25 December 274: Rome’s emperor honours the sun god with a gigantic temple

Aurelian marks the winter solstice by cementing his allegiance to the cult of Sol Invictus


In late December 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian was at the height of his power. After decades of instability, the former general had imposed order on the fractious empire, defeated a series of barbarian incursions and reintegrated the breakaway empire of Palmyra. But Aurelian knew that he was merely the instrument of Sol Invictus, ‘the unconquered Sun’, a god long associated with the Aurelius clan.

The cult of the sun god had become increasingly popular in the third century AD, competing with other fashionable faiths such as Mithraism and Christianity. According to legend, the emperor’s mother had been a priestess of the sun god in her home town, in present-day Serbia. And Aurelian was keen to elevate his favoured deity to the very first rank, announcing that priests of Sol Invictus would belong to a new College of Pontiffs, reserved for only the most prestigious gods.

Above all, Aurelian hammered home the new importance of the sun god with a gigantic Temple of the Sun in Rome itself. And the date chosen for the dedication could hardly have been more significant: 25 December, the winter solstice under the Julian calendar.

Though the cult of Sol Invictus, like the temple dedicated in 274, has long since vanished, its legacy could still be with us today. For centuries, some scholars have argued that Christmas is effectively an appropriation of Sol Invictus’s big day. Or was it the other way round? Had Aurelian stolen the idea of a religious festival on the winter solstice from the early Christians? Alas, we may never know. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 December 800

Charlemagne, the son of Frankish king Pepin the Short, was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in St Peter's Basilica, Rome.

25 December 820: A Byzantine leader is butchered

Assassins knife Leo V to death during morning prayers

It was dawn on 25 December 820 when the Byzantine emperor Leo V made his way into the imperial palace church for morning prayers. An experienced former general who had ruled in Constantinople for the last seven years, Leo prided himself on his singing voice, and at the first hymn’s refrain – “They poured contempt on the yearning of the king of all kings” – he raised his voice with gusto.

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Unfortunately, Leo did not realise that this was the signal for a group of plotters, allied with his imprisoned rival Michael the Armorian, to make their move. Drawing their knives, the conspirators rushed towards the emperor – but in the gloom, and confused by the worshippers’ heavy cloaks and felt hats, they had mistaken their man, and they fell upon one of Leo’s officials instead.

Realising what was going on, Emperor Leo seized a large golden cross to defend himself, and battle was joined in earnest. “He was able to resist for some time by parrying the sword-thrusts with the divine cross,” wrote the historian John Skylitzes, “but then he was set upon from all sides, like a wild beast. He was already beginning to flag from his wounds when, at the end, he saw a gigantic person about to deal him a blow.”

At that, Leo began to mutter a prayer, but the blow fell anyway, severing his arm and smashing the cross in two. Then, wrote Skylitzes, “someone also cut off his head, which was already damaged by wounds and hanging down”. And that was that. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 December 1066: The Conqueror is crowned

William of Normandy’s Westminster Abbey coronation goes up in smoke – in more ways than one

On the morning of Christmas Day 1066, William of Normandy rode through the streets of Westminster towards his coronation. His destination was the magnificent new abbey begun by his distant cousin, Edward the Confessor. It was just over two months since the battle of Hastings. Across the country, resistance still smouldered and security around the abbey was tight.

William’s coronation had been planned as the ultimate propaganda coup. In a supremely symbolic moment, the invader was crowned king by Ealdred, Archbishop of York, previously one of the chief supporters of Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king. Before lowering the crown onto William’s head, Ealdred asked the crowd – in English – if they wanted him as their king. And as had no doubt been arranged, up went the loud cheers of acclamation.

But then came disaster. In a telling sign of the anxiety of the day, William’s Norman troops misunderstood the cries of the English crowd. According to the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, “the armed guard outside, hearing the tumult of the joyful crowd in the church and the harsh accents of a foreign tongue, imagined that some treachery was afoot, and rashly set fire to some of the buildings”.

