Saturday, December 27, 2014


I favor the theory that “Boxing Day” began when servants, required to serve their masters at Christmas Day banquets, were sent home the day after with boxes of leftovers and presents, and allowed a day of rest. And to the Hessian soldiers in Trenton, the dawn of Boxing Day, 26 December, 1776, promised some blessed peace. Only about half of the German “Soldatenhandel” serving the British in the American Revolution were from the poor small state of Hesse-Kassel But to the American soldiers marching 8 miles through the snow in the cold and wind, every German in Trenton was a hated Hessian.
The village of Trenton over looked the Delaware River and was bisected by Assunpink Creek to the southeast. At the northern apex of the town, on high ground, a right hand road led 20 miles north to Princeton, while a left hand road led 19 miles west to Pennington, New Jersey. From the apex square two parallel streets angled down hill into the town, forming an “A”. King Street ran to the west and Queen Street to the east. Both crossed three numbered streets and Front Street, before King Street terminated at the “River Road”, that led directly 9 miles north to McConkey's ferry. Queen Street angled east before crossing Assunpink Creek over an arched stone bridge. The poorer third of Trenton was south of the creek, while the road continued south toward Bordentown, 20 miles down the Delaware River.
Three regiments of Hessians had occupied Trenton just since 14 December, one in the south and the other two in the north end of town. Most here were crammed into the “Old Barracks” (above), built by the colony of New Jersey to shelter 300 of the King's soldiers during the French and Indian War - 2 men to each bunk, 12 men in each of the 20 rooms
 But in 1776, 36 year old Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall (above), was pressed to find living space for all 1,500 of his men, a task made more difficult after evacuating patriots set fire to many of the village's 100 buildings. And within 3 days of their occupation, it was clear the Hessians in Trenton were under siege.
Almost every day and every night, rebels took pot shots at the German sentries, and threatened to burn down the buildings the Hessians and their families were sleeping in. Picket duty, such as the roadblock at the village apex, and the road block on the River Road, which would have normally been the duty of ten men, now required fifty. Colonel Rall was forced to rotate his regiments, keeping one always on alert, even ordering those men to sleep in uniform, with their weapons. The alert regiment could expect to answer at least one alarm most nights, rushing to reinforce the pickets, or even chase down gangs of arsonists. 
This constant interruption of the men's sleep was no harmless game. Just the week before two couriers were attacked on the road to Princeton, and one was killed. Rall sent fifty mounted men to ensure his dispatches got safely to headquarters. After two weeks of this constant tension, one junior officer confided to his diary, “...our people begin to grow ragged…. We have not slept one night in peace since we came to this place.”
In fact, the first night Colonel Rall felt secure enough to allow his men to relax, was during the storm on Christmas night. But even then, the evening did not begin peacefully. Shortly after sunset, the picket guarding the apex traded hots with a mounted rebel party - it was, probably, Lt. Monroe's raiding party. Six Hessians were wounded. In response an ensign led 30 men up the Pennington Road, in search of the raiders. But the wind and sleet drove them back, and as the storm strengthened and the temperature plunged, Rall ordered most of the men back to their barracks, leaving a scant guard to suffer the storm out of doors in two hour shifts.
There were no Hessian parties that miserable Christmas night, and very little drinking. There was only the sound and smells of 1,500 exhausted, bored and nervous men in very close quarters, snoring, coughing, mumbling in their sleep and using chamber pots. As if by divine will, the Nor'easter had blown its last cold gust just as General Washington launched his two pronged assault.
The first hint of disaster came to Colonel Rall in his sleep, shortly after eight in the morning of Boxing Day. It was gunfire, again, muffled this time because of the 12 inches of fresh wet snow on the ground.. Rall was unsure at first , but when he and his wife heard pounding on the front door of his headquarters, the colonel clambered out from his warm bed, and threw open the second floor windows. He demanded of young Lt. Andreas von Wiederholdt standing in in the snow, “Vas ist loss?” The nervous Lieutenant stammered almost apologetically, that the Americans had the town surrounded and were firing artillery from the high ground at the the north end of town. Johann Rall called for his horse to be brought out and threw on his clothes.
