We’ve all received special presents on Christmas, those remember-it-forever kinds of gifts that we treasure for all our lives. But none of us has ever been given a gift like these. In no particular order, let’s examine some of the very best Christmas gifts ever.
An Empire - In 800 CE, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day. In 768 he had succeeded his father, King Pepin the Short, as the king of the Franks. For thirty years he worked on expanding his kingdom, conquering Northern Italy, Northern Spain and much of Central and Eastern Europe. He converted the defeated tribes to Roman Catholicism and promoted art, culture and education, inspiring the Carolingian Renaissance.
England - In October of 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, led an invasion of England to challenge the reign of King Harold. On the 14th he defeated Harold’s army at the Battle of Hastings, killing Harold with a well-placed arrow. This broke the Anglo-Saxon’s resistance and William the Conqueror was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.
A blanket pardon - Andrew Johnson became president less than a week after the Southern army had surrendered, on the heels of Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson, a Southern Democrat who held sympathies for the South, stood up to radical Republicans in Congress who wanted to impose harsh measures on the rebellious states. On Christmas Day, 1868, he issued a full pardon to all Southerners who participated in the war.
A truce - World War I was five months old in 1914, when British and German regiments along the Western Front spontaneously ceased fire on Christmas Eve and celebrated that night and Christmas Day together. Soldiers sang carols, exchanged gifts and played soccer with their enemies. This sort of truce was not repeated in successive years as the fighting grew bitter. “It is the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman,” says University of Toronto historian, Modris Eksteins.
Japan - Japanese Emperor Yoshihito died on Christmas Day, 1926, leaving the Chrysanthemum Throne to his 25-year-old son Hirohito. Hirohito, who adopted the Imperial name Shōwa (“abundant benevolence”) would rule Japan for the next 62 years, the longest reign in Japanese history. By the end of his eventful reign Japan was the world’s second largest economy.
Modern science - English scientist, Isaac Newton, was born on Christmas Day, 1642, in Lincolnshire, England. In 1687 he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, expanding our scientific knowledge. Newton has since been regarded as the founding exemplar of modern physical science.
The Internet - The first successful test-run of the system which would become the World Wide Web happened on Christmas Day, 1990. The “network” consisted of two computers and a single server and had only been in development for two months before the successful trial run. The creators, (Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau) went through several possible names, choosing “World Wide Web” over possibilities like the “Mine of Information” and the “Information Mesh.”
A great film - To Kill a Mockingbird premiered on Christmas Day in 1962. Based on the Harper Lee novel, it starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. The American Film Institute has placed the character of Finch in the number one position on its list of film heroes. The movie was an instant classic and is considered an important enough film for the Library of Congress to preserve as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
An end to the Cold War - On Christmas Day, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union, marking the dissolution of the USSR. His speech lasted about 10 minutes and was broadcast live. The Soviet flag bearing the hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time that day, replaced by the tricolor flag of the Russian Federation.
A memorable role - David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone With The Wind, “discovered” his Scarlett O’Hara during the first night of filming (the burning of Atlanta). When Vivien Leigh visited the set on December 10th, 1938, the producer knew he had his star. Screen tests and rehearsals took place the following week and Vivien was told she had won the role on Christmas Day at a dinner party at Selznick’s home. She was 26-years-old at the time.
A new temperature scale - On Christmas Day, 1741, astronomer, Anders Celsius, introduced the Centigrade (aka Celsius) temperature scale. What made this system different from the Fahrenheit scale was that it had 100 degrees between the freezing point (0 C) and boiling point (100 C) of pure water at sea level air pressure. Celsius aimed at defining temperature on scientific grounds rather than what he saw as arbitrary fixed points.
Handel’s Messiah - For America, that is. The complete oratorio premiered in Boston in 1818 when it was introduced by the Handel and Hayden Society. The Christmas Day performance began a long tradition of the piece’s association with Christmas, as it had almost always been performed at Easter in Europe.
An official patriotic song - In 1896 John Philip Sousa produced “Stars & Stripes Forever,” which became the Official March of The United States of America. But it wasn’t written in America; Sousa and his wife were returning from a European vacation and the song was written while the composer was at sea. It was an immediate success and Sousa’s band played it at nearly every concert until Sousa’s death over 25 years later.
The Moon - Apollo 8 became the first manned spaceship to reach and orbit the Moon. It was launched on the solstice, December 21, 1968, with a crew of three: Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders. They were the first men to see the Earth as a whole planet and to behold the dark side of the moon.
Symphony over the airwaves - The great Arturo Toscanini conducted an orchestra put together especially for him by RCA and NBC radio chairman David Sarnoff. Offering high salaries and a one-year contract, NBC attracted some of the top orchestral musicians of the time. They went on the air on Christmas Day, 1937.
A ninth reindeer - Montgomery Ward introduced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the 9th reindeer in Santa’s team, in 1939. The luminous deer starred in a booklet written by Robert L. May on assignment for the retail giant, which was distributed on Christmas Day. Before he settled on “Rudolph,” May considered “Rollo” and “Reginald” for the hero’s name. The story was written as a poem in the same meter as that other holiday poem, “T’was The Night Before Christmas.”
A precious stone - In 1950, four Scottish students inspired by nationalist sentiment (and probably a dram or two of uisge beatha), stole the ancient Stone of Scone from under the throne in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day. They tossed it into the trunk of their car and returned it to Scotland. The Stone was taken from Scotland by Edward I in 1296 and had rested under the throne for every royal coronation since. It now resides in a display with the Scottish Crown Jewels in Edinburgh Castle.
An iconic drummer - Christmas Day, 1959: Mr. and Mrs. Harry Graves of Liverpool presented their son, Richard Starkey, with his first drum set. Richard was playing in a band called the Raving Texans, where he acquired his stage name, Ringo Starr. In 1960, the band played in Hamburg where young Ringo met three other young lads from Liverpool. The rest, as they say, is history.
While we might not get a kingdom, an iconic film role, or the moon, it’s good to keep in mind the gifts we do receive are presented by their giver as if they were so grand. Be grateful and make the giver feel as if this is the best gift you’ve ever received. Even if it isn’t, give the gift of kindness and gratitude, the easiest and least expensive one you can offer.