It Happened on Christmas

By Dr. Ed DeVries

Charlemagne was a Frankish warrior known as “The Father of Europe” for having united much of the continent under the banner of the Carolingian Empire.

Through extensive military campaigns against the Saxons, the Lombards and the Avars he conquered a vast kingdom. Zealous in religion, he forcibly “converted” his subjects to Roman Catholicism and instituted strict religious “reforms.”

In a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day in 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the “Emperor of the Romans.”

This controversial coronation restored the Roman Empire, at least in name, and established Charlemagne as the “divinely appointed leader” of most of Europe.

He would serve as Emperor of this revived Roman Empire for 13 years. His legal and educational reforms sparked a cultural revival, unifying much of the continent for the first time since the fall of the original Roman Empire.


In 1066

In a ceremony at Westminster Abbey, William, Duke of Normandy, better known by his nickname William the Conqueror, was crowned as King of England, having completed his invasion in October of the year when he defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. England would never be the same.

William’s 21-year rule would see numerous Norman (French) customs and laws find their way into English life. He would build famous structures such as the Tower of London and Windsor Castle.

William would introduce numerous French words into the once heavily Germanic “English” language. Nearly a third of the modern English language is derived from French words. He would also introduce the feudal system of government that dominated much of the Middle Ages.


In 1776

As the War for America’s Independence was making its way into December, it was starting to look like all would be lost for George Washington’s little Army. A series of defeats by the British had depleted their morale, and many soldiers had deserted the ranks.

Desperately needing a victory, and with the British not expecting the Americans to attack on Christmas Day, General George Washington led 2,400 troops on a daring nighttime crossing of the Delaware River, thereby sneaking into New Jersey, where they launched a surprise attack on Trenton.

Trenton was held by a group of German mercenary soldiers known as Hessians who were still disoriented from the previous night’s holiday drinking. The Americans defeated them with few casualties on either side. But while the victory came easily enough, Washington was unequipped to hold the City of Trenton. So he retreated back across the Delaware later in the day.

The Americans did take over 1,000 Hessians as prisoner and Trenton would also be the first of several successive victories such as at the Battles of the Assunpink Creek and Princeton. December 25, 1776 proved to be the crucial turning point in the war that, up until that day, the Americans were losing miserably.


In 1814

On Christmas Eve, when Jacob Marley’s ghost was visiting Ebeneezer Scrooge and most others were celebrating, the representatives of the United States and Great Britain sat down to sign the Treaty of Ghent, the document that would end the War of 1812.

After more than four months of debate that had begun in August, the American and British delegations finally agreed to a settlement that essentially called the war as a tie.  All conquered lands were relinquished, and all captured soldiers and naval vessels were returned to their original nations.

While the Treaty of Ghent intended to end the then 32-month conflict, it did not take effect in the United States until it was ratified  by Congress in February 1815. That is why the greatest American victory of the war, the Battle of New Orleans, was fought more than a week after the treaty had been signed.


In 1868

President Andrew Johnson gave the former Confederate soldiers a Christmas present when he issued Proclamation 179, granting amnesty to “all and every person” who had fought against the United States during the War for Southern Independence.

Johnson’s blanket pardon was actually the fourth in a series of postwar orders dating back to May of 1865. But the earlier offerings had only restored legal and political rights to Confederate soldiers in exchange for signed oaths of allegiance to the United States. Further, these pardons exempted 14 classes of people including certain officers, government officials and those with property valued over $20,000.

Johnson’s Christmas pardon stood as the final and unconditional act of forgiveness for unreconstructed Southerners, including many former Confederate generals.


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