7 things that happened in December through history

Dominic Sandbrook highlights events that took place in December in history...

These anniversaries were first published in the December 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

Elsie Tanner (Pat Phoenix) and her daughter Linda Cheveski (Anne Cunningham) clash in the first ever episode of long-running soap opera ‘Coronation Street’. (Shutterstock)

9 December 1960: Millions of viewers tune in as the first episode of Coronation Street airs

For British audiences, 9 December 1960 was a milestone in television history. At seven that evening, with more than 3 million people staring at their sets, a brass band struck up a mournful tune, the grainy black and white picture showed a long street of terraced back-to-backs, and Coronation Street began its record-breaking run as the nation’s best-loved soap opera.


Coronation Street was the brainchild of a young Granada scriptwriter, Tony Warren. In keeping with the sociological trends of the late 1950s, Warren was keen to explore working-class life in the urban north, a world already being transformed by postwar affluence.

“A fascinating freemasonry, a volume of unwritten rules,” began his note on the new series. “These are the driving forces behind life in a working-class street in the north of England. To the uninitiated outsider, all this would be completely incomprehensible.” The point of his new show, he explained, was “to entertain by examining a community of this kind and initiating the viewer into the ways of the people who live there”.

Yet although viewers clearly loved the new soap, the critics were not kind to Coronation Street. In the Mirror, one writer thought Warren had focused on the “wrong folk. For there is little reality in his new serial, which, apparently, we will have to suffer twice a week.” The paper’s main reviewer, Jack Bell, struck a similar note. Who, he wondered, could possibly want this “continuous slice-of-life domestic drudgery two evenings a week”?

20 December AD 69: Roman emperor Aulus Vitellius is dragged to his death

The emperor Vitellius has not had a good press. The historian Suetonius said he was “stained by every sort of baseness”, while Cassius Dio claimed he was “addicted to luxury and licentiousness”. Yet by the summer of 69, this greedy, profligate man found himself master of Rome. Amid the chaos following the death of Nero, two replacement emperors – Galba and Otho – had already been and gone, leaving Vitellius, for the time being, as the last man standing.

It has to be said that he was not an obviously impressive figure. Suetonius even claimed that he was so greedy that he “could never refrain, even when he was sacrificing or making a journey, from snatching bits of meat and cakes amid the altars, almost from the very fire, and devouring them on the spot”.

By December, however, Vitellius’s luck had run out. The governor of Judaea, Vespasian, had risen in revolt and his allies were marching on Rome. On 20 December, after ruling for less than a year, Vitellius threw off his purple robe, disguised himself in dirty clothes and took refuge in the palace door-keeper’s lodge, reportedly “tying a dog before the door and putting a couch and a mattress against it”. 

Not surprisingly, this proved completely ineffective. When, a little later, the soldiers burst in, they quickly recognised him. As Vitellius was dragged half-naked to the Forum, wrote Suetonius, “some pelted him with dung and ordure, others called him incendiary and glutton, and some of the mob even taunted him with his bodily defects”. 

At last his dead body was thrown into the river Tiber. His last words, apparently, were: “Yet I was once your emperor!”

The third of the emperors to rule during the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors, Vitellius first started his career as Consul in 48 CE, and was eventually given command of the armies of Germania Inferior by Emperor Galba. From there he began his bid for power against Galba and the other claimants.

He successfully led a military revolution against Galba's successor Otho in 69 CE, marching into Rome and becoming Emperor, though he was never acknowledged as such in the entire Roman world. His men were said to be licentious and rough, with Rome becoming embroiled in massacres and riots, decadent feasts and gladiatorial shows. Vitellius himself was described as lazy and self-indulgent, an obese glutton and a hedonist.

In July 69 CE, Vitellius learned that the eastern provinces had declared a rival emperor, Commander Vespasian. Following more provinces declaring for Vespasian and mass desertions among his own adherents, Vitellius resigned as emperor in December 69 CE. He was executed by Vespasian's men upon their arrival to Rome. His reign lasted 8 months.
Aulus Vitellius is dragged through the streets of Rome to his death, with the taunts of the mob ringing in his ears, as depicted in a painting from 1883. The emperor was renowned for his greed and profligacy and, by December AD 69, his fellow Romans had had enough. (AKG-Images)

29 December 1890: Up to 300 Native Americans are killed at Wounded Knee 

By the winter of 1890, the Lakota Sioux had reached a grim nadir. After decades of expansion by white settlers, with their bison herds hunted almost to extinction, most were now confined to reservations in North and South Dakota. Alienated and frightened, many were attracted to the new Ghost Dance movement, which claimed that through an esoteric circle dance, the Native Americans could expel the settlers and recapture their lands.