In fact, the town was not surrounded. The militia which was supposed to land south of Trenton the night before and complete the circle, had never made the crossing. But a junior Hessian officer, hearing the firing from the top of the village (1) , pulled the pickets who had been huddling in houses along the River Road, and led them north to help with what he assumed was another American raiding party. The front door to Trenton was now unguarded
And it was not a mere raid. Rhode Island's Nathaniel Green, at the head of over half the American forces, about 800 men, had pushed the few unfortunate pickets suffering outside off the high ground at the pinnacle of the “A”, and cut the road to Princeton. 
Within a few minutes, Henry Knox's field pieces were blasting down both King and Queen streets (above), while Green's frozen infantrymen occupied houses, and began firing from windows and doorways. The hail of shot and shell ensured the newly arrived Colonel Rall could find no room to organize his regiments. There would be no counterattack up either street.
And just as the Hessian River Road pickets had abandoned their post, a column of about 600 men under New Hampshire General James Sullivan arrived on River Road, and pushed unopposed across the broad base of the “A”, even filtering to the Queen Street approach of the stone bridge over Assunpink Creek (above). Now Rall's command really was surrounded, and a third of his strength was cut off. Out of contact with their commander, the Hessian regiment south of Assunpink Creek, did little more than trade occasional musket fire with the Americans at the bridge
But there was an easy solution to the Hessian's problem. There was another bridge over Assunpink Creek, the Fourth Street Bridge, higher up the stream, north of the village. A road from here also ran to Princeton. Had the officer commanding the third Hessian regiment shown the initiative to look for a way around the American snipers at the Queen Street bridge, had he taken the chance of leading an attack around his own right flank, he would have fallen on the American left flank from the rear, just as Rall was finally leading a desperate attack against the front of that same American position.
Circumstances had forced Rall out into the open, to the field east of Queens street. Here his men had room to form up and maneuver in formation, and here he could bring the weight and discipline of his professional soldiers to men bear on the Americans. So, about an hour after the American attack began, and about 40 minutes after he had been awakened from a dead sleep, Colonel Rall raised his sword and commanded about 600 of his men to advance toward the American line with the bayonet.
It was the climax of the battle. Washington knew his men did not have the stamina for a long fight, and was pushing them forward, determined not to give the Hessians, or his own men, time to think. So even as Rall was leading his men into the field, American infantry were slipping into houses along Queen's Street, whose back doors gave them clear shots at the flank and rear of the Hessian assault. And by chance one of those shots hit Colonel Johann Rall in the abdomen. He did not fall from his horse, but he did slump in the saddle. It was clear instantly he had been gravely wounded, and immediately the Hessian attack fell apart.
Sensing the enemies' sudden collapse, the Americans pressed forward, driving the remaining Hessians back, into an orchard along the River Road. Colonel Rall asked for quarter, and a relieved Washington immediately agreed to accept his surrender. It was just about 10 in the morning, Boxing Day, Thursday, 26 December, 1776. The most important single battle of the American Revolution had been won.
Total American casualties for the operation were three wounded (one of whom was Lt. Monroe) and 2 men who had begun the march without shoes, fell asleep on the road to Trenton, and died of exposure. The Hessians suffered 22 dead – Including Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall who died the next day - , 83 wounded and almost 1,000 soldiers and 23 officers, 1,000 muskets and 8 cannon captured. Most the third Hessian regiment managed to retreat 20 miles to Bordentown, although some stragglers were later taken prisoners as well.
Washington wasted no time in New Jersey. Aware now that his supporting units had not made the crossing, he had his weary men and their prisoners slipped back across the Delaware River by nightfall. The next day he informed Congress of his amazing victory. Two weeks before, Washington had warned Congress “Ten more days will put an end to the existence of our Army.” Instead, his Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware, and his Boxing Day assault on Trenton, had saved the American Revolution at almost the very moment of its birth.
Sometimes history is just that simple.
- 30 -

Friday, December 26, 2014


I have two favorite Christmas chorals; the haunting Carol of the Bells, composed in 1904 by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, and the seemingly nonsensical Twelve Days of Christmas, which is old enough that we have no idea who composed it. In fact, the Twelve Days of Christmas might even predate Christianity in France, where it originated. And that makes this English carol more interesting - to me, anyway – because it speaks to the evolution of the holiday. Remember, it wasn't until 137 years after the death of Jesus, give or take a couple of years, that the Bishop of Rome ordered a “Christesmaesse” - Christ's Mass, to celebrate Jesus' birth. You see, the twelve disciples did not celebrate Christmas, partly because they were Jewish, but mostly because until fairly recently anything from 60 to 80% of infants died within hours of their birth. Nobody celebrated their birth day, not even Pope Julius I, who around 345 A.D. picked December 25th for Christmas. For all humans, even for the Messiah, life did not officially begin until their epiphany, (meaning, according to thesaurus.com -the announcement, the display, the exhibition or the showing of the child), which was not held until you were pretty sure the child was going to live. And Jesus' epiphany is traditionally celebrated on January 6th – 12 days after Christmas.
