Who says there’s no news at Christmas?

Notable events from December 25th that took place over the last century



Rising detainees return

Hundreds of Irish prisoners, including Seán T O’Kelly and Arthur Griffith, arrived in Dublin on Christmas Day following their release from Reading Gaol. They had been interned without trial for their association with the 1916 Easter Rising and released under amnesty by a new British government led by Lloyd George.

Although Griffith had not participated in the rising, his release six months before its leaders allowed him to gather support for a new political movement under the banner of Sinn Féin.

After committing to the formation of an Irish republic, the party (led by Éamon de Valera) would go on to win a landslide victory in the 1918 general election, and its MPs would assemble Dáil Éireann the following January.


F-1 nuclear reaction

The initiation of Europe’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction would act as a precursor to the creation of an atomic bomb just three years later in 1949. The 24 kilowatt F-1 nuclear reactor at Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute represented a breakthrough in atomic energy, its launch marking the first application of its kind for civilian and military purposes in the Soviet Union.

Fuelled by 50 tonnes of uranium confiscated from Germany, the F-1’s graphite-moderated reactor would not only become a prototype for modern nuclear power plants but also spur a nuclear parity between the US and the USSR for years to come. The reactor remains in operation today.


Stone of scone heist

When four Scottish students broke into Westminster Abbey on Christmas morning, they sought to recapture an ancient symbol of their country’s nationhood. The Stone of Scone, a slab of sandstone used for centuries in the coronation of monarchs, had been brought to England by Edward I in 1296. But as the students attempted to remove the stone, it broke in two.

Despite an extensive search campaign by police, it was eventually smuggled back to Scotland and repaired in secret before being left on the altar of Arbroath Abbey, wrapped in a Scottish flag. The identity of the perpetrators gradually came to light but none were prosecuted. The British government finally returned the stone to Scotland in 1996 and, three years later, the heist was recreated in the film Stone of Destiny.


White House intruder

Just before sunrise on Christmas morning, 25-year-old Marshall Fields crashed his Chevrolet Impala through the Northwest Gate of the White House. He proceeded to drive up to the building’s north portico, where his car was surrounded by security just feet away from the front door. A four-hour stand-off ensued in which Fields, wearing an Arab-style headdress and strapped with what appeared to be explosives, claimed to be the messiah.

The former taxi driver, who had been on file with the FBI for making threats to government officials, eventually surrendered after a radio station agreed to broadcast his wish to meet the ambassador of Pakistan. Fields’s “explosives” turned out to be roadside flares. Neither president Gerald Ford nor his family were home.


Charlie Chaplin dies

Best known for his character the Little Tramp, the star was celebrated for the enduring influence of his meticulously crafted humour which featured in more than 80 films from 1914 to 1967.

Chaplin’s wife Oona and seven of their children were by his bedside when he died in his sleep at their family home, overlooking Lake Geneva. Other notable entertainers who have died on Christmas Day include WC Fields in 1946, Dean Martin in 1995, James Brown in 2006 and Eartha Kitt in 2008.


Vietnam invades Cambodia

The dispatch of about 120,000 Vietnamese troops into Cambodia signified a crucial turn in a prolonged war between these two communist sides. The invasion, which had been incited by attacks on Vietnamese border towns by the Khmer Rouge, ousted the party from power in Phnom Penh by January 7th.

Leader Pol Pot, who had presided over a totalitarian regime that led to the death of millions, was quickly forced into hiding. Though a new administration was installed under Vietnamese guidance, a persistent insurgence from the Khmer Rouge kept the country mired in instability until 1991, when the Paris Peace Accords officially brought a conclusion to the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.


Execution of Nicolae Ceausescu

When the Romanian revolution spread to Bucharest, the country’s president fled by helicopter from crowds no longer prepared to feign support. Three days later, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were captured and subject to a summary military tribunal, which they refused to recognise. The couple were found guilty of crimes against the state – among them charges of genocide and undermining the country’s economy – before being executed by firing squad minutes after the verdict, which had been pre-determined.

Footage of the trial and images of the Ceausescus’ bodies were subsequently broadcast, announcing the end of Ceausescu’s 24-year regime as leader of the communist party. In the revolution’s aftermath, several new parties would spring up and begin the country’s transition towards democracy, free markets and civil liberties.


Gorbachev resigns

In a 10-minute farewell speech broadcast live on television, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union and formally dissolved the USSR. Four days previously, a group of former Soviet republics had founded the Commonwealth of Independent States, effectively dismantling the communist empire and forcing Gorbachev to hand power over to Boris Yeltsin.

Gorbachev had steered the Soviet Union’s exit from the cold war as well as introducing several economic and democratic reforms that brought 70 years of tyranny and stagnation to an end. As the red union flag was lowered over the Kremlin for a final time, Gorbachev expressed dismay at the break-up of the country but added that he had faith in the Russian people to build a great future.


‘Beagle 2’ disappears

Beagle 2, a space probe searching for signs of life on Mars, was expected to confirm its landing on Christmas Day. Instead, it vanished without a trace. Beagle 2 represented Britain’s first attempt to explore another planet – and the project had been launched on a relatively meagre budget of £66 million (€84 million), a tight deadline and a swell of publicity. The craft had been successfully released from the Mars Express Orbiter six days previously but, despite attempts to locate the probe, no sign of Beagle 2 or its wreckage has ever been found.

A 288-page report could not identify a definitive cause of failure due to lack of data. However, Prof Colin Pillinger – the British scientist who oversaw the probe’s development – suspected that a Martian dust storm may have created a thinner atmosphere than anticipated, preventing a safe landing.


St Mel’s fire

St Mel’s Crosier, a relic dating from before the 11th century, was destroyed in the blaze as fire fighters’ attempts to contain it were hindered by frozen pipes. The fire lasted four hours, gutting the cathedral and requiring a €30 million five-year restoration project that has just been completed. The cathedral reopens this Christmas.


Underwear bomb plot

A flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was the target of a failed al-Qaeda bombing plot when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man, attempted to detonate plastic explosives sewn into his underwear. Passengers grew alarmed as smoke and flames sparked from Abdulmutallab’s lap following a series of popping sounds. One Dutch passenger prised a burning object away from the 23-year-old and extinguished the flames with the help of cabin crew before restraining him.

Given that 290 people were onboard, the terrorist attack would have been the deadliest aviation incident in US history, had it succeeded. The incident heightened tension around flight safety measures and triggered debate in the US about whether such cases should be handled within the criminal justice system or by the military. Abdulmutallab was later indicted on six criminal counts and sentenced to life in prison.

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