6 Christ is born? Although most Christians celebrate December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ, few in the first two Christian centuries claimed any knowledge of the exact day or year in which he was born. The oldest existing record of a Christmas celebration is found in a Roman almanac that tells of a Christ’s Nativity festival led by the church of Rome in 336 A.D. The precise reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 remains obscure, but most researchers believe that Christmas originated as a Christian substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. To early Christians (and to many Christians today), the most important holiday on the Christian calendar was Easter, which commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, as Christianity began to take hold in the Roman world, in the early fourth century, church leaders had to contend with a popular Roman pagan holiday commemorating the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (natalis solis invicti)–the Roman name for the winter solstice. Every winter, Romans honored the pagan god Saturn, the god of agriculture, with a festival that began on December 17 and usually ended on or around December 25 with a winter-solstice celebration in honor of the beginning of the new solar cycle. This festival was a time of merrymaking, and families and friends would exchange gifts. At the same time, Mithraism–worship of the ancient Persian god of light–was popular in the Roman army, and the cult held some of its most important rituals on the winter solstice. After the Roman Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity in 312 and sanctioned Christianity, church leaders made efforts to appropriate the winter-solstice holidays and thereby achieve a more seamless conversion to Christianity for the emperor’s subjects. In rationalizing the celebration of Jesus’ birthday in late December, church leaders may have argued that since the world was allegedly created on the spring equinox (late March), so too would Jesus have been conceived by God on that date. The Virgin Mary, pregnant with the son of God, would hence have given birth to Jesus nine months later on the winter solstice. From Rome, the Christ’s Nativity celebration spread to other Christian churches to the west and east, and soon most Christians were celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25. To the Roman celebration was later added other winter-solstice rituals observed by various pagan groups, such as the lighting of the Yule log and decorations with evergreens by Germanic tribes. The word Christmas entered the English language originally as Christes maesse, meaning “Christ’s mass” or “festival of Christ” in Old English. A popular medieval feast was that of St. Nicholas of Myra, a saint said to visit children with gifts and admonitions just before Christmas. This story evolved into the modern practice of leaving gifts for children said to be brought by “Santa Claus,” a derivative of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas–Sinterklaas. 1776 Washington leads troops on raid at Trenton, New Jersey On this night in 1776, future resident General George Washington leads his small and bedraggled army in a daring raid on British and Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey, during the American Revolution. Just prior to launching boats from McKonkey’s Ferry across the Delaware River, Washington had an excerpt from Thomas Paine’s inspirational pamphlet The Crisis–published two days earlier–read aloud to the army. The pamphlet began: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” Although Americans often think of President George Washington as stately and composed, in actuality the revolutionary hero could be quite down-to-earth, even coarse, a trait that endeared him to his troops. One historian’s account, supported by the memoirs of troops in attendance at the famous crossing of the Delaware, suggests that as Washington was stepping into a boat in which the portly General Henry Knox was already seated, he poked Knox with his boot and said “shift that fat [a..], Harry…but slowly, or you’ll swamp the damned boat.” The freezing, wet and frightened soldiers broke into hysterical laughter as word of Washington’s wisecrack drifted down the line of boats poised to cross the icy river. Early on the morning of December 26, 2,500 American soldiers led by Washington surprised the mainly Hessian soldiers at Trenton (allegedly hung-over over after a night of Christmas cheer) and after a short battle took control of the town. The scrappy Washington ordered his soldiers to take whatever ammunition and supplies they could carry and scurried back across the Delaware. Washington’s daring attack, after a string of demoralizing retreats, gave a desperately needed boost to the flagging spirits of the Continental Army. 1914 Enemies exchange Christmas greetings On and around Christmas Day 1914, the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding fade in a number of places along the Western Front in favor of holiday celebrations in the trenches and gestures of goodwill between enemies. Starting on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing. At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer. Some soldiers used this short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines. The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.