This English Christmas Carol began as a medieval midwinter festival “memories and forfeits game”, a sort of musical chairs in a world without very many chairs. We know the game began in France because
the Red-legged (or French) partridge, widespread in medieval Europe, commonly perches in trees, unlike the the English (or grey) partridges which, while common today, were not introduced to England until the 18th century, and prefer ledges or cliffs. And in all three medieval French versions of the song that we know of, and all surviving English versions, “a partridge in a pear tree” is the first and final present always received by the lead singer.
In the game the leader sings a verse, and each participant repeats what they have just heard, and everybody then takes a drink of wine or mead. Then the leader sings another verse, adding an item, the players repeat, and then everybody drinks again. The rounds we have inherited begin “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gives to me, a partridge in a pear tree.  On on second day of Christmas, my true love gives to me, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.”
The game continues (with variations) to three French Hens, four colly birds, five gold rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking, nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers pipping, and twelve drummers drumming. A player who forgets an item is eliminated and forced to offer a kiss to the leader, or eat a less than appealing food item. The game would continue until all 12 verses were done, or all the players but one had been eliminated. Sound familiar?
And yes, the line is “four colly birds”, as in a colliery, meaning a coal pit or a mine. The birds referred to were as black as coal – the common European black bird. When this song was translated into English, crows and ravens were only referred to as fowl. But the 4 ½ ounce Turdus merula (the black thrush), was small enough to be called a bird . In the winter black birds were easy to attract with seed and easy to catch with a net, and they were a common part of the diet. Peasants sang about “four and twenty black birds baked in a pie”. It is a reminder that there are huge chunks of our culture based on now forgotten starvation repeatedly suffered in each life time. And “break fasts,” like the midwinter festival, were fond memories, which Christianity had to adopt and adapt.
In fact, birds play a major role in this song, as if the leader was scanning the banquet table for the next noun to use in the next verse. The partridge is followed by turtle doves, french hens, the Colly birds, geese and swans. The five gold rings seem out of place unless they refer to the ring-necked pheasant, the male of which (above) has a golden brown plumage and a white ring around his neck. There would have been pheasants on any well stocked midwinter festival table, along with the other bird protein
There would also have been cheese (made from milk), and about the room, men and women dancing - but not in pairs, that would not become common until the 10th century. And of course there would be musicians accompanying the song-game with the world's oldest instruments, a flute (or a pipe) and a drum. Music was as vital a part of pagan religious and social celebrations, as they are of Christian services. And that brings up the recent myth that this game was used to preserve Catholicism in a hostile Protestant England. That might be true, except there is not even of hint of it until 1979. However, the success of this myth across the Internet since, does offer an insight into the methodology Christianity used to snatch Christmas from the happy pagans getting drunk at their winter solstice break fast. I am not suggesting a conspiracy, but rather a well meaning application of religiously influenced logic .That is also probably how Mithra over came Apollo, and how Jupiter conquered Zeus. It would be wise for all born again Christian evangelicals to remember that religions practices never really die, they just become adopted and adapted.
The same can be said about a certain odd mathematical aspect of the carol. If you add up all the gifts – 1 partridge, 2 turtle doves and 1 partridge, 3 french hens, 2 turtle doves and 1 partridge, etc., etc. – they add up to 364 gifts in total. It seems there ought to be some connection between the gifts and the length of the year. The only problem is a year is 365 ¼ days long, not 364, and that length has been well known since, well, since forever. And while it seems the number of gifts, like some sort of Christmas carol kabbalah, ought to mean something, it really doesn't. And that seems to me to be the difference between religion and science. In religion the possibility of meaning is the meaning, while in science the possibility is theory and subject to testing. Religion gave us the pyramids and Michelangelo's "David". Science gave us a modern infant mortality rate in industrial nations of less then 1%.  Both have value.
