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.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Chris Morris’s brutal satire aired its last and most controversial episode in 2001, but its skewering of the news media feels more relevant than ever.
A sex offender is thrown in the stocks, presented with a small child, and asked if he wants to molest him. A mob of protestors is thrown a “dummy full of guts” that is stomped to pieces within seconds. A radio host insists that pedophiles have “more genes in common with crabs” than the rest of humanity, insisting, “There’s no real evidence for [that], but it is scientific fact.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the most cringe-inducing moment on “Paedogeddon,” a special episode of the British TV satire Brass Eye. But 15 years after the episode aired, it remains a totemic, terrifying satirical vision. Few comedies since have dared to cross the boundaries of taste with such impunity.
“Paedogeddon” aired in the U.K. in the summer of 2001, a year after the murder of a young girl had sparked national hysteria over the country’s sex-offender registry. Britain’s most-read newspaper led a campaign to publish the names and locations of all 110,000 convicted sex offenders, prompting a riot in which an angry mob ransacked the home of an ex-con. Brass Eye, a parody of a 60 Minutes-like newsmagazine show, had been dormant after airing one season in the UK in 1997. But it returned four years later for this surprise broadcast, one that saw its furious (fictional) anchors barking from a dark studio about the plague of seemingly super-powered child molesters stalking the nation, holding a funhouse mirror up to the climate of paranoia and fear that had built up around the country. It was a bold, wildly insensitive piece of comedy, but one that captured the growing madness of the 24-hour news media and foreshadowed some uglier aspects of its future.
The Fox host’s insistence that black laborers building the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodgings” fits in a long history of insisting the “peculiar institution” wasn’t so bad.
In her widely lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Michelle Obama reflected on the remarkable fact of her African American family living in the executive mansion. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” she said.
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly discussed the moment in his Tip of the Day. In a moment first noticed by the liberal press-tracking group Media Matters, O’Reilly said this:
As we mentioned, Talking Points Memo, Michelle Obama referenced slaves building the White House in referring to the evolution of America in a positive way. It was a positive comment. The history behind her remark is fascinating. George Washington selected the site in 1791, and as president laid the cornerstone in 1792. Washington was then running the country out of Philadelphia.
Slaves did participate in the construction of the White House. Records show about 400 payments made to slave masters between 1795 and 1801. In addition, free blacks, whites, and immigrants also worked on the massive building. There were no illegal immigrants at that time. If you could make it here, you could stay here.
In 1800, President John Adams took up residence in what was then called the Executive Mansion. It was only later on they named it the White House. But Adams was in there with Abigail, and they were still hammering nails, the construction was still going on.
Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802. However, the feds did not forbid subcontractors from using slave labor. So, Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working as well. Got it all? There will be a quiz.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
At the Democratic convention, the president framed America as a shining city on a hill—under constant construction.
Barack Obama is a tinkerer and a poet in whose hands the concept of “American exceptionalism” is being reshaped for the 21st century and weaponized against Trumpism.
First used with respect to the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville, the concept of American exceptionalism is that this country differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, ethnic diversity, and revolution-sprung history. It is often expressed as superiority: The United States is the biggest, most powerful, smartest, richest, and most-deserving country on Earth.
Obama drew from this tradition in his Democratic National Convention address Wednesday night. “America has changed over the years,” he said, remembering his Scotch-Irish ancestors who didn’t like braggarts or bullies or people who took short cuts, and who valued honesty and hard work, kindness and courtesy, humility and responsibility.
Food-safety concerns have, unsurprisingly, hurt a company that plays up its high-quality ingredients.
In August of last year, a contributor to Investopedia, an online clearinghouse for financial news and investment advice, made this pronouncement about Chipotle’s miraculously-performing stock: “If you had invested just $1,000 during Chipotle's initial public offering (IPO), that investment would be worth $33,229 today.”
Little did anyone guess that, less than a year later, the fast-casual favorite’s mountain of momentum would be reduced to a hill of beans in the wake of a series of food-contamination episodes last fall and winter. This slide continued as the company announced a 24 percent same-store sales drop in the second quarter of 2016. As the AP noted last week, “a year ago, the company earned $140.2 million”—nearly $4.50 a share—while this year, second-quarter profit was $25.6 million (just 87 cents per share), missing Wall Street’s expectations.
The Green Party candidate wants disillusioned Bernie Sanders supporters to join her—not Hillary Clinton.
PHILADELPHIA—Jill Stein takes public transportation to the Democratic National Convention. On the day after Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to win a major party presidential nomination, the Green Party presidential candidate is on the subway en route to the Wells Fargo Center. Adoring fans spot her on the way over and demand selfies. A heavily tattooed woman complains to Stein: “It’s been a Hillary party the whole time. It’s like brainwash, like waterboarding. It’s awful.”
Stein is in high demand. The populist progressive tells me that after Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton two weeks ago, effectively ending his insurgent campaign for president, a lot more people started paying attention to her campaign. “The floodgates opened,” Stein says. “I almost feel like a social-worker, being out there talking to the Bernie supporters. They are broken-hearted. They feel really abused, and misled, largely by the Democratic Party.”
Seeking prosperity through lax business and tax regulations leaves countries worse off.
In the early 1990s, economists coined the term "the resource curse" to describe a paradox they observed in countries where valuable natural resources were discovered: Rather than thriving, such countries often crumbled, economically and politically. The newfound wealth, instead of raising living standards for all, generated violence, as well as accelerating the growth of inequality and corruption. Terry Karl, a Stanford political science professor, dubbed this the "paradox of plenty." The same story has played out again and again all over the world, from Venezuela (where Karl did her research on the destruction wrought by oil wealth) to Sierra Leone (home of blood diamonds) and Afghanistan (which, despite $3 trillion in mineral wealth, remains among the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world).
His call on a foreign government to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account is a complete subversion of GOP ideals.
The first excuse for Donald Trump’s amazing press conference on Wednesday, in which he called on the Russians to hack and publish the 30,000 emails wiped from Hillary Clinton’s home server, was: He was only joking.
That excuse almost immediately dissolved. When Trump was asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta whether he would call on Vladimir Putin to stay out of U.S. elections, the presidential nominee answered that he would not tell Putin what to do. After the conference ended, Trump tweeted out a slightly tidied up request to the Russians to find Clinton’s emails—but to hand them over to the FBI rather than publish them.
The second excuse, produced on Twitter minutes later by Newt Gingrich, is that Trump’s remark, while possibly unfortunate, mattered less than Clinton’s careless handling of classified material on her server. That defense seems likely to have more staying power than the first—about which, more in a minute.