The fire spread, the crowd panicked, and, Vitalis wrote, “throngs of men and women of every rank and condition rushed out of the church in frantic haste. Only the bishops and a few clergy and monks remained, terrified, in the sanctuary, and with difficulty completed the consecration of the king who was trembling from head to foot.”

For William it was the worst possible start; for his new subjects, meanwhile, it was a sign of things to come. The English, recorded Vitalis, “never again trusted the Normans who seemed to have betrayed them, but nursed their anger and bided their time to take revenge”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 December 1223: The Christmas nativity is born

St Francis of Assisi recreates the birth of Christ, in Italy

Today the town of Greccio, in the Apennines in central Italy, is a sleepy sort of place. But at Christmas 1223, it welcomed one of the best-known men in the medieval world: Francis of Assisi, Catholic friar and founder of the Franciscan order. And it was Francis who decided that Greccio should put on the world’s first nativity scene.

Then in his early forties, Francis was keen to remind the people of Greccio that there was more to Christmas than fancy food and fine gifts. Then, as now, people often lamented that the true meaning of the festival had been lost. So, determined to “commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion [and] all possible solemnity”, and adamant that there must be no hint of “lightness or novelty”, Francis asked Pope Honorius III for permission to put on a little show for the people of Greccio.

Francis had been to the Holy Land a few years earlier, and may well have been inspired by the sites associated with the Gospels. According to St Bonaventure, he “prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed”. Then, as midnight approached on Christmas Eve, “the brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise”.

The nativity scene was a huge hit. One man, a former soldier who had become one of Francis’s closest companions, even claimed to have seen a vision of “an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger”. From then on, there was no looking back. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 December 1642

English physicist, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and theologian Isaac Newton was born in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. His father, a prosperous farmer who was also called Isaac, had died three months earlier.

25 December 1648

King Charles I spends his last Christmas as a prisoner in Windsor Castle having been brought there from Hurst Castle two days earlier.

25 December 1759

Birth at East Ruston in Norfolk of English classical scholar Richard Porson. In 1792 he was appointed regius professor of Greek at Trinity College, Cambridge after losing his fellowship following his refusal to be ordained. He was the discoverer of Porson's Law, which changed existing ideas on Greek meter and the typeface 'Porson' is based on his handwriting. Porson, who was known for his prodigious powers of memory and could faultlessly recite lengthy passages of Greek, died in 1808 and is buried in the chapel at Trinity.

25 December 1941: Hong Kong falls to the Japanese

A brutal occupation of the British colony begins

For the people of Hong Kong, Christmas 1941 was one they would not easily forget. A few weeks earlier, Japanese troops had launched a massive offensive against the British colony. With no chance of reinforcements, Hong Kong seemed doomed, and within days the attackers had fought their way into the heart of Kowloon.

As the British fell back, looting broke out across the colony. Father Thomas Ryan, a Jesuit priest, recalled that local gangs “went to shop after shop and house after house, breaking down the doors and going through every floor and every room swiftly and violently. The slightest resistance brought savage attacks that were often fatal. Earrings were torn away brutally; fingers were chopped off when rings did not slip off easily; and a blow with an iron bar was the most common reply to any attempt to bar an entrance… None will ever know how many people died during that terrible period.”

For more than two weeks, against all the odds, the colony held out. But by Christmas Eve, the Japanese army had slashed Hong Kong Island in two. That night, hundreds packed into the cathedral for midnight mass. As they left, exchanging half-hearted festive greetings, word spread that the colony’s governor, Mark Aitchison Young, was preparing to surrender.

When the worshippers woke on Christmas morning, it was to crashing and screaming, as crowds looted the houses of the rich colonial elites. At St Stephen’s College, which was being used as a makeshift hospital, advancing Japanese troops killed and raped at least 100 patients and nurses. That afternoon, on the third floor of the Peninsula Hotel, Young formally surrendered. For the next three and a half years, the colony remained in Japanese hands. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 December 1950: The Stone of Scone is stolen by students

Scotland’s hallowed relic is smuggled out of Westminster Abbey... but turns up in Arbroath nearly four months later

In the era of the Ealing comedies, the theft of the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey seemed like something from a film script. Yet at its centre was one of Scotland’s most hallowed nationalist relics – the ancient sandstone block on which its medieval monarchs had been crowned.

