5 Worst Christmases in U.S. History

Not every Christmas season is uplifting, in fact, some American Christmases have been downright depressing. In today’s Friday History List, I look at the five worst Christmas seasons in United States history. If you ever get tempted to think that this holiday season is tough, just remember these, and be thankful for what we have.

5. Christmas 1963 – Barely one month before, the young and popular President John Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. At Christmastime, much of the nation was still in shock and mourning.

4. Christmas 1941 – In the days following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Philippines, Burma, Borneo, Hong Kong and Guam..On Christmas Day 1941, Americans worried about Japanese midget subs in San Francisco Bay and German U-boats off the coast of New Jersey.

3. Christmas 1929 – This was the first Christmas after the Stock Market crash of October. With banks failing, companies shutting down and the life savings of many Americans having evaporated, there was plenty of coal in the nation’s stocking this year.

2.  Christmas 1862 – When 1862 began, both North and South were hopeful that “the late unpleasantness” might soon be over. The North trusted in their new commander, George McClellan, and the South was buoyant after the successes of 1861. By Christmastime, inconceivable slaughter at Shiloh and Antietam had ended all illusions. In the North, the families of Union soldiers mowed down at Fredericksburg only days before had even less to celebrate.

1. Christmas 1776 – The United States, barely five months old, seemed on the verge of extinction this Christmas. George Washington’s continental army had been driven from New York, chased through New Jersey and now sat, malnourished, sickly and demoralized, on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River. Many of Washington’s troops planned on going home in a week, since their enlistment papers expired with the new year. The British busied themselves making preparations for their winter quarters, in full expectation of accepting the surrender of whatever remained of the American rebellion in the spring. A list had already been prepared, detailing which American leaders would be granted amnesty, which would be imprisoned, and which would be hung for high treason. What no one knew that Christmas morning was that Washington was about to save the American Revolution and in doing so, change the course of history.

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The Day The Music Died – For Me

We’ve all heard somber-sounding people on television or the radio asking the question: “Do you remember where you were when you heard about (insert traumatic event here)?”

For my parents, there was Pearl Harbor and then the assassination of John Kennedy. For most people of my generation, we have 9-11. But I think there exists a second category of psychic traumas, traumas that are not national ins cope, but are more personal, and leave their scars on a smaller, more targeted audience.

For me, the shooting death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980 falls into this category. I’ve always been a Beatles‘ fan, surrounded as I was by older brothers who were Beatlemaniacs (until I was 8, I was led to believe that all music was Beatles’ music). As I got older, I developed my own love for the Beatles, and for John Lennon’s music in particular. Being a sixteen-year-old in the winter of 1980, I guess I identified with Lennon’s rebellious nature, his brutal honesty and the raw truth in his lyrics. Lennon bowed to no one, and had a reputation as a troublemaker. All of this I found very appealing.

On the night of December 8, 1980, I spent a good deal of time tying up my parents’ telephone line in conversation with my best friend, Dave Padgett (that was how we communicated with each other back in the day). We laughed as we imitated Monty Python skits, in particular, The Piranha Brothers, and we talked about playing an elaborate practical joke on my brother Alan. It was a typical, nondescript Monday night.

Much of America heard about Lennon’s shooting on Monday Night Football. At that moment, however, I was in my family’s upstairs bathroom, having just finished washing my hair. As I was vigorously toweling it dry, my mother, who had been watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the living room, called to me that NBC News had just broken into the program to say that a Beatle had been shot. I rushed downstairs, telling myself that she must have misunderstood, that someone with a similar sounding name or something must have been shot. It had to be a mixup. When I got there, Johnny was back on the air, seeming completely oblivious to the incredible news (I didn’t realize that his show was taped).

Flipping around the few channels we had in 1980, I found a reporter in front of Lennon’s building in New York, the Dakota, with a growing crowd behind her. As the taped interviews with witnesses and the updates from Roosevelt Hospital came in, it became clear: John Lennon was dead. I called Dave, who hadn’t been watching television. We hung up quickly to watch the coverage, which alternated between reporters at the hospital and the chaotic, sad scene outside the Dakota. By 1 AM, there were literally thousands of people gathered around Yoko’s building, singing John’s songs, hugging and weeping.

Radio stations of all formats immediately switched to all-Beatles programming, and I stayed up all night, listening to the music, listening to the tributes, listening to the DJs struggle to make sense of it all. It was strange, but I kept checking the newscasts, almost believing that there was still a chance that it was all a mistake, but the facts remained unchanged. John Lennon was dead, killed by a mentally ill fan. We later found out that Lennon had signed a copy of Double Fantasy for his killer, Mark David Chapman, earlier that evening, and the moment had been captured by an amateur photographer:

At school the next day, Dave and I made plans to travel to New York for what was certain to be a massive public funeral. As it turned out, there would be no funeral. Instead Yoko opted for ten minutes of silence on Sunday the 14th; it is said that tens of millions stopped to observe it.

