Christmas

A Master Woodworker Makes a Great Christmas Ornament

Woodworker Frank Howarth makes Christmas ornaments each year, and he shows us the process in his videos. The videos aren’t simple how-to presentations, though; they’re little works of art, featuring timelapse, very little language, and even stop-motion photography. This year’s ornament video is no exception.

In this 11-minute video,…

WWI Centennial: Third Christmas at War, Reliving History

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 260th installment in the series.

“The third war-time Christmas … No one talks about peace any more,” wrote Piete Kuhr, a German teenager living in East Prussia, in her diary entry on December 23, 1916. Kuhr gave voice to a bleak realization shared across Europe, as the wracked and bleeding continent limped to the end of one dismal year, and fearfully contemplated another promising to be even worse—although no one could predict just what it held in store.

Surrey In the Great War

A few months before, in September 1916, Alois Schnelldorfer, a Bavarian soldier, warned his parents: “I am certain that we have not gone through the worst yet; things will still get worse. Unfortunately, once war has started, it cannot easily be stopped … the war will not end any time soon. It is inevitable that we will have [another] Christmas at war.” On the other side of the battle lines, Hazur Singh, an Indian soldier serving with the British Army in France, prophesied in a letter to his mother dated November 30, 1916: “The war will not be finished for a very long time. It will certainly not be finished before 1918. My regiment will certainly not return.”

These grim predictions were confirmed in mid-December 1916, when Germany made a public offer to begin peace negotiations with the Allies, only to have it dismissed out of hand. In fact, Germany had no real intention of following through: the bogus peace proposal was simply meant to sway public opinion at home and abroad, especially in neutral countries, by shifting the blame for continuing hostilities on to the Allies. In truth it was merely a preamble to a brutal new intensification of the German war effort.

The offer of unconditional peace negotiations, sent to the Allies via neutral intermediaries December 12, 1916, was intended in large part for domestic consumption in Germany. After the German Social Democratic Party broke into two factions over the issue of whether to vote the government more war credits in late 1915, the moderate wing (which continued voting credits for the war effort, in contrast to the radical wing led by Karl Liebknecht) demanded evidence that Germany’s leaders were actively working for peace as the price of their continued support.

While hoping to placate the moderate socialists, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg was coming under mounting pressure from the new military high command, led by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his quartermaster general (in fact a close advisor on strategy) Erich Ludendorff, to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, most recently halted following American diplomatic protests prompted by the sinking of the Sussex in March 1916. Encouraged by Admiral von Tirpitz, the creator of Germany’s prewar navy, Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that the growing fleet of German U-boats could bring Britain to its knees by cutting off access to weapons, food, fuel, and other supplies crucial to the war effort imported from overseas—especially the United States.

click to enlarge

To achieve this, however, they demanded that German submarine commanders once again be allowed to sink any and all ships, including unarmed merchantmen carrying neutral flags, without warning. Of course this would once again put Germany on a collision course with the United States, which had twice threatened to break off diplomatic relations (a thinly veiled threat of war) over unrestricted submarine warfare.

The peace offer of December 1916 was Bethmann Hollweg’s last, vain attempt to square the circle. By publicly offering to begin peace negotiations with the Allies—which he knew they would almost certainly refuse—the chancellor hoped to cast the blame for the continuation of the war on the Allies in the eyes of the American public and other neutral nations. Then Germany could claim it had no choice but to resort to extreme measures, including unrestricted submarine warfare, to subdue the warmongers. In other words, the sinking of neutral vessels by German U-boats would really be the fault of the Allies, prompted by their rejection of the German olive branch.

The Great War 1914-1918

Unfortunately for Germany nobody bought this version of events. The German offer to begin peace negotiations was “unconditional,” meaning that the Central Powers would continue to occupy Belgium, northern France, Poland, and most of the Balkans while the two sides discussed peace terms. As the German leadership well knew, this was a non-starter for the Allies, who stipulated that the Central Powers must withdraw to pre-war borders before peace negotiations could begin (this is to say nothing of conflicting demands by the Allies and Central Powers for reparations and indemnities, which only made a real negotiated peace more improbable).

Following the Allies’ swift rejection of the bogus peace offer, the stage was set for Germany’s ill-fated resumption of U-boat warfare—and with it, America’s entry into the First World War.

The close of 1916 also brought the end of two of the bloodiest battles in history: Verdun and the Somme. Both battles had been intended to finish the war, or at least set in motion the events that would do so, but both fell tragically short of this goal. What they accomplished, rather, was simply death on a scale defying comprehension.

At Verdun, Germany’s fruitless attempt to deliver a knockout blow to France, the French suffered 337,231 casualties, including 162,308 dead and missing (with most of the missing also dead, blown out of existence). For their part the Germans counted 337,000 casualties, including 100,000 dead and missing.

