How the winter holiday has guided international events, for better and for worse
World War I soldiers stop fighting to play football on Christmas Day in Salonika, 1915 / Wikimedia
Before Kim Jong-il's death, the last big story out of North Korea had to do with Christmas lights. "North Korea has warned South Korea of 'unexpected consequences' if it lights up a Christmas tree-shaped tower near their tense border," the BBC reported. At issue, apparently, was "psychological warfare" -- standard North Korean lingo for anything deemed insolent or provocative.
The annual Korean Christmas light drama, several years old now, may be one of the weirder stories of Christmas diplomacy, but it's hardly the only one. History has seen, in fact, many international events in which this winter holiday, whether in timing or tradition, has played a role. Here are just a few instances in which Christmas has figured into international relations, whether as an excuse, a peg for action, or a moment for reflection.
The stories are alternately troubling and heart-warming: just as the holiday has occasioned some of the more touching displays of camaraderie -- including amid devastating warfare -- it has also served to maximize casualties in carefully planned attacks. As always, events are what we make of them.
The Myth of the Battle of Trenton
In the winter of 1776, with morale low, General George Washington's forces crossed the Delaware River and entered New Jersey on December 25. The next morning, they attacked and defeated the British-hired Hessian forces stationed at Trenton. The popular account of the Battle of Trenton holds that the Hessians were drunk from Christmas celebrations. Modern historians dispute this. David Hackett Fischer, a professor at Brandeis, suggests in his book Washington's Crossing that this version was encouraged by British officers and loyalists as a way of accounting for the embarrassing defeat. It seems plausible, as well, that rumors of Hessian indulgence on the 25th might have circulated among Washington's troops, improving spirits prior to the battle; William Stryker's 1898 book on The Battles of Trenton and Princeton includes snippets from a so-labeled "Diary of an Office on Washington's Staff" with this intriguing entry:
Dec. 25 -- Christmas morning. They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning. Washington will set the tune for them about daybreak. The rations are cooked. New flints and ammunition have been distributed. Colonel Glover's fishermen from Marblehead, Mass., are to manage the boats just as they did in the retreat from Long Island.
The revolutionaries' victories at Trenton on December 26 and then Princeton on January 3 led to a tremendous upswing in morale on the American side and are now considered a turning point in the war. The British, in the following months, became increasingly pessimistic about the conflict.
The World War I 'Christmas Truce'
One of the most touching moments of international Christmas spirit, it's still not entirely clear how the entirely unofficial "Christmas truce" came about. On Christmas Eve in 1914, hostilities spontaneously ceased in several locations in Western Europe, as Christmas singing in the trenches turned to tentative spoken exchanges between German, British, French, and Belgian soldiers. On Christmas Day, soldiers on both sides ventured into no-man's land to bury their dead and the one-time enemies exchanged food and drink. Legend has it, with some evidence, soccer balls were even brought out into this otherwise lethal territory.
Devastating war shortly resumed for another four years. Though the Christmas truce of 1914 is the famous and most well-established case, the University of Aberdeen announced in 2010 that one of its historians, Dr. Thomas Weber, had found a "letter written by a soldier of Scottish descent serving with a Canadian regiment, which suggests that festive ceasefires continued to take place throughout the war but were often downplayed in official war records." Apparently "heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire ... had been ordered in anticipation of new Christmas truces." But what this letter showed, argued Weber, is that "[i]n fact, soldiers never tried to stop fraternising with their opponents during Christmas."
Pope Pius XII's 1942 Christmas Address Pleading for Peace
The Vatican drew criticism both before and after this radio address for its failure to denounce the German extermination of Jews, which by 1942 had become common knowledge among Allied officials and diplomats. This December 24 address did discuss the war, as well as -- obliquely -- genocide, though with little specificity. It has become one of the key texts for the debate over the Vatican's response to World War II. Below, a section of the address, posted in translation on the site of the Global Catholic Network, wherein the pope pled for peace. The sentence appearing to discuss genocide is bolded:
[W]ho can see the end of this progressive demoralization of the people, who can wish to watch helplessly this disastrous progress? Should they not rather, over the ruins of a social order which has given such tragic proof of its ineptitude as a factor for the good of the people, gather together the hearts of all those who are magnanimous and upright, in the solemn vow not to rest until in all peoples and all nations of the earth a vast legion shall be formed of those handfuls of men who, bent on bringing back society to its center of gravity, which is the law of God, aspire to the service of the human person and of his common life ennobled in God.
