On this day in history, December 25

Residents take pictures of a café decorated for Christmas in Athens, Greece. Picture: AFP The management and staff of Independent Media wish our readers a very merry, joyous and safe Christmas

Residents take pictures of a café decorated for Christmas in Athens, Greece. Picture: AFP The management and staff of Independent Media wish our readers a very merry, joyous and safe Christmas

Published Dec 25, 2023


Today, back in the day

336 Christmas is first celebrated on this day. The date was chosen because it is nine months after the Annunciation, which celebrates Christ’s conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary, on March 25 (also the date of the spring equinox). Technically, the original Christmas festival was on January 7, partly because the Julian calendar was used from Julius Caesar's time up until Pope Gregory XIII's reform, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. With the change, over a week of days in the year were lost.

Bartholomew Diaz

1487 Bartolomeu Dias enters a wide bay (Luderitz Bay) after sailing for three weeks along the arid coast of south-west Africa.

Christopher Colombus

1492 Christopher Columbus’ flagship, Santa María, runs aground off Hispaniola (Haiti), apparently because of drunken Christmas eve revelry. The crew are left to found a colony while Columbus returns to Spain, but on his return he finds no trace of them.

Struggle icon Nxele Makana

1819 Struggle icon Nxele Makana drowns while escaping from Robben Island. Post the Fourth Frontier War 1811-1812, the Cape Governor, Sir Charles Somerset, made a verbal treaty with Gaika, the paramount chief of the Western Xhosas. Unfortunately this agreement provoked a quasi-nationalist movement among the Western Xhosas, led by the ‘prophet’ Makana, which led to a renewal of the civil war between Gaika and Ndlambe.Nxele – Makana – was later imprisoned on Robben Island for leading an attack on Grahamstown in 1818. On Christmas day in 1819, Makana and 30 other prisoners escape from Robben Island in three boats. However, the boats capsized and Makana drowns. Only four survived. Makana became a lasting symbol of resistance. The island is sometimes referred to as Makana Island.

A plum pudding

1899 In an act of chivalry during the Second South African War (aka the Anglo-Boer War,) a Boer shell fired at Ladysmith carries a plum pudding (not the same one as shown on this page) for the besieged inhabitants.

1914 Second day of the Christmas Truce on the Western front during World War I. Many French, German and British soldiers cross trenches to exchange greetings, have joint burial ceremonies, prisoner swaps, carol singing and soccer games. The truce is not unique to Christmas and reflects a mood of ‘live and let live’, amidst one of the most violent conflicts of human history.

1939 A US department store introduces Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.

1989 Trial of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena on charges of genocide and personal enrichment; the couple are found guilty and executed by firing squad.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the great reformer and last leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

1991 USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, who radically reformed the Soviet Union and almost single-handely ended the Cold War, quits. He is succeeded by Boris Yeltsin, whose deputy is a little-known ex-KGB officer, Vladimir Putin. In time the world would come to know his name.

1995 A bloody feud between IFP and ANC supporters comes to a head with a massacre at Shobashobane, on the South Coast. Nineteen people are killed, hundreds are injured and 87 houses are gutted. Top local and national government officials spend Christmas Day consoling survivors. One of them, Bheki Cele, tells the press: ‘What I saw was beyond belief ... the killers were parading in the area with the private parts of a victim, saying this was their trophy.’ Another had been chopped to pieces, ‘as if someone was preparing to braai meat’.

The James Webb Telescope.

2021The revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope (named after the first director of Nasa – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), is launched from French Guiana, South America.