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December 21, 2023 10 mins

Today's tour through our holiday-themed Cabinet includes a mystery and a miracle. Enjoy them both!

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales right there on display, just waiting
for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

(00:36):
It would be over by Christmas. That was what everyone said.
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his beloved wife Sophie were
assassinated in nineteen fourteen. Their marriage wasn't supposed to happen,
as the sitting Emperor of the Austro Hungarian Empire, Franz Joseph,
disapproved of his nephew and heir's choice, but true love
won out and the happy couple were married for fourteen years.

(01:00):
Austria Hungary, like most European nations throughout the nineteenth century,
had a taste for empire. They occupied large swaths of
Europe and believed that they had firm rights over territories
and people they ruled, even though their subjects disagreed. Revolutionary
groups sprang up all across the empire in resistance to
the rulers. It was the assassination that never should have happened.

(01:22):
No amount of planning in the world could have helped
the revolutionary group the Young Bosnians more than the luck
they had that day. After multiple blunders on both sides,
it was Gavrillo, princip standing on the wrong street corner
at the right time, who managed to get the job done,
firing two shots at point blank range. This was the
modern day shot heard round the world. The assassination of

(01:45):
the heir of the Austro Hungarian Empire by a Serbian
kicked off a chain of reactions and alliances that would
destroy the world as they knew it. Admittedly, no one
knew that at the time. After all, almost all of
European monarchs were cousins through Queen Victoria. Back then, war
was treated as something romantic, adventurous, and even grand. It

(02:06):
was solemn, for sure, but also something exciting that roused
national pride. When the war was officially declared in July
of nineteen fourteen, most people thought that it would be
over by Christmas, but it was soon abundantly clear just
how wrong they'd been. In both weaponry and tactics, this
war was nothing like any they had ever seen. Before.
It wasn't confined to the battlefield either. It consumed farms, towns,

(02:29):
and even cities, and along the way it destroyed an
entire generation of young men and exhausted resources and national morale.
Many of the young men who joined up were looking
for adventure, glory, and maybe a chance to move up
in the world. What they got instead was speedy training
that didn't equip them for what was to come. They
were stuffed into muddy, wet trenches, choked and blinded with

(02:51):
chlorine and mustard gas, plagued by trench foot and shell shock.
By Christmas of nineteen fourteen, all those boys really wanted
was to go home, but they were stuck there in
the freezing mud. Pope Benedict the fifteenth, who took office
not long after the war began, put out a call
for a truce that Christmas. Maybe he hoped a break
from the fighting would bring leaders to their senses. If so,

(03:14):
he was sadly disappointed when it was officially rejected from
both sides. But then a funny thing happened. No one
really knows how it started or where, but at around
eight thirty PM, an officer from the Royal Irish Rifles
sent a report to HQ saying Germans have illuminated their trenches,
are singing songs and wishing us a happy Christmas. Compliments

(03:36):
are being exchanged, but I am nevertheless taking all military precautions.
And then there was Bruce Bairn's father. He was a
British machine gunner of the first Battalion of the Royal
Warwickshire Regiment. He was sick to death of all the mud,
the sleeplessness, and the stale biscuits. And on Christmas Eve
of nineteen fourteen, as he later recorded in his memoir,

(03:56):
at about ten pm, he heard a commotion from the
German trench. They were singing. Bairn's father wrote that when
they started singing back, there was confused shouting from the
other trench. Then, in an accented English voice, one of
the Germans asked the British to send a man over.
Both sides cautiously agreed to meet halfway in no man's land,

(04:16):
and climbed out of the trenches, taking a few careful
steps into the contested territory. And there they met with
smiles and handshakes. They traded songs, alcohol and tobacco, and
had a party under the stars together. Once the soldiers
on both sides had met, they realized that not one
of them really hated the other, not yet anyway, And

(04:37):
it turned out that their little slice of the front
line wasn't alone. Up and down the line, carol singing
had broken out. The Germans sang silent Night and were
answered by British troops. Rendition of the first Noel. Stories
of the Christmas Truth don't appear in any official documents, though,
because it was never sanctioned. Instead, the soldiers who were
doing the fighting and dying, who had lost their ideal as,

(05:00):
decided to take a chance and see what might happen.
They talked about home, their families, even soccer, and yes,
of course, the good didn't last. Hostilities resumed just a
few days later, and the worst was yet to come.
But to me, the Christmas Truce is a beautiful reminder
of humanity's ultimate desire for peace, no matter how short

