Rockefeller Center is one of New York City’s most famous landmarks, and the Plaza is one of the city’s most iconic public spaces. The skyscraper at 30 Rockefeller Plaza is familiar to Americans as the home of NBC. Across the street, Radio City Music Hall houses the famous Rockettes, a precision dance company that has performed the Radio City Christmas Spectacular each year since the theater opened in 1932. Since 1933, a giant Christmas tree has adorned the Plaza during the holiday season. The Plaza’s ice skating rink, which opened on Christmas Day in 1936, remains a tradition today.
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Just before Christmas of 1606, an expedition of the Virginia Company set off from London to establish a colony in the New World. They were a crew of 105 men divided among three ships -- the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed -- on a mission to establish a permanent English presence in North America. The fleet spent the first six weeks of its journey trapped in the English Channel by storms that left them seasick and frustrated with their lack of progress. Yet they refused to return to shore. The men dined aboard the ships on Christmas Day. For most, it would be the final Christmas of their lives. More than half died of disease and starvation within the first few months after founding the Jamestown settlement in Virginia.
The City of Williamsburg, Virginia was founded in 1632, and soon became one of the centers of colonial life in Virginia. The College of William and Mary was founded in the town in 1693, and six years later, Williamsburg became the capital of the Virginia Colony. The House of Burgesses met there for nearly 100 years, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. At Christmas, Virginians participated in feasts, parties and dancing balls. The holiday was a time of joy and celebration marking the birth of Jesus Christ.
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As Christmas of 1776 approached, the Continental Army fighting the American Revolution was on the verge of collapse. General George Washington was struggling to clothe, feed and pay his men. Knowing that their terms of service would expire at the end of the year, he resolved to make one final, desperate attempt at a victory. Amid a heavy snow storm on Christmas night, he led his Army -- many men lacking boots on their feet -- across the Delaware River on a nine-mile march to Trenton. There, the Patriots caught the Hessian mercenaries by surprise and achieved an improbable victory that reenergized Washington’s troops and marked the turning point of the war.
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George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, settled on the Potomac River south of Alexandria, Virginia, was home to many of his Christmas celebrations from the time he began leasing the property in 1754 until his death in 1799. George and his wife Martha were frequent hosts. In fact, they had visitors -- many uninvited and unknown travelers -- virtually every night in Washington’s later years (including 677 guests in 1798). Naturally, at Christmas Washington sought to provide some special entertainment. In 1787, his records indicate that he paid an Alexandria man to bring a camel to the estate for his guests to view -- not out of character for the curious Washington, who showed a lifelong interest in animals.
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The explorers of the Lewis and Clark Expedition -- or the Corps of Discovery as they were known -- spent the winter of 1804 at Fort Mandan (named for the nearby villages of the Mandan tribe) in present-day North Dakota. Clark writes in his journal that the men awoke to snowfall on a chilly Christmas morning and celebrated by firing three cannon shots. Another member of the expedition writes that the Corps then “Had the best to eat that could be had, and continued firing, dancing, and frolicking during the whole day. We enjoyed a Merry Christmas during the day and evening until nine o’clock—all in peace and quietness.”
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Christmas was quite a production in President Andrew Jackson’s White House. In 1834, Jackson threw a “frolic” for the children of the house, complete with games, music, food and holiday treats. The highlight was an indoor “snowball” fight, waged with cotton snowballs prepared for the occasion which bust apart upon striking their target. Earlier in the day, President Jackson reportedly took the children on a trip around the nation’s capital to deliver presents to local dignitaries and to visit an orphanage. The President’s own parents had both died when he was young.
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The Civil War raged from 1861 to 1865, splitting the country between the Union in the north and the succeeding Confederate States of America in the south. The southern states asserted a right to maintain the institution of human slavery without federal interference, and declared independence from the U.S. government at the outset of the war. The Union considered this succession an act of rebellion, and a long, bloody conflict followed. Christmas during the Civil War was a somber occasion. With the country torn in two, there was little joy on either side of the conflict. Anecdotes indicate that some soldiers erected small Christmas trees in front of their tents, with one soldier writing of decorating his tree with “hard tack and pork.” Other reports indicate soldiers were given extra rations to mark the occasion.