Mankind owes that vow to the countless dead who lie buried on the field of battle: The sacrifice of their lives in the fulfillment of their duty is a holocaust offered for a new and better social order. Mankind owes that vow to the innumerable sorrowing host of mothers, widows and orphans who have seen the light, the solace and the support of their lives wrenched from them. Mankind owes that vow to those numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: "Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers." Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline. Mankind owes that vow to the many thousands of non-combatants, women, children, sick and aged, from whom aerial war-fare--whose horrors we have from the beginning frequently denounced--has without discrimination or through inadequate precautions, taken life, goods, health, home, charitable refuge, or house of prayer. Mankind owes that vow to the flood of tears and bitterness, to the accumulation of sorrow and suffering, emanating from the murderous ruin of the dreadful conflict and crying to Heaven to send down the Holy Spirit to liberate the world from the inundation of violence and terror.
1964 Brink Hotel Bombing in Saigon
During the Vietnam War, a six-story hotel in central Saigon was used to house American officers. Following the suicide of General Francis G. Brink, the first U.S. commander in Vietnam, on a visit to Washington, the hotel was renamed by its occupants in his honor. On December 24, 1964, two Vietcong combatants in South Vietnamese Army uniforms drove into Saigon and to the Brink with a 200-lb charge in the trunk of one of their two cars. Talking their way past various officials, they parked the car in a lot beneath the hotel and retreated to a nearby café, where they observed the massive explosion at 5:45 pm. Two American officers were killed and 38 wounded. Nguyen Thanh Xuan, one of the two men who carried out the bombing, was quoted years later in a PBS special as saying, "Our commanders had ordered us to attack the place when the most Americans were there. And it was precisely as we had expected, since they were at the Brink's Hotel to plan their Christmas activities." Former Marine Corps University professor Mark Moyar, however, in Triumph Forsaken, says instead that "the Viet Cong had been trying to kill comedian Bob Hope, who had just flown in to perform a Christmas show for the troops and was planning to stay at the Brink Hotel." Unfortunately for the bombers, "Hope had not yet reached the hotel because he had been delayed by the unloading of his cue cards at the airport."
Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Broadcast
In this live television event in 1968, the crew of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, showed photos of the Earth and Moon from the shuttle and took turns reading from the Book of Genesis. Aside from making for fantastic television, the Christmas Eve broadcast took place in the context of the U.S.-Soviet space race, in which the U.S. had largely been lagging. Though a religious reading was less out-of-place at the time then than it might be now, it was still notable enough to spark a lawsuit -- quickly dismissed -- alleging First Amendment violations. The main message of the astronauts to American viewers may indeed have been "a Merry Christmas," but the episode isn't without tinges of ideology and politics. The U.S.S.R., was, after all, an atheist state, as North Korea is today. If Christmas lights on a border can be considered "psychological warfare" today, triumphant space travelers broadcasting Bible readings in 1968 could surely qualify as well.
The two insurgents want to take America in radically different directions—with Donald Trump looking to keep the world out and Bernie Sanders looking to bring it in.
Pundits keep reminding us that the two men who won New Hampshire, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are both “outsiders.” But that doesn’t mean much. George Wallace and George McGovern were both outsiders, too. While the Trump and Sanders campaigns both represent insurgencies against party elites, they represent insurgencies aimed at taking America in radically different directions. One way of understanding those different directions is through American exceptionalism. Sanders voters want to make America more like the rest of the world. Trump voters want to keep America a nation apart.
American exceptionalism has meant different things at different historical periods. But today, it generally denotes Americans’ peculiar faith in God, flag, and free market—a religiosity, a nationalism, and a rejection of socialism and class-consciousness that distinguishes the United States from other advanced democracies. The Sanders campaign represents an assault on all three. From H.G. Wells to Karl Marx, foreign observers have long fingered America’s lack of socialism as a key characteristic distinguishing it from Europe. But Sanders is a democratic socialist; he doesn’t run from the term. And neither do his backers. In a January poll of likely caucusgoers in Iowa, The Washington Post reported that more Democrats called themselves “socialists” than “capitalists.” Sanders’s socialism is especially popular among the young. A 2011 Pew Research Survey found that while Americans 65 and older favored capitalism over socialism by 39 points, Americans under 30 favored socialism.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
The former secretary of state will have to shift her strategy as she faces her surging Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—One lesson from Hillary Clinton’s stumbling start in the Democratic presidential race is that she’s unlikely to fully regain her footing without challenging not just the feasibility, but also the desirability, of Bernie Sanders’s ambitious liberal agenda. And to do that, she’ll likely need to take a page from her husband’s 1992 presidential campaign.
So far, Clinton’s principal criticism of Sanders’s expansive and expensive agenda has been to declare that it can’t become law in today’s polarized political environment. That’s a reasonable argument. But, just as in her 2008 race against Barack Obama, it has trapped Clinton in an electoral cul de sac.