During that week, it seemed like every magazine featured a tribute to John Lennon, and I wondered how much money was made from the grief.

For my part, I kept reading newspapers, listening to the radio tributes and talking to Dave. I sent a short letter to Yoko expressing my feelings of loss, knowing that it was one of a million letters she’d never see. It all seemed surreal.

Over the next few weeks, it felt like we struggled to place John Lennon in context. Was he a pop superstar, a troubled poet, a rebel rocker, a peace activist, or a feminist house husband? How could we label him for easy, convenient packaging? Lennon reinvented himself so often it was hard to pin him down. I remember DJs starting to refer to him as “The Master,” as if he required a label (maybe because Elvis was “The King?”). Thankfully, the attempts to label John Lennon soon passed. The selling of John continues unabated, however, and I expect that he will be redefined and repackaged by each succeeding generation; such is the price of immortality.

For me, though, it was more personal than that; I felt robbed of Lennon’s future almost as if it were my own. I recall being in a record store in Lansdowne soon after and overhearing two middle-aged women discussing the tragedy. They were tsk-tsking it, saying what a shame it was. You have no idea, I remember thinking. You have no idea.

Pearl Harbor: A Date That Is Being Rapidly Forgotten

Sixty-eight years ago today, your grandparents’ generation had their 9-11 moment. On that day, the Empire of Japan decided to sucker-punch the United States Pacific Fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. The Japanese military leadership hoped that by destroying America’s naval presence in the Pacific, they could bully the United States into accepting Japanese hegemony in the Far East. This would allow their aggressive expansionism to continue unchecked.

The attack began at 11:55AM Eastern time (6:55AM local time), with the aerial bombing beginning almost an hour later. The Americans at Pearl Harbor were taken by surprise, and nearly 3,000 were killed. The destruction was nearly complete: 4 battleships sunk; 4 battleships damaged including 1 run aground; 2 destroyers sunk, 1 damaged; 1 other ship sunk, 3 damaged; 3 cruisers damaged; 188 aircraft destroyed, 155 aircraft damaged; 2,345 military and 57 civilians killed, 1,247 military and 35 civilians wounded.

The United States, however, was fortunate on this day. The decisive weapon of the war in the Pacific would not be battleships, but aircraft carriers, and the American carriers were out to sea when the Japanese struck, and thus they survived. What the attack had accomplished more immediately, however, was to thrust the United States into the Second World War.

For the next six months, the Japanese Empire ran amok in the Far East, capturing nations at will as the United States at first reeled, and then began to build the most formidable war machine in human history to that point. By the summer of 1942, the United States had begun the process of taking the fight to the Japanese, winning two stunning victories at Coral Sea and Midway. From then on, the Japanese were on the defensive. But on December 7, 1941, Americans didn’t know how things would turn out.

Many expected a Japanese invasion of the West Coast; any American with an Oriental look about them was soon considered suspect. Many whites had no time for subtleties  -to them, they all looked like the guys flying Zeros at Pearl Harbor and Midway. Not long after this, the internment order for Japanese-Americans would be issued.

For my father, then a seventeen-year-old living at St. Mary’s Industrial School on the present site of Cardinal Gibbons School, the entry of the United States into the war brought him to enlist in the Marines. He would eventually be wounded on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1945, but lived to tell the tale. He quickly recovered and would have been part of the invasion of the Japanese mainland had not the atomic bomb ended the war. For this, I probably owe my existence, because conservative estimates put American casualties in Japan at around one million.

Marines on Okinawa

The day after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt said that the date would “live in infamy.” For many younger Americans, the date has already lost its meaning, and the future looks bleak as less than 50 survivors of the attack remain. Soon, there will be no one to recall the events of that day, and we will become dependent on books, photographs and films.

But today, while we still have them here, let’s not pass up a chance to pause for a moment or two and recall their 9-11 moment, just as we hope that sixty years from now, our grandchildren will be able to recall ours.

10 Worst Days in United States History

In honor of Black Friday, this week’s History List ranks the ten darkest days in U.S. history. In drawing up this list, I take into account not just fatalities, but also the impact that the event had upon the nation’s psyche. For this reason, only one battle makes the list.

Ready for a depressing trip down America’s Memory Lane? Here we go:

10. 01/28/1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger) – Before this tragedy, the U.S. space program had experienced nothing but success since the fatal January 27, 1967 Apollo I launchpad fire. I suspect that we had begun to take this success for granted, going so far as to include a civilian on this mission, Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher. America watched the shuttle explode live on television, instantly killing all on board, and then got to see the confused and horrified reaction from the crowd at the launch site, including McAuliffe’s parents. It was a stunning and sobering reminder that the United States was not infallible, and that space exploration was still very dangerous business.

Christa McAuliffe, in the back row, second from left.