The almost even number of casualties is testimony to the abject failure of the plan formulated by the former German chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, to lure the French into a battle of attrition—a failure which finally led to his dismissal and replacement by Hindenburg, the hero of Tannenberg. Indeed, one of the first actions taken by Hindenburg and Ludendorff on assuming the high command in September 1916 was the canceling of the Verdun offensive. But they couldn’t prevent the French from launching their own bloody counter-attack, which pushed the Germans back close to their starting positions by December 18, considered the official end of the battle.

Verdun is forever paired with the Somme, the Allied “Big Push” intended to break through the German defensive line in northern France and reopen the war of movement, setting the stage for Germany’s final defeat. The original plan for a massive Anglo-French joint offensive was derailed by the German onslaught at Verdun, which forced the French to withdraw many of their troops to defend the symbolic fortress city. The British bravely carried on with the Somme offensive at the request of the French, desperate to take the pressure off Verdun, but multiple failures in planning and execution resulted in disaster.

After the opening horror of July 1, the Somme quickly devolved into another brutal slugging match in the mud, with tens of thousands of lives sacrificed for gains rarely exceeding a few kilometers at a time. Each subsequent “Big Push” at the Somme was an epic battle in its own right, burning the names of tiny villages into the memory of the British public forever, including Bazentin Ridge, Pozières, Morval and…

The Fire That Destroyed the West Wing on Christmas Eve

On December 24, 1929, all was not calm at the White House—though it certainly was bright.

President and First Lady Herbert and Lou Hoover were hosting a Christmas party for children of White House staffers when White House Chief Usher Ike Hoover (no relation) delivered a quiet message to the president: The West Wing was ablaze.

Library of Congress

Hoover immediately grabbed his son and members of his Cabinet and led them to the executive office, where they crawled through a window and began hauling out steel cabinets full of important files. Hoover’s secretaries grabbed his desk drawers while Secret Service agents saved the desk chair and the presidential flag.

With the critical documents and important politicians out of the way, firefighters broke the skylight and chopped holes in the roof to let…

The History of Mrs. Claus

Modern Christmas lore is expansive enough to fill an encyclopedia. We’ve got songs about reindeer and snowmen, weird elf traditions, and letters to Santa. But how much do we really know about Mrs. Claus?

Marriage is a relatively new gig for Santa Claus. There’s no record of his original incarnation, Bishop of Myra St. Nicholas, having a wife. Although it’s not impossible for a fourth century Turkish bishop to have had a wife, the figure would expand and morph until, by the end of the 18th century, the bishop had transitioned into a full-time behavior monitor, jolly-maker, and bringer of toys.

But even mythological love affairs don’t just pop up overnight. It would be years and years before Santa found his lady. The first mention of Mrs. Claus appears in the 1849 short story “A Christmas Legend” by missionary James Rees, in which a couple disguise themselves, angel-like, as travelers, and seek shelter with a family. As it turns out, the two strangers are not the Clauses at all, but long-lost family members in double disguise. Still, real or not real, Rees had created a legend.

Over the next few decades, the legend took shape. Mentions of Mrs. Claus appeared in short stories, poems, and songs. She also began accompanying her husband to Christmas parties. Some reported that she dressed in red; others, like the architect/narrator in E.C. Gardner’s 1887 fanciful essay “A Hickory Back-Log,” decked her out in green and plaid while simultaneously…

Check Out These Vintage Christmas Cards

The very first Christmas cards were designed by Englishman John Callcott Horsley in 1843 at the behest of his friend, Sir Henry Cole. The seasonal mailers depicted a family sitting together at a table, with two images of them doing good deeds on either side. Of the 1000 that were printed, only a dozen have survived to this day. We’ve come a long way since then, and while cards with bells, whistles, tinsel, audio, and lights certainly have their place, it’s also nice to look back at what came before.

In that spirit, here are 50 delightfully retro cards from the New York Public Library’s digital archives. Believe it or not, they have many, many more, which you should check out here….

Get Know These Holiday Carols from Around the World

Ready or not, the holidays are here, and from now until New Year’s your ears will be filled with the glorious “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Silent Night,” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” tunes. To see how the rest of the world pa-rum-pum-pum-pums, tune into one of these global holiday carols for a toe-tapping, enjoyable change of pace.

1. “PASKO NA NAMAN” // PHILIPPINES

This popular Filipino Christmas sing-a-long, translated as “It’s Christmas once again,” shares the same sentiment we all have this time of year: How the heck are we already back here?