Clinton wants to present herself as a doer who can produce incremental progress, while her opponent offers unachievable dreams. The problem is that, as in the 2008 race, this positions her as the dour chaperone at the party, offering half-measures while glumly raining on the transcendent change her opponent promises.
For decades, some psychologists have claimed that bilinguals have better mental control. Their work is now being called into question.
In one of his sketches, comedian Eddie Izzard talks about how English speakers see bilingualism: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed! Good lord, man. You’re asking the impossible,” he says. This satirical view used to be a serious one. People believed that if children grew up with two languages rattling around their heads, they would become so confused that their “intellectual and spiritual growth would not thereby be doubled, but halved,” wrote one professor in 1890. “The use of a foreign language in the home is one of the chief factors in producing mental retardation,” said another in 1926.
A century on, things are very different. Since the 1960s, several studies have shown that bilingualism leads to many advantages, beyond the obvious social benefits of being able to speak to more people. It also supposedly improves executive function—a catch-all term for advanced mental abilities that allow us to control our thoughts and behavior, such as focusing on a goal, ignoring distractions, switching attention, and planning for the future.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the Justice Department is suing the Missouri municipality after an agreement on reform broke down.
The Justice Department filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against Ferguson, Missouri, in federal court Wednesday, accusing the municipality of “a pattern or practice of law enforcement conduct that violates the Constitution and federal civil rights laws,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced.
“Residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights—the rights guaranteed to all Americans—for decades,” Lynch said. “They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.”
The lawsuit’s allegations mirror those in the Justice Department’s landmark Ferguson Report, which was released last March on the same day as a separate report clearing Officer Darren Wilson of civil-rights violations for the shooting death of Michael Brown in August 2014. Brown’s death, alongside the high-profile shootings of unarmed black men and women in other cities, led to violent protests in Ferguson and ignited a national debate over race and policing in the U.S.
The ancient civilization may have tracked Jupiter using sophisticated methods, but their reasons for stargazing were very different than ours.
We’ve never escaped the influence of the Babylonians. That there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a full circle, are all echoes of the Babylonian preference for counting in base 60. An affinity for base 12 (inches in a foot, pence in an old British shilling) is also an offshoot, 12 being a factor of 60.
All this suggests that the Babylonians had a mathematics worth copying, which was why the Greeks did copy it and thereby rooted these number systems in Western tradition. The latest indication of Babylonian mathematical sophistication is the discovery that their astronomers knew that, in effect, the distance traveled by a moving object is equal to the area under the graph of velocity plotted against time. Previously it had been thought that this relationship wasn’t recognized until the fourteenth century in Europe. But since historian Mathieu Ossendrijver of the Humboldt University in Berlin found the calculation described in a series of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing in Babylonia during the fourth to the first centuries B.C.E., where it was used to figure out the distance traveled across the sky by the planet Jupiter.
If Bernie Sanders is serious about a political transformation in America, he needs a better plan.
If there’s one thing that fires up Bernie Sanders supporters—and makes his detractors roll their eyes—it’s his call for a “political revolution.” To his base, it’s the very point of his anti-establishment, anti-elite candidacy. To his critics, it’s the very embodiment of his campaign’s naïve impracticality and vagueness.
But now that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have spoken, it’s time to take the idea of political revolution more seriously—more seriously, indeed, than Sanders himself appears to have. It’s time to ask: What exactly would it take?
It starts with Congress. And here it’s instructive to compare Sanders and Donald Trump. Both rely on broad, satisfying refrains of “We’re gonna”: We’re gonna break up the big banks. We’re gonna make Mexico build the wall. We’re gonna end the rule of Wall Street billionaires. We’re gonna make China stop ripping us off.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
After a pair of poor showings in New Hampshire, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina drop out of the race.
The Republican race is headed to South Carolina with two fewer candidates. The day after finishing sixth and seventh in the New Hampshire primaries, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced on Wednesday that they were suspending their campaigns.
Fiorina was always a long shot—she was practically a political newcomer, having only run one unsuccessful Senate campaign. And while her record at HP was vulnerable to attack, Republican figures saw in her both private-sector experience and a woman who could counter Hillary Clinton’s monopoly on a “historic” woman’s candidacy. While many political professionals sniffed at Fiorina’s candidacy, remembering that 2010 Senate race, she broke out after a commanding performance in the undercard to the first Republican debate. That earned her a promotion to the main stage at the next debate, where she scored another victory. But it was all downhill from there. Dogged by questions of honesty and unable to earn media attention, her campaign faded quickly.