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 First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
Hillary Clinton is running as the candidate of continuity—but Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and most white Democrats think America is headed in the wrong direction.
Many commentators, watching the two party’s conventions, have noted that Democrats and Republicans seemed to describing different countries. But if you listened carefully last night, you heard two groups of Democrats describing different countries too.
The night began with Michelle Obama, who said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters—two beautiful intelligent black young women—play with the dog on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.”
Older men without a college degree are the core of Trump’s constituency. Perhaps it’s worth seeing how their younger selves are doing now.
In February 2011, the Washington Postpublished a survey it conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University on the U.S. economy. Although black and Hispanic families were hurt by the Great Recession, it was the "non-college whites" who held the darkest view of the country. These men used to the the backbone of an economy built by brawn and rooted in manufacturing jobs. But now, nostalgic and despondent in equal measure, more than half said that America’s best days were past, and 43 percent said "hard work and determination are no guarantees of success.”
The survey feels portentous now that the category of “non-college whites” has become the core demographic of Donald Trump’s astonishingly strong coalition. Trump’s support is driven by racism, xenophobia, and other varieties of cultural unease, but it is also a reflection of a lost generation of men, enraged and adrift in an economy where a college degree is one of the few dependable life rafts.
A 30-step review of the mayhem in Philadelphia, and what Clinton’s convention says about the future of the American political system.
Hillary Clinton, her advisers, and their allies at the Democratic National Committee watched Donald Trump’s nominating convention in Cleveland with smug satisfaction.
Team Trump had insulted Ohio’s governor, approved a Melania Trump speech that plagiarized Michelle Obama, lied about the plagiarism, and allowed Ted Cruz to expose party divisions in a prime-time speech.
“Hey @Reince,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz tweeted GOP chairman Reince Priebus. “I’m in Cleveland if you need another chair to keep your convention in order.”
Schultz reflected the Democratic establishment’s false sense of security. Headed to their convention in Philadelphia, Democrats felt more united than Republicans, better organized, and less vulnerable to the long-term disruption of a populist insurgency.
All hell broke loose.
WikiLeaks released 20,000 emails stolen from DNC computers, proof of the worst-kept secret in Democratic politics: The party worked against socialist-populist Bernie Sanders to ease Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination. The FBI said it would investigate whether Russia hacked the DNC to influence the U.S. election.
All hell broke loose.
“Lock her up!” chanted Democratic activists in the streets of Philadelphia. These Sanders supporters carried signs and wore T-shirts that called for Clinton’s indictment, channeling those GOP delegates in Cleveland who drew rebukes for defying old rules of political decorum.
Schultz cut a deal with the Clinton team to resign, effective upon the conclusion of the convention. She planned to open and close the gathering with remarks lauding her leadership.
All hell broke loose.
Addressing delegates from her home state of Florida, Shultz chastised an unruly crowd carrying signs reading “Division!” and “EMAILS.” She said, “We know that the voices in this room that are standing up and being disruptive, we know that is not the Florida we know.”
“Shame! Shame! Shame!” crowd members chanted. Schultz scurried out of the room.
Sanders himself tried to prevent a show of disunity on the convention floor, pleading with his supporters to back Clinton. Having promised his followers “a revolution,” he now fed them bitter pragmatism. “Brothers and sisters,” Sanders said, “this is the real world that we live in.”
All hell broke loose.
While the streets filled with a sweaty mass of angry Sanders supporters—mostly young and white and disconnected from the political system—the Clinton team told Shultz she couldn’t address the convention.
Sanders sent his supporters a text message, urging them not to protest on the convention floor.
All hell broke loose.
As the convention came to order, hundreds of Democrats protested outside. “No, no, DNC—we won’t vote for Hillary!”
Inside, Cynthia Hale mentioned Clinton’s name during the opening prayer. Some delegates booed, others chanted for Sanders.
There would be more protests.
Eventually, Clinton likely will regain control of her convention. Like in Cleveland, the desire to defeat a hated enemy will overcome internal differences. The blues will line up against the reds, Wall Street will support both teams, Clinton will win in November, and the status quo will declare victory over change. Populist unrest will broaden and intensify.
Or Trump will win. He won’t keep his promises, because he never does. He won’t make America any greater than it already is. He might make it worse. The status quo will declare victory over change. Populist unrest will broaden and intensify.
Whether it’s Clinton or Trump, historians will note how a billionaire celebrity took over the GOP with an anti-trade, anti-immigration nativism, setting fire to the political playbook that guided campaigns for the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.
Today will be long remembered, too. Sanders couldn’t calm the churning of his supporters and, as in a mutiny aboard a pirate ship, the deckhands have seized control from the captain.
This could be the start of something big inside the Democratic Party. What if, for instance, Sanders’s coalition banded together with Black Lives Matters to create Tea Party-like takeover of the Democratic Party?
People have witnessed disruption in the retail, entertainment, and financial industries—in virtually every institution except for government and politics. In an era of choice and technological efficiency, the American voter is given a binary choice and gridlocked government.
Most Americans want something better than what the Democratic-Republican duopoly crams down their throats.
They’re mad as hell and, as evidenced in Cleveland and Philadelphia, they’re just starting to realize how powerful they are. They don’t need to take it anymore.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
Donald Trump’s Republicans are becoming the party of blue-collar white voters, as college-educated white voters slip away.
The reshaping of the two parties’ coalitions under the blast-force pressure of Donald Trump’s iconoclastic candidacy may reach unprecedented heights in 2016, the first polls released after the GOP convention suggest.
National surveys released on Monday by CBS and CNN/ORC show the gap between the preferences of whites with and without a college education in the 2016 presidential race soaring to a level unmatched in any recent election. In both surveys, Donald Trump has opened a commanding lead over Hillary Clinton among whites without a college degree. But even after Trump’s own convention, the two surveys show him running no better than even, or slightly behind, among whites with at least a four-year degree.
It turns out that students who take AP classes don’t actually get better college grades.
As more students pursue college, high schools are becoming increasingly bullish about enrolling students in advanced classes. These courses, the standard refrain goes, will prepare young people for the rigor of higher education and set them up for success as they embark on their college careers.
Not so fast, say a pair of researchers in a new Brookings Institution blog post. “We found confirmatory evidence that advanced high-school courses apparently do little to prepare students for success in college coursework,” write Gregory Ferenstein, a former TechCrunch reporter (who has also written for The Atlantic), and Brad Hershbein, a nonresident Brookings fellow and economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.