! But back in in the day, people actually did what their governors told them and feared not obeying. And Christmas, at this time, was a very holy day. And Bradford still hoped, at this point, for Plymouth Colony to be that Shining City on the Hill, a beacon of religious freedom – emphasis on the “religious.” One might imagine that Christmas in Plymouth Colony, if you were a young one, was not so enjoyable and festive. No games for you!
Christmas 1776: A Christmas Surprise
Christmas Day this year was a turning point in the American Revolution and is remembered quite fondly by many in the U.S. who’ve studied their history. However, for the Hessian soldiers defeated at the Battle of Trenton, that was one lousy Christmas. On Christmas, you see, no one expected a surprise attack. OK, you might argue that no one ever expects a surprise attack, but when you’re at war, you generally don’t let down your guard. On Christmas, though, it was expected that everyone would take the day off from fighting and that you could let your guard down, if only for a moment. Bad idea. American Gen. George Washington was counting on that and crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania, surprising the Hessians (who were German soldiers of fortune, hired by the Brits to battle the upstart Colonials) and capturing almost 900 of the 1,500 men.
Christmas 1914: Lost at Sea
The S.S. Therese Heymann set sail from the Tyne in Britain on Christmas Day, with a cargo of coal. It was never seen again. Though it wasn’t officially classified as “missing” until the following March, it was never heard from again shortly after setting sail. It was suspected she was one of several ships sunk by mines in the area at the time. No one ever found the wreckage or any bodies from her crew. No word if Santa hijacked the ship because he had an extra lot of naughty names on his list.
Christmas 1941: Deadly Christmas
The Battle of Hong Kong ended on Christmas Day, resulting in the surrender of the British-Canadian garrison at Hong Kong – the Royal Rifles of Canada (a regiment from Quebec) and the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Of the two regiments, 290 were killed and 493 wounded, and the survivors all got to spend the rest of the war in Japanese POW Camps. I’m thinking the soldiers felt rather like the Hessians did back in 1776.
Christmas 1953: A Volcanic Eruption
Not all bad Christmases had man to blame. In 1953, activity of the Ruapehu volcano caused the worst rail disaster in New Zealand’s history, with 151 people killed. A barrier of volcanic debris and ice collapsed, sending boulders, sand and other debris into the Whangaehu River, along with 1.6 million cubic meters of water from a lake. The subsequent flood lashed the piers of a rail bridge as a Wellington-Auckland passenger train was crossing. The force was too much and the piers buckled, sending the engine and six passenger carriages to plunge off the bridge. The accident happened on the night of Dec. 24, Christmas Eve. For the families of those lost in the disaster, this surely was a horrible Christmas.
Christmas 1974: Tracy Visits and Leave a Mess
Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin, Australia on Christmas Eve and Day. Almost the whole city was destroyed – more than 70 percent of the city’s buildings, including 80 percent of the housing. This left more than 20,000 people homeless; 71 people died. Damage was in the hundreds of millions of (Australian) dollars. People didn’t have much of a chance to mourn the loss of their Christmas gifts; they were too busy mourning the loss of the family, friends, homes and livelihoods. One might imagine the memory of this cyclone cast a pall on quite a few subsequent Christmases.
Christmas 1989: A Firing Squad for Christmas
After 15 years as president of Romania, Nicolai Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed at the end of a televised “trial.” The two-hour trial followed a military coup, but it is apparent that he was either in complete denial of the dire situation his nation faced or he didn’t care. Romanians stood in bread lines for food and Ceausescu would show up on TV talking about the high standard of living his citizens had achieved. People who believed their leader simply was unaware would send and hand him written appeals, but it became dangerous to do so, as those people soon found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Though he technically was kicked out of office through a military coup, that was merely the capper to days worth of rebellions that had spread throughout the entire nation like wildfire – through word of mouth. The members of the firing squad were so eager to do their jobs, they didn’t even wait for the couple to be tied up and blindfolded before they began shooting. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Romanian today who mourns the loss of the Ceausescus.
Christmas 1990: The Third Time Was Not a Charm
Christmas Day was becoming, at this point, the biggest movie day of the year. Studios saved blockbuster releases for premieres on Christmas Day each year and many looked forward to seeing what just might be the best movie of the year six days before said year came to a close. And what movie could be expected to be more of a blockbuster than “Godfather III”? The final movie in the brilliant saga, still starring Al Pacino and with a young Andy Garcia in what promised to be a breakthrough performance. Then people saw the film. It consistently crops up on “worst movies in the history of mankind” lists. It’s a good bet that the three hour crap-fest ruined more than one person’s Christmas Day.
Christmas: A History
Christmas: A Candid History
Krampus: The Devil of Christmas
Krampus: The Yule Lord
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