‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the past, we’ve been busy doing all sorts of key, important, vital, ridiculous, epoch-changing things on this day.
The below dates are partly harvested from my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas but also from my time-frittering website The Movie Timeline. (Oh and Wikipedia and Google and things, but we never need acknowledge them, right?) In reverse chronlogical order, here’s what happened – in reality and in movie-land – on December 24th…
1995 – In the film Toy Story, on Christmas Eve ’95, Andy receives a puppy named Buster. His baby sister Molly receives a Mrs Potato Head.
1990 – John McLane foils a terrorist attack at Dulles International Airport, Washington DC… THE VERY SAME DAY that in Chicago, young Kevin McAllister stops two burglers from robbing his house via bunch of ingenuity and no care for the welfare of others (according to Die Hard 2 and Home Alone)
1988 – John McClane battles international terrorist Hans Gruber in the Nakatomi Tower. The same day that TV boss Frank Cross is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas. AND the same day that Evelyn Salt’s parents are killed in a car accident. (You may not have seen Salt. But hopefully you’ve seen Scrooged and Die Hard…)
1968 – Back in reality, the crew of the Apollo 8 become the first see the dark side of the moon (not the Pink Floyd album) – here’s the message they transmitted
, which included readings from Genesis (not the band).
1945 – George Bailey of Bedford Falls decides that yes, life is worth living, because it’s a wonderful life.
1944 – The first US performance of The Nutcracker by the San Francisco Ballet, who’ve performed it every Christmas Eve since. Most ballet ticket sales each year are for The Nutcracker.
1941 – Churchill and Roosevelt light the White House Christmas tree for last time for 3 years, due to wartime energy restrictions.
1922 – In the BBC’s first year of transmission, the first original radio drama is broadcast on Christmas Eve: ‘The Truth About Father Christmas’, starring ‘Uncle’ Arthur Burrows.
1918 – King’s College Cambridge relaunch the Nine Lessons and Carols after the Great War. Ever since, they’ve ‘owned’ it, broadcasting it when technology allowed – even without the stained glass during the Second World War, and without the name ‘King’s’ attached so that the enemy couldn’t quite place where it was coming from.
1914 – One of the most famous Christmas Eve events, the Christmas Truce of the Great War sees French, English and German troops unite in No Man’s Land – largely thanks to the widespread recognition of Silent Night/Stille Nacht. Without the English troops recognising the Germans singing it, there might not have been that moment of peace, handshakes, tobacco trading… and football the next day. I’ve got plenty more on this event in my book
, or on this post
1906 – A great unsung hero of broadcasting, Reginald Fessenden gives the first transmission of any radio entertainment programme on Christmas Eve 1906. It’s a one-man impromptu carol service courtesy of this Canadian inventor and amateur violinist. He transmits a demonstration to ships’ radio operators (“sparks”) from Brank Rock, Massachusetts. Instead of the usual Morse code weather updates and time signals, receivers hear a brief burst of Fessenden reading Luke’s Nativity account, performing “O Holy Night” on violin, singing “Adore and Be Still”, and playing Handel’s Largo on vinyl. He signs off wishing his audience (not knowing if he had one) a Merry Christmas and asked that if anyone has heard him, to get in touch about the quality of broadcast. Sparks on ships from hundreds of miles away wrte to him of its success – and a little crackling is always expected at Christmas.
1880 – The first Nine Lessons & Carols takes place in Truro Cathedral, the idea of Bishop Benson – who also had the idea for classic Christmas ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. More on him and the service on this blog post here
1865 – Ku Klux Klan forms. The less said about that the better, but insert your own joke about a White Christmas here.
1843 – Scrooge is visited by apparitions and sees the light. Dickens didn’t mention the year of the events, but many film adaptations but it as that very Christmas the Dickens released it. Oh and seven years earlier on Christmas Eve…
1836 – Jacob Marley dies. He’s as Scroogish as Scrooge, but he dies before seeing the error of his ways, so he’ll wander the spirit for seven years, then haunt Scrooge and play compere to three exciting ghosts. No idea why he waited seven years, but maybe he was waiting for Scrooge to get properly miserly, or waiting for Dickens to write him up.
1822 – “‘Twas the Night before Christmas, and all through the house…” …of Clement Clarke Moore, preparations were readying. We don’t know if he gave his children this poem on Christmas Eve on Christmas Day – but this poem was written just one day earlier by the Hebrew scholar.
1820 – Around this year, the writer Washington Irving experiences a Christmas Eve at Aston Hall in Birmingham, with the Watt family (whose name would adorn lightbulbs one day). Irving writes it up, exaggerates, spoofs and harks back to Christmas of old, in a travelogue tale ‘Christmas Eve’ as well as other festive writings. He talks of the old tradition of twelve days, of an uninspiring season of Christmaslessness, of the warmth of winter holiday celebrations, of the joy of carriage rides and fireside games, of the benefit of looking back to old customs… Irving explains mistletoe and its kissing custom to Americans, and tells of an English Christmas of church, carols, nostalgia and rosy-cheeked children. Dickens later reads this and is inspired to write of the Cratchit family Christmas in A Christmas Carol
. So yes, the cosy rosy English Christmas was sold back to us by the Americans. More on Irving and Dickens here.
1818 – Another classic Christmas Eve moment: when church mice (apparently) ate through the church organ of an Austrian village church, causing the priest and the organist to write a new song against the clock, to debut at Midnight Mass that night. The man who came to fix the organ then saw the song written down, and took it with him around other churches as he travelled. Your organ breaks? You get it fixed, you learn Silent Night, that’s the deal. More on it and other carol origins here.
1777 – James Cook discovers Christmas Island. During Christmas! What are the chances…?
1223 – St Francis of Assisi stages the first live Nativity scene, with a stone Jesus, his Franciscan monks as shepherds… and hopefully an audience if the rural Italian villagers turn up (they do).
1166 – King John is born. It means that when he reigns, he’ll celebrate Christmas AND his birthday in a blow-out of a feast, that will inspire and enthuses hungry monarchs to come.
100 AD – Midnight Mass starts being celebrated on Christmas Eve roundabout nowish. But in secret, in homes. (The smell of the incense probably gave it away though.)
1BC/ADish – Well, more than likely somewhere in the decade around then, Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem, but find little room available due to the census dragging all of J’s extended family to the locality too. So they end up in the lower room, or the cave, or the cowshed…
…and the rest is history. The rest is his story…