For the American authorities, the Ghost Dance movement threatened a wider Native American uprising. Mutual suspicion hung in the air when, on 28 December 1890, a party of 7th Cavalry troopers intercepted a group of around 350 Lakota Sioux en route to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and escorted them to Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.

As dawn broke the next day, the troopers ordered the Sioux to surrender any weapons. With tempers rising, a medicine man, Yellow Bird, began to perform the Ghost Dance. When another Sioux, Black Coyote, who was deaf, refused to give up his rifle, troopers tried to take it by force. Nobody quite knows what happened next: there was a scuffle, a gunshot – and then the firing began.

Only when the last shots died away was the extent of the slaughter clear. At least 25 troopers had fallen, many to friendly fire. But up to 300 Sioux had been cut down, including women and children. As one US army veteran recalled: “The white hot fury of this mad melee defies my attempts at description.” His comrades, he admitted, “simply went berserk”. The result was one of the most notorious massacres in American history.

DPL480757 Bureal (burial) of the dead at the battlefield of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 1891 (b/w photo) by American Photographer, (19th century); Denver Public Library, Western History Collection; (add.info.: The Wounded Knee Massacre happened on December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek.); American,  out of copyright
The dead are buried at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Women and children were among those killed in the 1890 massacre. (Getty Images)

16 December 1773: Boston rebels dump tea into the sea

It was dark in Boston when the Tea Party began. After years of rising tension between Britain and its American colonies, attention had become focused on the Tea Act of 1773, which reaffirmed the controversial tax on imported tea. At the end of November, the first tea ship, the Dartmouth, had arrived in Boston, but local activists demanded that it return home without paying the import duty.

The last day before the deadline for the Dartmouth to pay up was 16 December. The mood was edgy; at the Old South Meeting House, not far from the harbour, thousands of agitators rallied against the tea tax. Chief among them was local politician Samuel Adams, a long-standing opponent of British authority, and future founding father of the United States.

With passions running high, the crowd was soon surging towards the harbour. That evening, dozens of men, some of them disguised as Native Americans, boarded the Dartmouth and two other tea ships, unloaded hundreds of chests of tea and dumped them into Boston harbour. It was an act of pure vandalism, and back in Britain, the authorities were appalled.

To some observers in Massachusetts, however, the Tea Party seemed a rousing call to arms. “There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the patriots, that I greatly admire. The people should never rise without doing something to be remembered: something notable and striking,” the future president John Adams wrote in his diary. “This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it as an epocha in history.”

XND70126 The Boston Tea Party, 16th December 1773 (engraving) by .; Private Collection; (add.info.: destroying crates of tea in Boston harbour;);  out of copyright
Bostonians deposit chests of tea in their city’s harbour, in protest against an unpopular tax imposed by the British. (Bridgeman)

Expert comment – Professor Benjamin L Carp:

John Adams was right to note the boldness of the Bostonians’ action. They had rejected cheaper tea on principle – they didn’t accept parliament’s power to tax them, they hated that the revenue paid the salaries of certain government officials, and they detested parliament’s favouritism toward the East India Company monopoly.

The destruction of the tea looks even bolder because it invited dire consequences: the Coercive Acts of 1774. The Boston Port Act prohibited commerce until the town made restitution for the tea, threatening total economic ruin. The Massachusetts Government Act took power away from town meetings and local juries and vested them in the king and his governor. Meanwhile, the Administration of Justice Act allowed officials to stand trial for capital crimes in more favourable venues. These acts were intended to single out Massachusetts (and its capital) for punishment, but instead the harshness of the laws united 13 of the American colonies in their complaints against the British parliament.

The Boston Tea Party was a lawless act in defence of higher principles and in later years advocates of civil disobedience on the right and left have cited its example. These range from practitioners of violence (including the Ku Klux Klan and libertarian bombers) to practitioners of nonviolence (including Gandhi and Martin Luther King).

Other December anniversaries

14 December 1542

At just six days old, James V’s daughter Mary succeeds ger father and becomes Mary, Queen of Scots.

17 December 920

In Constantinople, the Byzantine admiral Romanos Lekapenos is crowned emperor alongside the existing ruler, the 15-year-old Constantine VII.

31 December 1857

After deliberating over a location for Canada’s new capital, Queen Victoria announces her choice: Ottawa.


Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter.