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24 December: On this day in history

What events happened on 24 December in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: December 24, 2021 at 6:09 am
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24 December 1800: Assassins target Napoleon

A royalist conspiracy to blow up the French leader’s carriage goes disastrously wrong

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It was late afternoon on 24 December 1800 (or 3 Nivôse, Year IX, to use the French revolutionary calendar), when a fair, thick-set man called François-Joseph Carbon drove his cart to the Porte Saint-Denis, on the northern edge of Paris. There, aided by a fellow royalist conspirator, Carbon packed a huge wine cask with gunpowder, before heading back into the heart of the capital. The First Consul, he knew, would be driving past later that evening. As his carriage approached, they would light the fuse – and Napoleon Bonaparte would be blown to eternity.

At about eight that evening, Napoleon left his palace for the opera, where he was due to hear Haydn’s The Creation. He was exhausted; even as his carriage rattled over the cobbles, the master of France had fallen asleep and was dreaming about one of his old defeats. Everything should have gone according to plan. But as the carriage passed, one of the plotters panicked and failed to alert his comrades. That meant that when another plotter, Pierre Robinault de Saint-Régeant, saw Napoleon’s military escort riding past, it was already too late. He lit the fuse anyway, though.

Moments later, the ‘infernal machine’ went off. It killed a teenaged girl, whom the conspirators had paid to look after the horse attached to the cart, as well as several bystanders – but not Napoleon. His wife, Josephine, fainted with shock, but the First Consul himself remained calm. He drove on to the opera, as planned, and the audience rose to give him a standing ovation. | Read about the death of Napoleon


24 December 1818: An Austrian priest unveils his new carol: ‘Silent Night’

Musical phenomenon gets its first airing, in a divided town

In December 1818, the little Austrian town of Oberndorf, just north of Salzburg, was still nursing its scars. Two years earlier, after the treaties marking the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the town had been split in half, with its northern section across the river Salzach being given to Bavaria. The new frontier had driven a stake through the town’s economy; unemployment and resentment were running high.

Amid these convulsions, few had paid much attention to the arrival of a young priest called Josef Mohr, the illegitimate son of an Austrian mercenary. With him Mohr had brought the draft of a six-stanza poem, scribbled while he was at a church in the Alps. And when Mohr heard that the church organ was broken – which meant they might have no music at Christmas Eve’s midnight mass – he suggested to the organist, Franz Gruber, that his poem might make a decent carol. Gruber got to work on a melody.

As the worshippers trudged through the snow towards St Nicholas’s Church that Christmas Eve, none knew that they were to witness the birth of a musical phenomenon. Today ‘Silent Night’ is probably the world’s most familiar carol, having been translated into an estimated 300 languages and dialects. Its fame in the English-speaking world owes much to an American priest, John Freeman Young, who translated it for his New York parishioners in 1859 and later became bishop of Florida.

Yet the carol we sing today is not quite the same as Mohr and Gruber’s original. During its early days, it was faster and jauntier, a song to gee up the parishioners of a bruised, moribund little town – and a long way from the gentle ballad we know and love in the 21st century. | Read about the history of Christmas carols


24 December 1826: Eggnog excess fuels riots

Rebellion at the United States Military Academy results in court martials and hard labour

Late on the evening of Christmas Eve 1826, a group of cadets held a party at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Two days earlier, the cadets had smuggled in whiskey with which to make eggnog, and now they were determined to have some fun. By two in the morning they were singing loudly, and at around four they were severely reprimanded by their superior officer, Captain Ethan Hitchcock. But too much drink had flowed for them to take much notice.

Indeed, by roll call on Christmas Day, large groups of cadets, many of them visibly drunk, were in open revolt. Captain Hitchcock tried in vain to read the Riot Act, but to no avail; indeed, at one stage he was besieged in his room by a detachment of cadets, one of them firing a pistol.

Rumours spread that the officers had called for reinforcements, which provoked other cadets to take up arms in defence of their barracks. Only by breakfast time, when the rest of the cadets, who were sober, succeeded in calming their fellows, did the officers manage to restore order.

For the image of West Point, the Eggnog Riot was an utter humiliation. Some 70 men were involved in the rebellion, 20 of whom were court-martialled, while a further miscreant was sentenced to hard labour.

But most of the rebellious cadets soon shrugged off the stigma of the incident. Indeed, one of them later became president of his country. His name was Jefferson Davis – and his country was the Confederate States of America.


