The Top 5 most 'surreal' news stories of 2016

By Andrew V. Pestano  |  Dec. 27, 2016 at 5:41 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Merriam-Webster selected the word "surreal" as this year's word of the year, and as we near the conclusion of another 365 days within a 24/7 news cycle, perhaps that word truly encapsulates what the world witnessed in 2016.

"Fantastic," "unbelievable" or "marked by the intense irrationality of a dream" -- that's how the reference-book company defines "surreal," which met the criteria to earn the title of word of the year for having a high volume of online searches and for having an increase in searches from the previous year.

Head-turning headlines made a habit of appearing in 2016, starting in the early days of January when 69-year-old glam rocker David Bowie unexpectedly died of cancer. From there, the unforeseen ruled the year:

1. Britain votes to leave the European Union in "Brexit."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan seen during a press conference advocating for voters to cast ballots in support of Britain remaining in the European Union. File Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI
"Brexit"-- a portmanteau of "British exit" -- was the result of a referendum held June 23 in which citizens were asked if the British government should withdraw from the bloc European Union. Proponents of the "Stay" campaign heatedly debated those who supported "Leave" for months ahead of the vote.

Polls indicated the country largely wanted to stay in the bloc, but come June, a surprising 52 percent of voters chose to leave. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation and businesses within Britain suggested they would leave the country depending on the result of "Brexit" negotiations.

Cameron was replaced by Theresa May, who previously served as home secretary. She is leading negotiation efforts in Britain's withdrawal from the EU. Britain has a March deadline to invoke Article 50.

Far-right parties in several European countries were strengthened following the "Brexit" vote amid resentment over economic stagnation, and a growing migrant and refugee crisis out of the Middle East. There has been a growing sentiment that sheltering migrants from war-torn countries is an economic burden that can endanger the safety of citizens.

In some cases, the rhetoric can be deadly, such was when a 53-year-old unemployed gardener with far right-wing beliefs killed Jo Cox, a Labor Party member of the British Parliament who campaigned in support of refugees.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel in September said her controversial open immigration policy led to her party's surprising legislative election loss in her home state to a three-year old far-right party.

In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom -- an anti-Muslim, anti-European Union party led by Geert Wilders, one of Europe's most well-known far-right politicians -- has led polls ahead of the country's parliamentary elections in 2017.

2. The "Curse of the Billy Goat" ends. Chicago Cubs become MLB World Series Champions.

Chicago Cubs celebrating on stage during the 2016 World Series Champion celebration rally at the Grant Park on November 4 in Chicago. File Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/UPI
In their first World Series appearance since 1945, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians in seven games after falling behind three games to one to become champions -- the Cubs' first World Series title since 1908.

Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was held Nov. 2, lasting 10 innings and ending with the Cubs scoring eight runs over the Indians' seven. The Cubs lifted the trophy and in the process lifted the Curse of the Billy Goat.

The curse stems from a story about Billy Goat Tavern owner William Sianis, who allegedly cursed the team to decades of losing after he was kicked out of Wrigley Field because his pet goat Murphy was a nuisance to fans.

The Cubs ended the 2016 season with 103 wins to 58 losses.

"It happened, baby," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said during the victory ceremony while looking out at tens of thousands of Cubs fans. "It happened."

It was a day Cubs fans hoped for, but worried would never happen.

3. Donald Trump wins 2016 U.S. presidential election.

President-elect of the United States Donald Trump makes his acceptance speech at the New York Hilton Midtown on November 8 in New York City. Trump stunned the political world by defeating Hillary Clinton. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
On Nov. 8, "The Donald" -- a business mogul who gained celebrity through tabloids and reality television -- completed one of the most improbable political campaigns in U.S. history. He beat out Democratic candidate and long-time politician Hillary Clinton to become the nation's 45th president.

Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, but he racked up enough electoral votes to win. He did so by breaking down the so-called "Blue Wall" -- claiming states along the East Coast of the country that often vote Democrat.

Trump won Pennsylvania -- which had not voted for a Republican in 28 years. He also nabbed Wisconsin and Michigan, both thought to be solidly in favor of Clinton.

Trump trailed behind Clinton in most polls for the majority of the campaign, Trump's "silent majority" -- which supported Trump in rallies attended by tens of thousands of people -- helped the billionaire ascend to the most powerful political position in the world.

4. Fidel Castro dies after relations normalized between United States and Cuba.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro seen during a speech in Nicaragua on January 11, 1985. File Photo by UPI
In December 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a "new course" of American relations with Cuba.

"Isolation has not worked," Obama then said. "It's time for a new approach."

Within two years, the United States' relationship with Cuba has noticeably changed. Embassies re-opened in Havana and Washington, D.C. U.S. companies began making investments in the once-isolated island nation. Obama became the first sitting president to visit the country in 88 years when he traveled to the country in March.

Though a trade embargo remains in place, the relationship between the neighbors has improved. The United States' main concern is over potential human rights abuses by Cuba. U.S. authorities have long-urged for Cuban officials to free political prisoners and to cease antagonism toward dissent.

And less than a month before the second anniversary of Obama's announcement that he sought improved relations, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba who led a communist revolution on the island nation, died Nov. 25.

"The permanent teaching of Fidel is that 'yes, you can;' that man is able to overcome the harshest conditions if his will to defeat does not faint, he makes an evaluation of each situation and does not renounce his noble and just principles," Raul Castro said in a speech honoring his late brother. "He showed that yes we could, yes we can and yes we can overcome any obstacle, threat or turbulence in our firm commitment to build socialism in Cuba."

5. A year in which unexpected celebrity deaths seemed common.

Flowers are piled around a portrait in tribute to British musician David Bowie at his place of birth in Brixton in London on January 12. File Photo by Rune Hellestad/UPI
Not long after champagne bottles were emptied to welcome the New Year, David Bowie, 69, -- among the most iconic, memorable and talented musicians in history -- died on Jan. 11, two days after his birthday and the release of his latest album, following a secret, yearlong battle with liver cancer.

"I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss," former British Prime Minister David Cameron said after Bowie's death.

Three days later, British actor Alan Rickman, 69, most known for his portrayal of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movie franchise, also died of cancer.

"There are no words to express how shocked and devastated I am to hear of Alan Rickman's death. He was a magnificent actor & a wonderful man," Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling said following Rickman's death.

That was just the beginning. In 2016, famed actor, voice performer and comedian Garry Shandling, 66, died in March of a heart attack. Prince Rogers Nelson, a music legend, died April 21 at his Paisley Park estate in Minneapolis at the age 57 from a fatal overdose of fentanyl -- an opioid about 100 times stronger than morphine. Anton Yelchin, a Russian-born actor most famous for his role in the recent Star Trek reboot, was killed June 19 when his sport-utility vehicle accidentally pinned him to a gate in the driveway of his home.

Gene Wilder, Alan Thicke, Doris Roberts -- were among the many celebrities who also died in 2016.

And with about week left before the world sang Auld Lang Syne to welcome 2017, George Michael -- British megastar and member of Wham famous for hits including "Last Christmas," Careless Whisper" and "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" -- died on Christmas Day at the age of 53.

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