It’s a time for gifts, last-minute shopping, and over-indulgence. But through history the festive season hasn’t just been about celebration: here, Graeme Donald, author of On This Day in History, reveals eight of the weirdest things that have happened during the Christmas period through history…
This article was first published online in December 2014
Thursday 22nd December 2016
A newspaper article reporting the mysterious disappearance of the novelist Agatha Christie. (Getty)
3 December 1926 – Gone girl
English crime novelist Agatha Christie disappears, possibly in an attempt to get her adulterous husband, Archie, arrested for her ‘murder’. Abandoning her car in the countryside, she hides in a hotel under a false name for 11 days while the police scour the nation. What happened in those days remains a mystery.
8 December 1660 – The play’s the thing
Margaret Hughes appears as Desdemona in The Moor of Venice – a reworking of Shakespeare's Othello – at London’s Vere Street Theatre, possibly making her England’s first professional actress. Prior to this, boy actors generally aged between 13 and 19 played women’s roles in the theatre. It is thought that due to differences in diet and lifestyle in the Elizabethan period, boy’s voices did not break until much later. This enabled male actors to play female roles convincingly into their late teens.
18 December 1737 – The bills are alive with the sound of music
Master violinmaker Antonio Stradivari dies in Cremona, Italy. It is estimated that he made about 1,000 instruments in his life – about 500 of them violins that are still in use. They are valued at about £2 million each.
22 December 1938 – Something’s fishy
Believed extinct for 80 million years, a coelacanth is caught by a South African fisherman. A coelacanth’s brain is 98.5 per cent fat, with only 1.5 per cent reserved for brain tissue. Only two species of coelacanth are today known to exist, and the Indonesian coelacanth is classified as vulnerable.
23 December 1888 – A bittear dispute
Distraught after arguments with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh cuts off part of his left ear before wrapping it in newspaper and taking it to a brothel where, according to the local newspaper, he asks a girl called Rachel to keep it safe.
24 December 1965 – What’s that in the sky?
A flaming mass arcs over the UK. The meteor, about the size of an office desk, is fortunately shattered into thousands of meteorites by its own sonic boom as it enters the atmosphere to shower the village of Barwell near Leicester. No injuries are reported.
25 December 1865 – Tis not the season of goodwill…
Formed yesterday in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan holds its first gathering. The six founding members were classically educated and mainly of Scottish heritage, so they based the name on the Greek word ‘kuklos’, meaning circle.
1866: A wood engraving depicting two members of the Ku Klux Klan. The white sheet and hood were supposed to represent the ghosts of Confederate soldiers risen from the dead to seek revenge. Formed in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan held its first meeting on 25 December 1865. (MPI/Getty Images)
1 January 404 – Partners for afterlife
The last gladiatorial games are staged in Rome. The games evolved from the funeral of Brutus in 264 BC, at which men fought to the death to provide him with an escort in the afterlife.
On This Day in History by Graeme Donald (Michael O’Mara Books) is on sale now. To find out more, click here.