9. 04/18/1906  (San Francisco earthquake, 3,000-6,000 dead) As devastating as this 8.0 magnitude event was, the subsequent fires that tore through the largely wooden buildings caused 90% of the damage in the city. In addition to the dead, 300,000 survivors lost their homes, with losses estimated at $6.5 billion (in 2009 dollars).

8. 04/04/1968 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated) The murder of Dr. King, followed by days of bloody race riots, heralded the end of the spirit of non-violence the slain civil rights leader had championed, and initiated a period of extreme anger and confrontation. 1968 would soon see the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the chaotic Democratic National Convention and a call for a return to “law and order.”

7. 09/08/1900 (Galveston hurricane, 6,000- 12,000 dead) At the time of the hurricane, Galveston, on the Gulf coast, sat just 8 feet above sea level. The storm surge alone was 15 feet high. You do the math. After the town had been obliterated, the stench of corpses could be smelled for miles; they were collected on carts and hauled outside of town for mass burial.

6. 11/22/1963 (Kennedy Assassination) For all of his moral flaws and practical inability to get much done, John Kennedy was perhaps the most inspiring leader of his time. While his popularity represents the triumph of style and ideals over substance and achievements, millions of young Americans saw him as representative of their (and America’s) future. His brutal killing in Dallas, followed by a very public period of mourning, will forever mark the end of an American period of innocence, and it set the stage for a darker, more conflicted time in America’s history.

5. 12/07/1941 (Pearl Harbor) As Christmas 1941 approached, most Americans were thankful to have thus far avoided the scourge of war, and assumed that the nation would continue to do so. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet’s base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, ended this illusion. The tally: 4 battleships sunk; 4 battleships damaged including 1 run aground; 2 destroyers sunk, 1 damaged; 1 other ship sunk, 3 damaged; 3 cruisers damaged; 188 aircraft destroyed, 155 aircraft damaged; 2,345 military and 57 civilians killed, 1,247 military and 35 civilians wounded. Images of the Pearl Harbor disaster covered newspapers the next morning, and a Japanese invasion of the American Pacific coast was considered entirely possible. The internment order for Japanese-Americans would soon follow.

4. 09/11/2001 – Before this day, Americans assumed that terrorism was something that other countries had to worry about, as if our geographic separation from the Middle East would save us. The sheer magnitude of the 9/11 attacks stunned the people of the United States and reminded them of their vulnerability in what could be a very frightening world. It also brought to the surface the depths of the hatred with which some Muslims viewed Americans, and the lengths to which they would go to kill Americans (2,976 on this day alone). Feeling insecure in the aftermath of these attacks, Americans willingly accepted intrusive laws, a government with unheard of investigative powers, and military intervention in the Middle East.

3. 4/15/1865 (Lincoln dies) Abraham Lincoln was the nation’s one constant during the trial of civil war. Generals came and went, territory changed hands and the fortunes of war rose and ebbed, but Lincoln never wavered. Only weeks after having been inaugurated for a second term as president, Abraham Lincoln was dead at the hands of an assassin with Southern sympathies. Just when it had seemed as if the nation would be restored without further antagonism, the main proponent of “letting the Rebels up easy”  had been murdered, and the victors held the vanquished fully responsible. What came next was Radical Reconstruction, as many in the North sought not so much reconciliation as retribution. The Old South would be militarily occupied for another dozen years, and forever relegated to the status of economic backwater.

2. 10/29/1929 (stock market) The largely unregulated stock market, full of excesses that had fueled the Roaring 20’s, met with disaster on this day. Banks that had invested poorly folded, taking businesses and family savings with them. The ripple effect brought on the Great Depression, sending millions to the unemployment rolls and devastating the nation’s economy for 12 years, where it could only be ended by the ramp up to World War II. The financial turmoil of this event helped dictators rise to power in Europe and left scars upon a generation that never fully healed. (Just ask anyone over 75.)

1. 08/24/1814 (Washington, D.C. burned) In an event that is today little talked about and even less understood, the capital of the United States was occupied by a foreign power and laid waste. And Americans were helpless to stop it. In 1814, the third year of the War of 1812, England, having finally dispatched Bonaparte, focused its full attention on the wide expanse and paltry military of the United States. While its army and navy occupied eastern New England and planned multiple invasions, British negotiators demanded large land cessions as the price of peace (seeking not only to establish a neutral Indian buffer state in what is now the states bordering the Great Lakes, but also revising both the Canadian‐American boundary and the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that had established the United States as an independent nation). When Washington, D.C fell, almost effortlessly, to the British invasion forces, many thought that the United States was finished as an independent nation. New England actually considered seceding from the United States, and made plans to hold a convention with that object in mind. At the end of August 1814, America teetered at death’s door as a political entity. Fortunately, there would be miracles soon forthcoming at Baltimore and Lake Champlain.

(Dis)Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

04/12/1861 (Ft. Sumter)

11/16/1776 (Ft. Washington abandoned)

3/06/1857 (Dred Scott)

04/12/1945 (FDR’s death)

04/09/1942 (Bataan)

09/17/1862 (Antietam)