(05:20):
lived it might have been. Every year as the holiday
season approaches, Columbia University holds their u log festivities. The

(05:42):
party includes food, drinks, a bonfire, and a reading of
one of the most famous poems in American history. It's
called a Visit from Saint Nicholas. But you'll probably recognize
it by its opening lines, twas the nights before Christmas,
when all through the house not a creature was stirring,
not even a mouse. The reading is an homage to

(06:04):
the season and to an old Columbia University professor Clement
Cmore Moore wrote A Visit from Saint Nicholas in eighteen
twenty two as a Christmas gift to his young children.
Or at least that's the story. The authorship of this
American classic is actually the subject of a nearly two
hundred year old debate. You see, the poem first appeared

(06:24):
in print in eighteen twenty three. It was published anonymously
in a New York newspaper called The Troy Sentinel. People
love the whimsical verse so much that other newspapers began
circulating it too. As the poem took the country by storm,
Clement Seymore remained quiet. It wasn't until eighteen thirty seven,
a full fourteen years later, that the piece was formally
attributed to him. It was featured in an anthology called

(06:47):
The New York Book of Poetry and published under the
professor's name. However, even back then, seeing people weren't sure
who penned those now famous lines. In eighteen forty three
of Washington, DC newspaper attributed the poem to someone named
Joseph Wood. Word got out about this to more, and
in eighteen forty four he wrote a letter to the
editors correcting their mistake. He said he had written the

(07:09):
poem and I quote not for publication, but to amuse
my children. Whatever his original intention was, Clement Seymour now
wanted credit for his work, except sometime in the late
eighteen forties, a woman claimed that it wasn't his at all.
She said her father, Henry Livingstone, had penned the poem
in eighteen oh eight. However, by the time she was

(07:30):
saying all of this, Livingston was dead. He'd never publicly
claimed to have written the piece, and there was no
proof to back up the idea that he had. Not
until later, one hundred and fifty years later to be exact.
You see, in nineteen ninety nine, Henry Livingston's descendants were
still arguing that he was the poem's true author, and
they went to a surprising person for help proving it too.

(07:52):
Don Foster, a forensic writing analyst best known for his
work on the Unibomber case, and for Don the mystery
ended up being far more intriguing than he ever anticipated.
He wrote an entire book called Author Unknown, in which
he argued that Clement C. Moore absolutely could not have
written a Visit from Saint Nicholas. According to Don, there
were aspects of the writing that made Henry Livingston the

(08:15):
more likely author. For example, Livingston often wrote poems in
anapestic meter, which means two unstressed syllables followed by one
stressed syllable. That's the same meter a Visit from Saint
Nicholas was written in, and it's also one that Clement C.
Moore almost never wrote. There was also the matter of
the reindeer. In the original version of the poem, Donner

(08:35):
and Blitzen are named dunder and Blixom, which are the
Dutch words for thunder and lightning. Livingston spoke Dutch, Moore
did not. And aside from all this text based evidence,
Don Foster also got a little personal. He claimed that,
based on his research, Clement C. Moore was a haughty,
high strung man who hated children. The idea that he
would write such a jaunty holiday verse for his kids

(08:58):
was simply out of the question. Now, since Don Foster
published his book, others have come forward arguing against his evidence.
Just because More rarely wrote an anapestic meter doesn't mean
that he never did. Moore had friends who spoke Dutch,
so he might have picked up some words, and the
attacks on his character were, according to many historians, wholly unfounded.

(09:19):
Wherever the truth lies, one thing is certain, twas the
Night Before Christmas is one of the most recognizable lines
in American poetry. It played a big role in making
Christmas what it is today. Before A Visit from Saint
Nicholas was published, Santa Claus as we know him didn't
really exist. The legend of a jolly old man who
sneaks into your house through the chimney carrying a bag

(09:41):
full of presents originated with the poem, and still we
don't know for sure who the poem's author was, and
that certainly makes for a very curious Christmas. I hope
you've enjoyed today's guided tour of the Cabinet of Q Curiosities.
Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, or learn more about

(10:04):
the show by visiting Curiosities podcast dot com. This show
was created by me, Aaron Mankey in partnership with how
Stuff Works. I make another award winning show called Lore,
which is a podcast, book series, and television show and
you can learn all about it over at the Worldoflore
dot com. And until next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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