Which brings us to the Christmas Price Index, created in 1984 by the chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as “a humorous commodity price index to measure the changing cost of goods over time” using the gifts in The Twelve Days of Christmas. Each year in late November, PNC analysts consult with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and the National Aviary in Philadelphia to price most of the birds in the song. However, for some reason, rather than a European black bird, PNC uses the price of a canary at Petco. Gordon Jewelers, a division of Zale Corporation out of Irving, Texas, prices five gold rings for the Index, even tho, as I said earlier, the gift probably refereed to was five ring-necked pheasants. The maids-a-milking are assumed to be earning federal minimum wage, and the Philadelphia Dance Company and their Ballet Company provide the cost of leaping and dancing ladies and lords. The Pennsylvania Musicians Union provides the cost of the drummers and pipers, and the fruit tree has always been priced by Waterloo Gardens, an upscale Philadelphia plant nursery catering to the local 1%.
In 2012 the partridge and the pear tree together cost $189.99, the turtle doves $125 for the pair, the French Hens $165, the 4 Colling birds (actually Petco canaries) $519.96, the five gold rings $750, the 7 swans $7,000, and the 8 maids the same as last year at a mere $58 (which says something depressing about the minimum wage). The nine ladies and ten lords also cost  the same as last year, at  $6,294 and  $4,766, respectively. The musicians were  $2,562 for the wind instruments and $2,776 for the percussionists. In 2011 for the first time the cost for the Twelve Days of Christmas topped $100,000, up 4% over the year before. And in 2012 the total was $107,300. Surprisingly, the cost of buying the 12 days shopping on-line was 16% higher than buying the same gifts at a mortar and brick store. But then, PNC does not endorse their index as a valid gauge of the economy.
PNC admits they use the index to “engage clients”, which means they are trying to entertain bankers, a profession not known for their humor or humility. But, PNC also admits this annual nonsense economic measure has become “one of PNC’s most popular and anticipated economic reports.” I suspect that is in large part because it is “filler” used by media types to add a Christmas hint to their newscasts. However, this year, the results may have a slightly more telling comment on a changing America. In June of 2012, after 70 years in business, the “nationally renowned Waterloo Gardens” went bankrupt. It seems even the 1% are tightening their belts, which means their gardeners are beginning to starve.
Have a Merry, merry, Capitalist Christmas.
  - 30 -

Thursday, December 25, 2014


I consider North Carolina the arena of storms. It's where the 6,000 foot high Black Mountains constrain invading cold dry Canadian air so it clashes with the moist tropical on-shore winds born from the Gulf Stream just off Cape Hatteras. The spinning earth puts a twist on the collision of these conflicting air currents, and the jet stream rushes each cyclonic eddy away, drawing in even more warm air, dropping the barometric pressure at the ever tightening center of each newborn tempest. The leading edge of these storms is first felt by the farmers and seamen of New Jersey, New York and New England coming from the north northeast, or nor-northeast, which is why the storms came to be called Nor'easters

Christmas morning of 1776 in the Delaware River Valley was overcast, with temperatures well below freezing in a soft northeast wind. After a meager breakfast, the foot soldiers of the Continental army were told there would be no drilling, but were issued fresh flints for their muskets, and told to pack three days rations After almost a year of service they knew what this meant. They were soon going into action. The few who had paper, composed letters home. Most spent the morning struggling to repair their clothing, tying rags about their disintegrating shoes, fashioning their new blankets into repairs for overcoats and pants and gloves. In those hours, even the most fanatical must have wondered what the hell they were doing, suffering for a commander who had so far had brought them nothing but defeat, retreat and misery.
After noon, as the thermometer struggled to climb under lowering clouds, the men were were told to leave their personal effects in their huts and tent dugouts, and form into companies. The roll was called, and then the companies formed into battalions. The men were now issued 60 balls and powder, and about three in the afternoon, with the winter solstice sun fading, 2,400 marched eight abreast in tight formations, three miles south to the ferry operated by Samuel McConkey. Major John Wilkinson, following on horseback, tracked his unit's progress through the hard packed week old snow “tinged here and there with blood from the feet of the men who wore broken shoes.” Near the ferry the troops formed up again, hidden from the river by high ground, to wait for darkness in a spitting rain. And to pass the time, the officers read them a new pamphlet from the quill pen of Thomas Paine.
