Homeschooling Resources at Your Fingertips

What in the World? December History Lessons You Can Teach at Home (Part 3)

by David Engle | Dec 17, 2020 | 11 min read

This is a fascinating world we live in. When you step back and look at it, something historic has happened literally every single day. Sure, some events are bigger and more important than others, but think about it…history is made every day.

In this new, regular blog series, we’re going to look at world history by month, with two blog posts each month that list momentous events in the history of the world–and inspiration for lessons that you can teach your children at home!

We already took a look at the first half of December and some of the second half of December. That leaves us with the third and final part of December…and the year!

December 25, 1776: Washington crosses the Delaware. It’s an event so famous, a full explanation isn’t even needed. We’ll provide one anyway. Washington is, of course, General George Washington. The Delaware is the Delaware River. The date was Christmas night in 1776. That’s when General Washington led his Continental Army across the ice-filled Delaware River from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to Trenton, New Jersey, where they ambushed a surprised group of 1,400 Hessian troops. Army morale had been sagging throughout the Revolutionary War, and it was Washington’s hope that a surprise victory would boost his troops and even encourage more enlistment. The original plan included three separate river crossings, but only Washington’s made it across the icy river.

The wintry weather nearly led to the cancellation of this historic moment. Freezing temperatures and a driving rain, combined with hungry troops who were not dressed for the harsh weather, pushed the surprise attack back nearly three hours and forced Washington to contemplate whether his army would be able to make the river crossing and the subsequent march in Trenton. He ultimately decided to keep pushing forward. Interestingly enough, the point of the Delaware River where Washington and his army crossed is only about 300 yards wide–the length of three football fields–though some famous paintings make the river seem much wider. After crossing the river, it took the group more than four hours to reach the outskirts of Trenton. Despite this, on the morning of December 26, Washington’s Continental Army surrounded Trenton and captured more than 1,000 Hessian troops. And while, strategically, this wasn’t a significant victory, it certainly did its part to lift the morale of both the colonial troops and the colonists. Use this landmark event to study more about George Washington and the American Revolution.

December 25, 1926: Hirohito becomes Emperor of Japan. Only two days after his 25th birthday, Michinomiya Hirohito was crowned the 124th emperor of Japan. During his reign from 1926 until his death in 1989, the longest reign for any emperor of Japan, Hirohito ruled during the country’s period of war, which included World War II. While Emperor Hirohito was the leader of an Axis Power (which also included Germany and Italy), there have been many who doubted his desire to participate in war with the United States. Many believed him to be a polite man who had limited influence over politics and the military and reportedly was opposed to the alliance with Germany and Italy; he eventually acceded to the militarists that dominated the Japanese armed forces and government. Hirohito’s outward appearance didn’t necessarily portray that, however, as he was often photographed in a military uniform to show his support for the war. Ultimately, Emperor Hirohito opted for peace at the end of World War II, rather than staging a desperate defense against the overpowering Allied Forces who had dropped atomic bombs on his country.

As emperor, Hirohito also made the imperial family more accessible–and popular–to the Japanese public by making more frequent appearances and making himself available for more photos and interviews. Emperor Hirohito also broke much ground during his reign in Japan. In 1971, he toured Europe, which made him the first Japanese emperor to travel abroad. In 1975, he visited the United States (making a highly publicized trek to Disneyland) and met President Richard Nixon–the first-ever meeting between a Japanese emperor and a US president. Use this topic to study the history of Japan and its monarchy as well Japan’s role in World War II–especially the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

December 25, 1642: Isaac Newton is born in England. Sir Isaac Newton is commonly known as one of the greatest scientists who ever lived as well as one of the smartest human beings in our world’s history. His discoveries and inventions literally changed the world in many ways, but before he accomplished that, he was a student at Cambridge before becoming a professor of mathematics at the prestigious school. While taking a two-year break from Cambridge because of the Great Plague, he spent his time in isolation studying and developing his theories on calculus, gravity, and the laws of motion. In 1687, he published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), also known as Principia, which went into great detail about gravity and the laws of motion. Needless to say, and possibly unbeknownst at the time, Principia became one of the most historic publications in the history of science. The public had been introduced to the theory of gravity and the definition of modern physics.

Sir Isaac Newton literally discovered gravity–it had existed, but no one knew what it was or could explain it until Newton did just that. His theory of gravity also helped explain how the planets move relative to the sun. His laws of motion laid out the fundamental laws of physics. He also invented what is known today as calculus, the type of mathematics that is commonly used in science and engineering. And finally, Newton invented the reflecting telescope–which is still used today by astronomers. Sir Isaac Newton passed away in 1727 having cemented his legacy as one of the finest minds this world has ever seen…or will ever see. He was the first scientist to have the honor of being buried in Westminster Abbey. Learn more about Newton’s laws of motion and theory of gravity and how they relate to just about everything we do today. You can also use this as a jumping-off point to learn more about other great scientists and inventors.

