By Jeff Westover
It would be a Christmas to remember. And it would be a Christmas that made history and inspired a budding nation.
The story of Washington crossing the Delaware in the middle of the night is so well known that many forget it happened at Christmastime – and that Christmas in and of itself figured prominently in the military decision to engage in what was later known as the Battle of Trenton.
Washington’s Continental Army was on the ropes. In fact, as Christmas approached in 1776 morale was so low it was feared that the revolution was lost altogether. Washington’s ongoing crusade was one of evasion and retreat – his forces continually fighting not only a better organized enemy but also a lack of critical support and a wild American frontier.
In the dark moments of mid- December, a week before Christmas when the weather was brutally cold and the river waters dangerous to cross, Washington planned a daring attack for his 2400 men who would cross the Delaware in the dead of night and march nine miles to attack a Hessian garrison.
It was an audacious plan. But Washington figured he would catch the German troops unawares. They were known to celebrate Christmas, often with strong drink. His odds, Washington figured, improved with their Christmas spirit.
Though legend promotes the myth that the reason the Battle of Trenton was won by the Colonials was due to drink modern research reveals this was not the case. The Germans were not drunk that night. But ultimately General Washington was right – they were celebrating Christmas and their guard was down.
In fact, the legend of the Christmas tree was born on this night as most modern historians credit those same Hessian soldiers with bringing the Christmas tree to America. As they gathered around their German-born traditional Christmas trees on Christmas night Washington was gathering his troops and their weapons onto boats and barges. As they gathered at river’s edge, many ill-equipped for war and bad weather – some tying rags around their feet because they had no shoes – storm clouds gathered that first brought freezing rain, then sleet and then snow.
Washington was hoping to cross the Delaware and make the march in time for a pre-dawn surprise attack. But the weather was against him, slowing his progress. As the Christmas march towards Trenton made it to the New Jersey shore the army was added upon by local colonists who joined in the march to support the fight, showing some Christmas spirit of their own.
The night and the day following turned out to be a Christmas never to be forgotten by both sides in the battle.
It proved to be one of several bright turning points in the unlikely success of the American Revolution. The ragtag band of American colonists gained confidence in Washington’s Continental Army – and it lived to march forward to eventual success following the Battle of Trenton.
It is important to note what Washington knew not only of his enemy but also of his own troops that Christmas season.
Christmas in America during the 18th century was far from universally celebrated or beloved. For Virginians, like Washington, Christmas was more than a day. It was a season of observances celebrated by both sacred worship and secular partying. Washington himself had a unique recipe for what was known then as grog – a creamy mixture of spirits, cream and eggs that would later become known and beloved in America as eggnog.
But amongst his army regulars were citizens of New England communities where the public observance of Christmas was still illegal. The original settlers of New England colonies so strongly believed in the separation of Church and State that any kind of public acknowledgement of what was clearly a religious observance was strictly forbidden.
The Revolution would drag on for many Christmases but none would be remembered more clearly than the Christmas spent at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1777. Washington, after suffering several bitter defeats following the success at the Battle of Trenton, pulled his army into Valley Forge on December 19th, just before Christmas.
Surveying his situation his heart was buried in regret and sorrow. His men were facing bitter cold temperatures while clad in thin clothes, many without shoes, housed only in tents. They were far from home, broke and unsupported. As the snow fell and the temperatures dropped Washington composed a letter of resignation to the president of the Continental Congress.
Outside of his tent Washington heard a rustle. Was it the sound of mutiny, as one of his officers had predicted?
Without donning his coat he walked out into the cold to investigate, looking upon men huddled around fires as he walked. They were cooking whatever game they could find, thrown in to pots to boil over the fires, filling the air with a variety of strange aromas. But in the spirit of Christmas Washington was cheered by men who in these desperate circumstances cheered him: "Long live the United States! Hail to our Chief! May Liberty prevail!"
As Washington braved the cold to inspect his troops he once asked his men if they had not suffered enough. “Having come this far,” one lieutenant said, “we can but go the rest of the distance.”
As he returned to his own tent, Washington and an aide were stunned to see that in his absence from his quarters some men had gathered garlands of holly and cedar twined draped above the tent-flap door. General Washington took the letter he had started to Congress. He burned it at the fire his aides had built outside his tent. "May God relieve your sufferings, if the Congress will not. And a good Christmas to you!" he said.
The famed portrait of Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge is much easier to envision with this Christmas celebration as a backdrop.
Unknowingly he began there a tradition of military Christmas during his service in the American Revolution – a tradition that has inspired, no doubt, thousands of common foot soldiers in the fight for freedom ever since.