The plan to steal the stone was the brainchild of a young man called Ian Hamilton, a Glasgow student who was keen to win publicity for Home Rule.

A few days before Christmas, Hamilton and three friends drove south in a couple of Ford Anglias. On arrival in London they held a rendezvous in – of all places – a Lyons Corner House. That night, Hamilton made a first bid to steal the stone, hiding under a trolley in Westminster Abbey – only to be spotted by a night watchman.

The following evening, they tried again. This time they broke into the abbey overnight, climbing in through a building yard before making their way to King Edward’s Chair, where the stone was kept. In good Ealing fashion, they contrived to drop the heavy stone while they were dragging it out, smashing it in two before lugging the pieces into their waiting car.

At this point – it was 5am – the story took another bizarre twist. Before they could drive off, a passing policeman stopped for a chat and a cigarette. Only after he had gone did the robbers make their getaway – two of them heading for Kent with the larger bit of the stone, the other two bound for the Midlands.

The loss of the stone sparked a political furore. But the following April, after months of speculation, the students left the stone – now mended – on the altar at Arbroath Abbey, in honour of the declaration of Scottish independence at Arbroath in 1320. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 December 1989: Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu are shot

The Romanian people take swift revenge on the hated couple

At lunchtime on Christmas Day 1989, an elderly couple were shown into a dilapidated lecture hall at the Targoviste army barracks, north of Bucharest. Only days earlier, they had been the most feared people in Romania. Now, with the country in revolt, they looked around in crumpled confusion. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu – Romania’s longstanding communist leader and his wife – had only hours to live.

The lecture hall had become a makeshift courtroom, where the couple’s military captors planned to hold them to account. But the trial was a charade. It lasted less than an hour and though a junior officer filmed the whole thing, the camera never showed anybody but the two defendants.

Far from confronting his crimes, Ceausescu told the court: “I do not recognise you. Everything you allege is a lie.”

After a five-minute recess, the judges returned to announce their verdict. It was, of course, death. Elena Ceausescu wept; her husband, however, kept his cool. “Romania will live and learn of your treachery,” he told the judges. “It is better to fight with glory than to live as a slave.”

Guards bound the couple’s hands with rope and they were led into a courtyard. Then the paratroopers raised their rifles. When they had finished, other soldiers joined in, pouring bullets into the corpses. Later, the two bodies were buried under false names. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

25 December 1991: The Soviet Union takes its dying breath

The red, white and blue of tsarist Russia replaces the red of the Soviet flag as Gorbachev exits stage right

It’s 25 December 1991. In Moscow, where there are two weeks to go until the Orthodox Christmas, it ought to be just another day. But this is a date that will go down in history: the last day of the Soviet Union.

Historians still argue about when the Soviet state began to fall apart. But the death-blow came in August 1991, when communist hardliners, alarmed at the pace of change, staged a coup. Although the coup failed, it ripped the heart out of the communist regime. At the beginning of December, leaders of the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian republics met in a remote Belarusian hunting lodge and signed an accord to end the Soviet Union forever.

For President Mikhail Gorbachev, the accord was a humiliation, destroying his hopes of remaining as leader of a reformed, decentralised Soviet empire. For the next two weeks he cut a distinctly miserable figure, holed up in the Kremlin, presiding over a country that was doomed.

On 25 December, the end came. In a short address at 7pm, broadcast live on Soviet television, Gorbachev announced he was resigning his position. The presidential office, he said sadly, was now extinct. Tellingly, his speech was filmed by an American rather than Russian crew, while he signed his resignation letter with a Mont Blanc pen borrowed from the president of CNN. A few minutes later, Gorbachev handed over the famous briefcase with the Soviet Union’s nuclear codes to an officer representing Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who had declined to turn up in person.


At 7.32pm came the most symbolic moment of all. Above the Kremlin, the red Soviet flag was lowered for the last time. In its place, Yeltsin’s men raised the red, white and blue tricolour of tsarist Russia. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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