Ben Franklin had recruited Thomas Paine (above) to American two years earlier ago, just as the ruling English conservatives were about to have the author of “Common Sense” arrested.  Paine served on Washington's staff, and suffered the grinding retreat across New Jersey, inspired by the experience to scribble out a new monograph. Once safely across the Delaware, Paine had hurried ahead to Philadelphia, but found the government gone, and the town filled with “fears and falsehoods”. It had taken him ten days to find a printer who could have “The American Crises” produced as a pamphlet, but it's inspiring cadence would prove as effective for the American cause as a broadside from a 44 gun man-of-war.
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet... it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right...”to bind us in all cases whatsoever,”....Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God...There is a natural firmness in some minds which cannot be unlocked by trifles, but which, when unlocked, discovers a cabinet of fortitude; and I reckon it among those kind of public blessings...that God hath blessed (General Washington) with...a mind that can even flourish upon care....”
The 44 year old George Washington had personally planned the entire crossing, having the Durham boats brought down river over several nights and hidden behind Taylor Island near the ferry point. The Congress had not provided funding for a dedicated staff, so Washington surrounded himself with fellow FFVs, members of the First Families of Virginia, a social class he understood and could trust. But his new responsibilities also brought him into a new world. A year ago, when he first arrived in Boston he had been accompanied by a “body slave”, dressed in an exotic oriental costume. But he had noticed the reaction of men like Hancock and Adams, and he was beginning to doubt slavery was economically viable or morally defensible for a man leading a war for freedom. In a year, he would be writing to the manager of his Virginia plantation that he intended to free all his slaves in his will. The password he gave to his command this night was "Victory". And the answer was to be, "Or Death."
The first to be polled across the Delaware River in the gathering winter gloom were 40 mounted dragoons under Captain William Washington (second cousin to the General), and including future President Lt. James Monroe, another FFV'er. Their assignment was to ride three miles north of Trenton and block the road to Princeton for six hours, then rejoin the army either at Trenton, or back on the Pennsylvania shore. 
About six, as the sun set and the wind increased, the light rain began to come down harder, and to turn into sleet. Washington sent a note to Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader, preparing to cross over at Bordentown, “I am determined, as the night is favorable, to cross the River.” .  But the night was not favorable. One soldier described conditions as a “violent storm of rain, hail, and snow [the nor’easter] coupled with the ice flows and high winds, (which) slowed operations.”  Said another, "It blew a hurricane."
In direct command of the crossing was 26 year old barrel chested 280 pound Henry Knox (above) . Henry helped throw tea into Boston Harbor, had witnessed the Boston Massacre, and it was Henry who had manhandled captured cannon 100 miles across snowbound Massachusetts to Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to evacuate Boston. 
Henry had been caught behind British lines in the battle for Manhattan, and now Washington was relying on Henry's booming voice to keep the 2,400 infantry, 18 cannon and 100 dray horses ferried safely and efficiently across the 300 yard water. Noted John Greenwood, “no sooner had the sun set than it began to drizzle, and when we came to river, it rained.”
Washington went across with the second wave, landing on the New Jersey shore about 7 pm. He stood on the bank, “...wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet and cuts like a knife.” Said Greenwood, “...it commenced to snow about eleven, and the river ran strong with ice. “ Henry Knox said , “It hailed with great violence.” 
With each minute, the crossing fell farther behind schedule. Washington considered canceling the attack, but as there was no alternative, he sat on a box and kept his concerns to himself.  By midnight, all the infantry were over, and Knox started to load the 18 cannon, their dray horses and ammunition. It was Knox who took the cannon out of order, in case Washington decided to attack with only infantry. By the time the big Durham boats could be adjusted to carry their new load, it was snowing heavily. Wrote Greenwood later, "The noise of the soldiers coming over and clearing away the ice, the rattling of the cannon wheels on the frozen ground, and the cheerfulness of my fellow-comrades as I acknowledge myself to be, I felt great pleasure, more that I now do in writing about it. "
At the same time, and some 20 miles to the south, near Bristol, Pennsylvania,  Colonel Cadewalder ferried his 1,500 infantry across the river, to begin his diversionary attack against Bordentown. But river ice kept his artillery on the Pennsylvania shore, so by midnight, Cadewalder had pulled his infantry back to Pennsylvania. Thus, Washington's diversion did not bring von Dunop rushing back to Bordentown, just 9 miles or half day's march south of Trenton. As Napoleon would say a generation later, “I do not want a good general, I want a lucky one.”