“It’s Christmas again
How fast time flies
Christmases past
Seem just like yesterday”

2. “PŮJDEM SPOLU DO BETLÉMA” // CZECH REPUBLIC

The Czech Republic’s holiday anthem—”Půjdem spolu do Betléma”—will have all the children up and dancing right from the beginning. The lyrics start out with a call to visit Bethlehem, before the narrator entirely shifts gears, ordering members of the band to get movin’ with their instruments.

“And you Johnny, let your pipe sound,
Dudli, tudli, dudli, da!

Start, oh, Jimmy, on your bagpipe,
Dudaj, dudaj, dudaj, da!

And you Nicol on the violin,
Hudli, tydli, hudli, da!

And you Lawrence, let your bass play,
Rumrum, rumrum, rumrum, da!”

3. “EN ETSI VALTAA LOISTOA” // FINLAND

As one of Finland’s most popular holiday songs, “En Etsi Valtaa Loistoa”—translated, “Give me no splendor, gold, or pomp”—reminds listeners that Christmas goes well beyond material desires. The song was composed by the famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in 1904, and remains much more of a church-type hymn than lighthearted carol.

4. “AISIM MERGOS, AISIM BERNAI KALĖDA” // LITHUANIA

This Lithuanian carol will put the party back in your holidays. Translated as “Let’s go girls, let’s go guys,” this song is all about living the good life. It tells the age-old tale of strong workers, chasing dogs, drinking booze, and … drinking more booze. We’ll toast to that.

“Those of you who are quick to shew away the dogs
Those of you who are strong to carry the sacks
Those of you who are brave to ask for bread
The lassies are drinking sweet mead
The women are drinking beer
The men are drinking spirits.”

5. “BETHLEHEM’S STJÄRNA” // SWEDEN

Translated as “The Star of Bethlehem,” this popular Swedish carol is about—you guessed it—that oh-so-famous holiday star….

The Story of Gingerbread Houses

This Christmas, you might find yourself elbow-deep in frosting and candy canes, trying to construct a gingerbread house that doesn’t collapse. But it turns out that creating a gingerbread house isn’t just a Christmas construction project—it’s a ritual with sometimes surprising connections to royalty, brutal fairy tales, and global trade.

Although versions of gingerbread date to ancient Egypt and Greece, the gingerbread we eat today has its roots in the Middle Ages, when cakes became all the rage in Europe as an increasingly global world opened up to new spices and ingredients. First there was fruitcake. The once-hot, now played-out treat came into favor after medieval cooks finally got access to dried fruit from Spain and Portugal thanks to increased trade in the 13th century.

That led to a vogue in cakes and breads, which spread as better construction made having an oven in your house less terrifying. Trade with the East also made the ingredients in gingerbread available for the first time. Early gingerbread recipes contain spices that were once coveted and expensive, like cinnamon, sandalwood, and saffron, which became increasingly accessible after the Crusades. Gingerbread became big business, and local variations began to arise. Lebkuchen, a gingerbread-like spiced treat, became popular in Germany, and guilds of gingerbread makers began to emerge in the 15th and 16th centuries.

As gingerbread makers got better at their craft, they began to press the…

The World’s Most Famous Christmas Poem Mysterious Origin

It’s a literary mystery: Nearly 200 years after it was published in New York’s Troy Sentinel, we still don’t know who really wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

When it first appeared in the newspaper on December 23, 1823, there was no name attached to it. It wasn’t until 13 years later that Clement Clarke Moore, a professor and poet, was named as the author. A story emerged that a housekeeper had, without Moore’s knowledge, sent the piece—which he had written for his kids—to the newspaper, and in 1844, the poem was officially included in an anthology of Moore’s work.

The problem? The family of Henry Livingston, Jr., claimed their father had been reciting “A Visit From St. Nicholas” to them for 15 years before it was published. Here’s the view from both sides.

Livingston’s Dutch background is a key component in this mystery. His mother was Dutch, and many references in the poem are as well. For example, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is likely where we got the popular names for Santa’s reindeer—there seems to be no reference to their names prior to the poem. A couple of the names have skewed slightly over the years; instead of Donner and Blitzen, the latter two reindeer recited were called “Dunder” and “Blixem,” the Dutch words for “Thunder” and “Lightning.” (These days, the spellings have changed slightly to “donder” and “bliksem.”)

According to proponents of this hypothesis, Blixem first became Blixen to better rhyme with Vixen, and then, in 1844, Moore changed it to the more German Blitzen. Dunder would become Donder, and then, in the early 20th century, was changed to Donner to match Blitzen’s new German name. (Clement Moore proponents counter that the original editor of the poem may have altered the names to better fit a pseudo-Dutch framework, and Moore was simply changing them back to…