"Silent Night" is first performed, the Library of Congress burns, NORAD begins tracking Santa, and man orbits the Moon for the first time, all on this day.
1524: Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who in 1498 became the first European to reach India by sea, dies of malaria in Cochin, India.
1814: The War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain ends with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium.
1818: The first performance of "Silent Night" takes place in the church of St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf, Austria. The words were written two years earlier by young priest Father Joseph Mohr, who brought the lyrics to schoolmaster and organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment. Both performed the carol during the Christmas Eve mass. Pictured is a autographed copy of the carol signed by Gruber.
1851: A fire devastates the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., destroying about 35,000 volumes, about two–thirds of the library's 55,000 book collection, including two–thirds of the personal library Thomas Jefferson's had donated.
1865: Several veterans of the Confederate Army form a private social club in Pulaski, Tenn., called the Ku Klux Klan. The name was formed by combining the Greek word "kyklos," meaning circle, with clan. Similar groups soon arose across the South and adopted the same name. Members adopted white costumes consisting of robes, masks and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying, and to hide their identities. This first wave of the group died out by the early 1870s with a second version starting in 1915.
1871: Giuseppe Verdi's opera "Aida" has its world premiere at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo, Egypt, to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. Pictured is a set design for Act 2, Scene 2 of the opera's Cairo premiere.
1886: Film director Michael Curtiz, best known for winning an Oscar for directing 1942's "Casablanca," is born in Budapest, Hungary. Curtiz also directed many other classic movies, including "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Captain Blood," "Angels with Dirty Faces," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Mildred Pierce" and "White Christmas."
1905: Businessman, filmmaker and inventor Howard Hughes is born in Humble, Texas. Hughes would gain prominence in Hollywood from the late 1920s, making films like "The Racket," "Hell's Angels," "Scarface" and "The Outlaw." He would also become one of the most influential aviators in history and one of the wealthiest people in the world. He would also become remembered for his eccentric behavior and reclusive lifestyle in later life.
1906: Reginald A. Fessenden becomes the first person to broadcast a music program over radio. Using a high-frequency alternator-transmitter (pictured here) in Brant Rock, Mass., he plays a record, performs "O Holy Night" on the violin and finishes by reading a passage from the Bible.
1914: During World War I, the unofficial "Christmas truce" begins along the Western Front in Europe. British and German soldiers, who had already begun to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches in the weeks leading up to Christmas, independently ventured into "no man's land," where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing.
1914: Scottish-American naturalist John Muir, an early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States and the founder of the Sierra Club, dies of pneumonia at the age of 76 in Los Angeles, Calif. Muir's activism helped to preserve the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park and other wilderness areas.
1922: Actress Ava Gardner, best known for her roles in movies such as "The Killers," "Mogambo" (for which she received an Oscar nomination), "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," "The Barefoot Contessa" and "The Night of the Iguana," is born in Smithfield, N.C.
1927: Author Mary Higgins Clark, the writer of more than 40 best-selling suspense novels, including her debut in the genre, 1975's "Where Are The Children," is born in The Bronx, N.Y.
1943: During World War II, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt names Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower the Supreme Allied Commander.
1945: Rock musician Lemmy, best known as the lead singer and bassist for the band Motörhead, is born Ian Fraser Kilmister in Burslem, Stoke on Trent, England.
1955: The "NORAD Tracks Santa" tradition begins after a Sears department store mistakenly prints the phone number for Colorado Springs' Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center in an advertisement telling children they could call Santa. Col. Harry Shoup, who was on duty at CONAD that night, tells his staff to give all children who called in a "current location" for Santa Claus. The tradition started that night would continue when the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) replaced CONAD in 1958 and continues to be a Christmas Eve tradition today.
1968: The crew of Apollo 8 enters into orbit around the Moon, becoming the first humans to do so. They perform 10 lunar orbits and broadcast live TV pictures as part of a famous Christmas Eve broadcast, one of the most watched programs in history.
1968: Walt Disney's "The Love Bug," starring Dean Jones, Michele Lee and Buddy Hackett, opens in limited release. The movie, starring an anthropomorphic white 1963 Volkswagen racing Beetle named Herbie, would go on to earn more than $51 million at the domestic box office when it went into wide release in 1969, making it the third highest-grossing film of 1969 and inspiring a series of Disney movies.
1971: Singer Ricky Martin, who first became famous as a member of the boy band Menudo and as a solo artist since 1991, including his hit song "Livin' la Vida Loca," is born in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
1973: The District of Columbia Home Rule Act is passed, allowing residents of Washington, D.C., to elect their own local government.
1973: Author Stephenie Meyer, the creator of the "Twilight" series of books, is born in Hartford, Conn.
1974: Television host and radio personality Ryan Seacrest, best known as the host of "American Idol" and for his nationally syndicated radio show, is born in Dunwoody, Ga.
1984: British actor Peter Lawford, a member of the "Rat Pack" best known for movies such as "The White Cliffs of Dover," "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "Ocean's 11," dies of cardiac arrest at the age of 61 in Los Angeles, Calif. Lawford had also suffered from kidney and liver failure after years of substance abuse, which also contributed to his death.
1990: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman get married in Telluride, Colo. The marriage would last for just over a decade, with the couple's spokeswoman announcing their separation in February 2001.
1994: Air France Flight 8969 is hijacked on the ground by the Armed Islamic Group in Algiers, Algeria. Over the course of the next few days, three passengers are killed before the aircraft is forced to fly to Marseille, France, on December 26. French forces stormed the plane later that day, shooting and killing all four terrorists and successfully rescuing the 166 passengers and crew left on the flight. A former militant group leader later admitted that the hijackers had planned to detonate the aircraft over the Eiffel Tower if it had taken off again from Marseille.
1997: Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, best known for his 16-film collaboration with filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, from 1948 to 1965, in works such as "Rashomon" (pictured), "Seven Samurai," "Throne of Blood" and "Yojimbo," dies of multiple organ failure at the age of 77 in Tokyo, Japan.
2002: Laci Peterson is reported missing from her Modesto, Calif., home, by her husband, Scott, who was later convicted of murdering her and their unborn son and sentenced to death.
2012: Actor Charles Durning, best known for his roles in movies such as "The Sting," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Tootsie," "To Be or Not to Be" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," dies at the age of 89 in New York City. Durning earned Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor for his roles in "To Be or Not to Be" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."
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