The last gun and dray horse landed on the Jersey shore, about 3 in the morning of Thursday, 26 December, 1776, Boxing Day. At about 4 am, as the army set off on the nine mile march to Trenton, the snow, which had slowed, whirled down the Delaware Valley again, with renewed force. Private Greenwood captured the night decades later. "During the whole night it alternately hailed, rained, snowed, and blew tremendously. I recollect very well that at one time, when we halted on the road, I sat down on the stump of a tree and was so benumbed with cold that I wanted to go to sleep; had I been passed unnoticed I should have frozen to death without knowing it; but as good luck always attended me, Sergeant Madden came and, rousing me up, made me walk about. We then began to march again, just in the old slow way, until the dawn of day, about half-past seven in the morning."  By eight in the morning, Washington's small army was in position to attack. The men could not know, the hardest part of the operation was already over.   
- 30 -  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


I am tempted to call it a primeval struggle, drenched in antiquity, shrouded in religious fervor and destined to feed future conflict until come judgment day, whenever the heck that may  be. Except it just ain’t so. It is much simpler than that. The day after Christmas 2007, two rival gangs got into a turf dispute and started a  rumble. Somebody called the cops, who managed to separate the combatants, The Jets (AKA the Greek Orthodox Priests), and the Sharks (AKA the Armenian Apostolic Priests) were battling inside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birth place of the Prince of Peace in Bethlehem, Israel, Palestinian Territories. And nothing about this melee made any more sense than your standard gang brawl. And yet I blame the French Emperor Napoleon III for the entire mess.
First, a word about all that antiquity – it does not appear to have happened where or when everybody now thinks it did - assuming it happened at all. Roman census or no census, there was no reason for a pregnant Mary to be making a 90 mile donkey ride from Nazareth, on the Galilee plain of northern Israel, to Bethlehem in the mountains just south of Jerusalem, in the west center of Israel. Being the man, Joseph was expected and qualified to speak for his entire family. He would have been the only one required to travel. But why require anybody to travel? The Romans census takers did what census takers still do today - they counted people where they were. That would be where their property was, and where their money was. Why disrupt business all across a rebellious province, in the name of counting people where they were not? It makes no sense.
And there is another problem, an archaeological problem. There is no archeology in Bethlehem from that period. The ground under today's Bethlehem contains Iron Age artifacts and Byzantine artifacts, but nothing in between, nothing from the age of Jesus. The village outside of Jerusalem did not exist on the night that Jesus was born.. However, there was another Bethlehem, “Bethlehem Ha Galilit”, Bethlehem of Galilee, just about 7 miles to the west of Nazareth. It seems far more likely that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem Ha Galilit, than in Bethlehem Judea. But because Bethlehem Ha Galilit no longer existed in the fourth century of the common era, when the Byzantine Christians came looking for Jesus' birthplace, they jumped to the wrong conclusion and picked the wrong Bethlehem. So did the followers of Islam, when they first captured the region in year 627 B.C.E.- which is when things got really complicated.
Well, after the Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land in 1187 the Muslim rulers did not trust the Roman Catholics, who had invaded them and now made up a majority of Bethlehem Judea’s population. So they split control of the profitable tourist sites in Bethlehem Judea between the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches, in particular the church built upon the “traditional” site of the birth of Jesus. The Greek Orthodox were given control of one part of the building, the Armenian Orthodox control of another part. This allowed the Muslims rulers to play the two Christian sects one against the other, and to play them both off the Roman Catholics, who were now the poor relations in town.
And thus some calm was achieved in a region not famous for calm, at least until 1852, when a “firman” (or edict) was issued by Abdulmecit I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and Caliph of the Muslim World (above). Abdulmecit issued his edict because…well, because first, in 1847 some thug stole the silver star which marked the “traditional” spot of Jesus’ birth, in the floor of the Church of the Nativity, and, more importantly, because the Sultan was weak and because Louis Napoleon III of France was a pompous political hack, who believed that he had been chosen by God to fix, first France, and then rest of the world.
Louis Napoleon III was elected to a ten year term as the first President of the Second Republic of France in December of 1848. He immediately started plotting to follow in his uncle’s imperial boot prints. By early in 1852 Louis had helped to restore the Vatican’s independence in Rome (which pleased French Catholic voters), but he had also insisted that the new Papal government be drawn up along “liberal” lines, to placate the liberal (meaning non-Catholic) French voters. But no Church ever likes to be lectured about liberal policies from secular politicians. Just try it some time and see.