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Beginning in the early 1800s and accelerating dramatically from the 1840s through the end of the century, millions of Americans moved west to settle the vast frontier beyond the Mississippi River. The Homestead Act of 1862 increased migration in the west even further by providing settlers with free land if they established a homestead there. Life on the frontier was difficult and not particularly exciting, so when Christmas arrived, the holiday was a welcome break. Contemporary reports from settlers describe communities coming together enthusiastically to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ at church as well as at lively Christmas parties.
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To celebrate Christmas at the White House in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, hosted a spectacular Christmas “carnival”. The event, attended by more than 500 children, featured ice cream shaped like Santa Claus, among a variety of other delicacies. The party was reportedly “kids only” and was certainly among the largest holiday gatherings at the White House up to that point in American history.
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When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, the men of the 168th Infantry were sent to a small village in northern France. Even though the soldiers did not speak the same language as the local people, they managed to become friendly. By Christmas of that year, the men decided to surprise the children of the village with a party. They obtained a Christmas tree and whatever presents they could find, and gathered the local children in the church on Christmas Eve, where Santa Claus was waiting for them. The American soldiers made Christmas a little happier for the young French villagers who had endured three Christmases of war already.
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Although Christmas trees were often displayed inside the White House during previous holiday seasons, our nation’s capital had no official national Christmas tree until 1923. On Christmas Eve of that year, President Coolidge, joined by his wife Grace, pressed a button to light up a 48-foot balsam fir on the ellipse in front of the White House. The tree had been brought for the occasion from Vermont, Coolidge’s home state. The U.S. Marine Corps Band played at the ceremony -- an event that continues each year to this day, not far from where President Coolidge lit the first national Christmas tree nearly a century ago.
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Norman Rockwell was one of the most iconic and popular artists in American history. His paintings and illustrations of American life helped define the nation’s self image in the 20th century, most famously on covers of the Saturday Evening Post. Over a period of nearly 50 years, Rockwell painted more than 300 cover images, including depictions of life during the Great Depression, World War II, and of course, Christmas. Rockwell produced a series of heartwarming Christmas paintings over the years, including the image of an angelic Santa Claus reading his mail in 1935.
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The Battle of the Bulge was one of the most significant and costly battles of World War II. It began in December of 1944, when the German Army attacked Allied forces in the Ardennes Forest near the borders of Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and Germany. As the fighting continued on Christmas Day, a small group of American soldiers, lost in the thick forest and one of them wounded, approached a cabin in the woods and knocked at the door. A woman answered and invited the soldiers inside for shelter and a meal with her and her son. According to the son’s account, the Americans’ rest inside was soon disturbed by another knock on the door. This time, it was a group of German troops -- an extremely dangerous situation for the lost Americans. But the woman came to the Americans’ defense. She told the German soldiers they were welcome in her home, but that she would have no violence at her house on Christmas, and insisted they leave their weapons outside. The German soldiers obliged, and joined the woman, her son, and the Americans for a tense but peaceful Christmas dinner before all retired to a night’s sleep in the warmth of the cabin. The story was confirmed when the son was reunited with one of the American soldiers decades after the war.
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Less than a month after NASA launched the first American into space in May 1961, President John F. Kennedy set a goal for the U.S. to land men on the moon by the end of the decade. Thousands of small steps toward that goal followed over the next 8 years, and one of the most important achievements was Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders entered lunar orbit on December 24, 1968, and became the first people ever to see the moon’s surface up-close. From orbit, the crew transmitted a Christmas Eve television broadcast, with each astronaut taking turns reading from the Book of Genesis, the Biblical story of creation. At the end, Borman signed off, “From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you -- all of you on the good Earth.”
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