Seven-thirty. Driving northwest out of town,
the snowscape dusky, sky tinted smoky peach.
In the rear view mirror, a bright orange glow
suffuses the stubbly treeline. Suddenly a column
of brightness shoots from the horizon,
a pillar of fire! One eye on the road,
I watch behind me the head of a golden
child begin to push up between the black knees
of the hills. Two weeks out from Solstice, the sun
so near winter it seems to rise in the south.
A fiery angel stands over his cradle of branches.
And what strange travelers come to honor him?
And what gift will I bring to him this day?
"Advent Dawn” by Thomas R. Smith from The Glory. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is Christmas Eve.
It was on this day in 1914 that the last known Christmas truce occurred, during World War I. German troops fighting in Belgium began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Their enemy, the British, soon joined in the caroling. The war was put on hold, and these soldiers greeted each other in “No Man’s Land,” exchanging gifts of whiskey and cigars. In many areas, the truce held until Christmas night, while in other places the truce did not end until New Year’s Day.
On Christmas Eve of 1940, Jean-Paul Sartre’s first play was performed, in a German POW camp where he himself was a prisoner. The play was called Bariona, or the Son of Thunder, and it was Sartre’s take on the Nativity story. Later the atheist Sartre wrote: “The fact that I took my subject from Christian mythology does not mean that the drift of my thinking changed, even for a moment, during my captivity. All I did was work with the priests who were my fellow prisoners to find a subject which could bring about, on that Christmas Eve, the broadest possible union of Christians and unbelievers.”
In Act I Scene I of Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote: “Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, / This bird of dawning singeth all night long; / And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad, / The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, / No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, / So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.”
On this date in 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft entered orbit around the moon. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to orbit a celestial body other than our Earth. Apollo 8 circled the moon 10 times over the next 20 hours, while the astronauts tested equipment and took many photographs of the moon’s surface. It was the first manned space mission to the moon, and it was a crucial step toward meeting the Apollo mission’s ultimate goal — putting a man on the surface of the moon. NASA would achieve that goal less than a year later.
The astronauts sent a Christmas Eve broadcast home to Earth from their path around the moon. Borman later recalled, “We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice, and the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate.” All three astronauts took turns reading from the Book of Genesis, which begins, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
William Anders later said that although the astronauts went on their mission to explore the moon, what they really discovered was the planet Earth. He added: “I think it’s important for people to understand they are just going around on one of the smaller grains of sand on one of the spiral arms of this kind of puny galaxy [...] it [Earth] is insignificant, but it’s the only one we’ve got.”
On this day in 1906, Canadian electrician and chemist Reginald Fessenden transmitted the first radio broadcast. Fessenden had originally moved to the United States in 1886 to work for his idol, inventor Thomas Edison. He wrote to Edison, “Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick.” Edison replied, “Have enough men now who do not know about electricity.” Nevertheless, Fessenden persevered and was soon hired by Edison Machine Works, laying underground electrical mains in New York City. By 1899, he was working for Westinghouse, experimenting with wireless telephones; a year later, he had a wireless communication system set up between Pittsburgh and Allegheny City.
In the late 1800s, radio communication consisted of Morse code, with operators decoding the “dots and dashes” into messages. Fessenden was convinced he could transmit speech without the aid of wires, as was his contemporary, Enrico Marconi. Fessenden got there first. In 1900, he became the first person to transmit the sound of the human voice when he spoke a simple message to his co-worker: “One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If it is, telegraph back and let me know.” His voice was carried wirelessly between two 50-foot towers on Cobb Island, located in the Potomac River.
Six years later, he gathered with a technician, his wife, Helen, and his secretary, Miss Bent, at a 400-foot tower in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, on Christmas Eve (1906). At 9:00 p.m., he said into the microphone, “CQ, CQ, CQ,” which was a general call to all stations within range. He gave a brief speech and then played “Ombra mai fu” (Largo) by Handel on his violin. He followed that by singing “O Holy Night” and “Adore and Be Still.” Fessenden passed the Bible to his wife and secretary so they could recite passages, but the microphone was hot and frightened them, so Fessenden read, instead, reciting from the Gospel of Luke, 2:14. He concluded by wishing listeners, “A Merry Christmas.”
The first radio broadcast was heard hundreds of miles away. Crews on the United Fruit Company ship, languishing out in the Atlantic Ocean, listened in astonishment. His combination of a transmitter (alternator) and a voice signal produced the composite AM radio signal we still use today.