Had the year 1968 not been so tumultuous—with assassinations, riots, and the war in Vietnam—the first Americans to spend Christmas in space might have been remembered for a more light-hearted celebration. NASA had asked the Apollo 8 crew, which launched on December 21, to do something "appropriate" for a live TV downlink on Christmas Eve. Astronaut Jim Lovell had considered a reading of "The Night Before Christmas" or the lyrics to "Jingle Bells."
Instead, Lovell, commander Frank Borman, and Bill Anders took turns reading the first 10 verses from Genesis as their spacecraft circled the moon. An estimated one billion people heard or saw the electrifying broadcast. The first human-made video of the moon showed the ancient body, with the Biblical story of creation as the soundtrack. "This was a great inspiration, not just to us but for all the world," says Lovell. "We wanted the year to end on a positive note."
The astronauts raised viewers' spirits, even though conditions aboard the cramped spacecraft weren't the merriest. Borman's space-sickness made living there, as Anders later told PBS, "like being in an outhouse." Still, Apollo 8 was the first to have moisturized meals that could be eaten with a spoon.
Today, on the roomier, cleaner, and fresher-smelling International Space Station, there's always someone in space on Christmas Day (and all other religious holidays). The international crews represent many religions, so for Christmas, they tend toward secular celebrations, with a small fireproof tree, stockings, and Santa hats as decorations. Because the workload is usually light (Christmas Day is a federal holiday for NASA astronauts), there's generally time to talk via radio with family on Earth.
"We tried to cobble ahead a dinner of smoked turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing," in part from Thanksgiving rations, says Dan Tani, who spent four months on the station in 2007 and 2008. "Then we opened our presents, played with our toys, and ate our candy." The gifts had arrived earlier in a package from a visiting space shuttle. Like any good parent, station commander Peggy Whitson had dutifully hidden them in a bag in her berth until the big day arrived.