December 26, 2004: Giant tsunamis destroy parts of Asia. In one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, a dozen countries in Asia were devastated by gigantic tsunami waves after a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck the floor of the Indian Ocean. The earthquake was so powerful, it caused the ocean floor to rise by nearly 120 feet, sending 100-foot-high waves into motion (some were measured at up to 130 feet), the first of which demolished the city of Banda Aceh at the northern point of Sumatra. That wave alone killed 100,000 people and reduced the town to rubble. Next was Thailand. With waves traveling more than 500 mph (that’s nearly the speed a commercial jet travels), the coastal provinces of Phang Nga and Phuket were hit, with the death toll there reaching nearly 5,400–around 2,000 of them foreign tourists on holiday during Christmas and Boxing Day. An hour after the catastrophe in Thailand, on the opposite side of the Indian Ocean, the tsunami waves crashed upon the southeastern coast of India, killing more than 10,000–most were women and children as many men were out fishing. Finally, the wall of waves reached the island of Sri Lanka, taking with them 30,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands more without homes. The aftermath was nearly as tragic and devastating, as the survivors were left to search for missing–and presumably dead–family members and to pick up the pieces of their lives that were now shattered.

It’s difficult to put into words just how powerful this earthquake and its resulting tsunami waves were. The magnitude 9.1 quake was one of the most powerful ever recorded, to the point where its final victims were killed eight hours later…in South Africa…which is 5,000 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter. Its force caused rogue waves and swelling seas that caught understandably unprepared South Africans by surprise. In all, approximately 230,000 people died and 1.5 million more were left homeless as a result of the earthquake. Shorelines and even some coastal communities were simply erased–washed away by some of the most powerful waves ever seen. All from a 10-minute-long earthquake that hit the largest faults in the world, causing the power equivalent to several thousand atomic bombs being unleashed in the ocean. Use this tragedy to learn more about natural disasters, how earthquakes begin, and how people handle the aftermath of such tragic events.

December 26, 1893: Chinese revolutionist Mao Tse-Tung was born in Hunan, China. Mao Tse-Tung, also known as Mao Zedong, was born the day after Christmas in 1893–and with it was born the People’s Republic of China…though the Chinese wouldn’t realize it until years later. Mao was not a rule follower–not even as a young adult. He refused his arranged marriage and left his hometown to pursue an education, defying his family in the process. At Peking University, Mao studied revolutionary concepts and joined a revolutionary group called the May the 4th Movement. This student movement called for China to reject its history and its values. Around this time, in 1919, Mao preached about the Russian Revolution and about how effective Marxism was; naturally, he created and led a socialist youth group dedicated to the cause before joining the newly formed Chinese Communist Party in 1921 as one of its leaders. An opposing party was also formed–the Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-shek–and the two groups would battle for Chinese control for nearly 20 years.

In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek ordered an anti-communist purge that chased Mao and the Communist Party to southeast China. The rivals actually joined forces for a brief period of time, as all of China united to battle Japan for eight years before and during World War II. Once the war had ended, however, the Communist Party and National Party were battling again in a civil war won by Mao and the communists. Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan while Mao founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It was around this time that Mao began his reign of terror upon China. Industry was now owned by the state, all opposition was forcefully rejected, and communism was introduced to the country as “The Great Leap Forward.” While designed to improve industrial and agricultural production, it actually had the opposite effect, leading to massive declines in agricultural output that ultimately contributed mightily to a famine and tens of millions of deaths. After that failure, Mao launched the “Cultural Revolution” in 1966, which sought to rid the country of “impure” elements and boost morale. As the people resisted, 1.5 million citizens died while a significant portion of China’s cultural heritage was obliterated. In his later years, Mao formed relationships with Japan, Europe, and the United States; in fact, President Richard Nixon traveled to China to meet Mao in 1972, the first US president to ever visit the People’s Republic of China. Mao died in 1976. Use Mao’s reign over China as a starting point to look at communism in other countries, what happened in China after Mao died, and the current relationship between China and the US.

December 27, 1822: Louis Pasteur is born in France. You probably recognize his name from the word “pasteurize” or “pasteurization”. Yes, this method of decontaminating milk is named for French biologist and chemist Louis Pasteur, but he did so much more than invent pasteurization…in fact, his work changed medicine forever. Before we get into medicine, however, did you know that Dr. Pasteur is responsible for the improvements involved in brewing beer and making wine? He did this while working at the University of Lille, where he was asked by a local businessman why fine vinegar made from beet juice was spoiling. So, the dedicated scientist he was, he examined the good vinegar and the spoiled vinegar under his microscope and found that the spoiled vinegar contained microscopic rods that harmed yeast; on the other hand, the good vinegar showed healthy yeast (a living organism) that caused the beet juice to ferment. Dr. Pasteur figured out that the damaging microbes could be killed in boiling liquid–but that would ruin the taste of the vinegar. So, through experimentation, he discovered that the microbes could be killed by controlled heating of the vinegar to 50 to 60 degrees Celsius and then rapidly cooling the liquid. This is known today as pasteurization.