24 December 1865: The Ku Klux Klan is founded

Six bored Tennessee men form a club that would become infamous for racial hatred

Among the men gathering in Pulaski that winter were six former soldiers in their mid-twenties, all of whom had fought bravely for the Confederacy. These young men were far from mindless thugs; one later became a state legislator, another edited the local newspaper and the others went on to become lawyers. But not only were they downhearted by the South’s defeat, they were bored. There were no jobs and no opportunities. As one, John Lester, put it: “There was nothing to relieve” the emptiness that “followed the excitement of army scenes and service.”

It was Lester who first suggested that to give themselves something to do, they should “start a club of some kind”. The exact date is probably unknown, but legend has it that the first meeting was held on Christmas Eve 1865. The six men devised an elaborate costume – a long white gown, decorated with occult symbols – as well as an intricate, pseudo-mystical hierarchy. At first, though, their club had no overt political purpose. Their aim, one said later, was “purely social and for our amusement”; the point was to “have fun, make mischief and play pranks on the public”. The name of their new club was the Ku Klux Klan. | Read about when the Ku Klux Klan became a mass movement

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

24 December 1777 
The explorer Captain James Cook encounters Christmas Island.
24 December 1809
Trapper, soldier and frontiersman Christopher Houston 'Kit' Carson was born in Kentucky, the 11th of the 15 children of Lindsey Carson who had fought in the American War of Independence under General Wade Hampton.
24 December 1942
François Darlan, French admiral and deputy premier of Vichy France, was assassinated in Algiers by Ferdinand Bonnier de la Chapelle, a French royalist.
24 December 1951
Libya gained independence from Italy as the United Kingdom of Libya. It was ruled as a constitutional monarchy under King Idris until 1969, when Idris was overthrown in a coup led by the 27-year-old Muammar Gaddafi.

24 December 1968: Apollo 8 crew give the first Christmas broadcast from space

Hundreds of millions listen in to the astronauts’ historic address

On Christmas Eve 1968, Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders had been in space for three days. As the crew of Nasa’s Apollo 8 mission, the three American astronauts were the first human beings to leave the Earth’s orbit, to travel around the moon, and to see their home planet hanging in the darkness. And they were also the stars of another historic moment – the first Christmas broadcast from space.

After their ship had circled the moon nine times, the astronauts went live before a worldwide audience estimated to have been in the hundreds of millions. “We are now approaching lunar sunrise,” said William Anders, “and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.” Then he quoted the opening of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth” – and one by one, the astronauts took it in turns to read the Bible’s first 10 verses.

By any standards it was an extraordinary moment. “Oh, this is a little too much, this is a little too dramatic,” thought the veteran American news anchor Walter Cronkite as the astronauts began reading. But as they finished, even Cronkite, like tens of millions of others, was visibly moved. “By the time Borman had finished reading that excerpt from the Bible, I admit that I had tears in my eyes,” Cronkite said later. “It was really impressive and just the right thing to do at the moment. Just the right thing.”


24 December 1979: The Soviets invade Afghanistan

Act of aggression shatters hopes of USSR–US detente

Christmas Day 1979, and President Jimmy Carter was at Camp David with his family. It was, he noted in his diary, a “relatively lonely” day, the highlight being his daughter Amy's excitement at her presents, which she had insisted on opening at 5.30am. In the evening, they watched the film The Black Stallion then, quietly, they went to bed.

Just a few hours later Carter learned that during the night of Christmas Eve, even before Amy had opened her gifts, huge Soviet planes had landed at Kabul airport, airlifting some 8,000 Red Army troops into the capital of the landlocked country. On the Amu Darya river that marked the Soviet Union’s southern border, pontoon bridges were creaking beneath the weight of the 108th Motorized Rifle Division, heading south towards Kabul. It was, Carter wrote later, an act of “direct aggression by the Soviet armed forces against a freedom-loving people”, and a major step towards the Kremlin’s goal of world domination.

Actually, the Christmas invasion was a bit more complicated than that. Afghanistan had been a Soviet client for years, while the Kabul regime had been pestering Moscow for months to send troops to help them crush tribal rebels. For a long time the Kremlin hesitated. At last, convinced that their puppet president, Hafizullah Amin, had completely lost control, they had decided to act. They would indeed send troops – but Amin himself had to go.

Two days after Christmas, KGB commandos stormed the Tajbeg palace and killed Amin. On 28 December, Radio Kabul announced that the ruling Revolutionary Council had issued an invitation to the Soviet Union for further military assistance, and that the Kremlin had accepted.

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But far from restoring order, as the Soviet leadership hoped, the invasion provoked even fiercer tribal resistance. It also shattered any lingering hopes of detente with the Americans. As Jimmy Carter wrote in his diary, he was “determined to make [the Russians] pay for their unwarranted aggression”. After all, they had almost ruined his Christmas.

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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