In an attempt to placate the now angry Catholic voters, Louis III suggested that the theft of the star from the Church of the Nativity (five years earlier) proved that the Church of the Nativity was no longer “safe”, and control should be handed over to the Roman Catholic Church for protection - yet another politician declaring a crises which needed his genius to solve. This particular crises pleased Pope Pius IX., who had come to the conclusion that Czar Nicholas I of Russia was intent upon wiping out Catholicism in his country - which Nicholas was, the Czar being the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Louis' demand also pleased Abdulmecit I, because Albdulmecit had the distinct feeling that Czar Nicholas was about to invade Turkey - which he was. So,  under Abdulmecit's edict, the keys to the Church of the Nativity were now handed over the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time the edict also required the Vatican to maintain the church of the nativity “in statu quo res errant”, or, “as it was before”. This edict is linguistically important because it popularization the Latin phrase into English - “status quo”.
Now, all of his life Russian Czar Nicholas I had been told that Russia was a military superpower and protector of the true faith, that faith being Russian Orthodoxy. And Nicholas was not about to allow a mere “politician”, least of all a trumped up “Bonaparte”, to usurp his regal and holy authority. Nicholas demanded the keys to the Church of the Nativity be returned to the Armenian and Greek priests, who would, he was certain, be controlled by him. And when the keys were not handed over,  he declared war on Turkey - of course, he had been planning on doing that anyway.  Britain and France then came to Turkey’s defense. And so Louis’ gambit to impress French voters led directly to the Crimean War, and 118,000 dead; of whom 20, 000 were French, and 73,000 were Russian.
In his rise to power Napoleon III (above) had shamelessly played one political faction off another, and eventually abolished democracy in his own state, created a throne for himself, invaded Algeria and Vietnam - both of which actions came back to haunt France a century later - and was finally goaded into the 1870 Franco-Prussian War,  which resulted in his humiliating defeat, the creation of Germany,  Louis’ own overthrow and his death. This guy was the George Bush of 19th century French diplomacy.
The Crimean War also cost Nicholas I his life. While on campaign against Turkey he caught a chill and died of pneumonia on March 2,1855. The Ottoman Sultan, Abdülmecit, lived long enough to see his nation plunged into debt by that same war.  By Abdulmecit's death from tuberculosis in 1861, Turkey was flat broke. His successor was dethroned.
Amazingly, the same war left Pope Pius IX alive but very frustrated. Because France had been distracted by the Crimean War, there was no help from France when Victor Emmanuel took control of Italy in 1860 from the Catholic Church and established the modern semi-secular nation of Italy.  But Pius achieved a measure of revenge when, in 1869 he issued the decree of Papal Infallibility and declared the dogma of Immaculate Conception. Together these meant that Mary, mother of Jesus, was born without sin because the Pope said she was without sin. And the Pope was never wrong, because he said he was never wrong. Neither of these were official Roman Catholic dogma until 1869, but they have been church dogma ever since. The last American President to declare something similar this was Richard Nixon, and he got impeached anyway - so evidently it only works for religious leaders.
But, let us finally return to the Church of the Nativity on December 27, 2007. According to the Associated Press; “....dozens of priests and cleaners came to the fortress-like church to scrub and sweep the floors, walls and rafters ahead of the Armenian and Orthodox Christmas, celebrated in the first week of January...  But the clean-up turned ugly after some of the {Greek) Orthodox faithful stepped inside the Armenian church's section, touching off a scuffle between about 50 Greek Orthodox and 30 Armenians. Palestinian police, armed with batons and shields, quickly formed a human cordon to separate the two sides so the cleaning could continue...Four people, some with blood running from their faces, were slightly injured.”
Traditionally both the Orthodox and Armenian churches have recruited their priests for this sacred post from tiny isolated villages scattered across Greece and the Balkans, where Christians (and Muslims) have been slaughtering each other for a thousand years. These naive young men now suddenly found themselves working in intimate contact and sharing the most precious artifacts of their faith with heretics. Nothing in their lives or their training prepared them for any kind of peaceful coexistence.
And the whole thing was Louis Napoleon III’s idea.  But try explaining that to a bunch of uneducated foreigners.
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