Especially relevant in today’s world, Louis Pasteur was also responsible for creating the foundations of the science of epidemiology, the study of diseases, as well as health-related states and events. He did so by studying the cause of silkworms becoming ill. In doing so, he determined that conditions such as humidity, temperature, and sanitation affected susceptibility to disease. While trying to figure out the cause of chicken cholera, Dr. Pasteur learned that the severity of a disease can be artificially altered. With that in mind, he dedicated his focus to rabies in 1882; by 1885, after a painstaking process, he invented a vaccination for rabies, which to that point had been quite fatal. Ten years later, Dr. Pasteur suffered a series of strokes and passed away at the age of 72. His work is still used today to keep humans safe and healthy. Dig deeper into pasteurization and its importance today, as well as vaccinations–the most recent of which is in the process of being distributed across the globe in efforts to end a pandemic.

December 29, 1890: Native Americans are massacred at Wounded Knee. More than 200 Sioux men, women, and children were killed on this day in 1890–partly because of a dance. At this point, Native Americans were understandably furious with the White man because of broken treaties and promises, stolen land, and many other grave injustices. On the other side, White men were wary of the Native Americans and even a bit afraid of them. These viewpoints all came to a head near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.

The ghost dance had become a spiritual way for Native Americans to attempt to bring dead relatives back to life and to wish away the White man. It was a harmless display to Native Americans, but one that White men feared and thought might start another war. And because of this, White men had begun attempting to arrest Native Americans who they thought were part of the Ghost Dance Movement. Unfortunately, the police were misinformed when they were sent to arrest Lakota chief Sitting Bull, who was not part of the movement. The arrest did not go according to plan, and Sitting Bull was shot and killed. Other chiefs began to worry that they would be next. Conversely, the White men assumed the Natives would band together and hunt them down. They were partially correct–the chiefs did travel to South Dakota to meet with Sioux leader Red Cloud. One of those was Bigfoot, also known as Spotted Elk. Bigfoot was a peaceful man who, upon encountering soldiers, followed their orders to avoid conflict. As this was happening, the Lakota were asked to put down their weapons, which they did; but one man, Black Coyote, was deaf and either didn’t understand the demand or refused to obey. He was attacked by some soldiers, and in the scuffle, a gun went off. And so began the massacre.

No one is really sure why these cavalry soldiers unleashed their fury on the Native Americans–even the women and children who were running from the violence. Some argue that it was revenge for General Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876. Either way, when it was over, the soldiers had slaughtered anywhere from 150 to 300 Sioux and injured 51 more at Wounded Knee. Take a longer look at the mistreatment of the Native Americans on their reservations around this time, as well as some famous battles of the period.

December 31, 1879: Thomas Edison demonstrates the electric incandescent lamp. Between 1878 and 1889, Thomas Edison and his team worked on approximately 3,000 different theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp. Finally, by January of 1879, Edison had built his first high-resistance, incandescent electric light at his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was a success, but it still only burned for a few hours before going out. That led to thousands more tests to create an improved version of his light bulb. He decided to test a carbonized cotton thread filament, and when voltage was applied to the bulb, it radiated a soft orange glow that lasted for 15 hours. More and more experiments were conducted to create filaments that could burn longer. Several months after Edison’s carbon filament patent was granted, he and his team discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament could last more than 1,200 hours. That discovery led to the mass production and sale of commercially available light bulbs in 1880.

But let’s go back to New Year’s Eve of 1879. Thomas Edison was not the first person to create an incandescent lamp, but he was the first to create a practical design. And so on the last night of 1879, Edison lit up his laboratory and the street outside in snowy Menlo Park with his new light bulbs. It’s an invention that changed the world, among many other Edison inventions that did exactly the same. Use this lesson to explore some of Edison’s other famous creations and the impact they had on everyday life across the globe.

December 31, 1781: The first bank in the United States receives its charter from the Confederation Congress. On the final day of 1781, the Confederation Congress chartered a bank. What that means is that, just a week later, on January 7, 1782, the Bank of North America became the first-ever commercial bank in the United States. Located in Philadelphia, the Bank of North America instantly became the largest corporation in America at that time. The idea to start this bank came from Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance, who wanted to model an American bank after the Bank of England. The success of the bank led to similar institutions in Boston and New York and served as the model for the first and second Banks of the United States, which partnered with the federal government under the Constitution.

The Bank of North America became part of the Federal Reserve System in 1914 before merging into The Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities, renamed the Pennsylvania Company for Banking and Trust. The Bank of North America eventually became the First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Company in 1955 after a merger with the First National Bank of Philadelphia. Fast-forward to 1990, when CoreStates acquired the First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Company; CoreStates was then acquired by First Union in 1998. Just three years later, in 2001, First Union merged with Wachovia, which was then purchased by Wells Fargo in 2008. So, today, nearly 240 years later, the Bank of North America is still operating–sort of. Learn more about early banks and the Federal Reserve System, and how banks operated from colonial times through the present day.

That does it for December’s historical figures and events! I hope you had fun teaching (and learning about) all these timely topics. We’ll get 2021 started with January’s important dates and events soon! In the meantime, check out our partner site,, for more fun and factual lessons–and Happy New Year!

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
Personalized Education Like No Other!
Check Out Our Most Recent Posts