The meaning of Christmas for the United States


Famous Emanuel Leutze painting

In what is becoming an increasingly secular nation, Christmas isn’t celebrated as the festival of “Americana” that it once was – nor should it be.

It always has struck me as odd that people who don’t embrace religion find Christmas to be a Holiday of note – perhaps its for family and the children this is done, but it still feel inherently contradictory.

But Christmas does mean something real and tangible for a nation of people whose own identity is always up to interpretation or myth. One thing it should mean for every family on American soil is a remembrance of the dangerous gambit by General George Washington of the Continental Army on Christmas Day, 1776.

Days before the commissions for most of the enlisted men in the Continental Army was about to expire, Washington along with his Lieutenant, Brigadier General Hugh Mercer came up with an audacious plan. General Horatio Gates was in the Hudson River Valley, General Charles Lee was also somewhere far afield and the American forces had abandoned New York in a military debacle of epic proportions. In fact, many historians have long felt that if the British had wanted to crush Washington as his forces fled New York and retreated through New Jersey, they would have done so. But the British leaders in control of execution of putting down the rebellion in the American colonies were more of a Whig persuasion and wanted some degree of reconciliation. Thus Washington’s force made it to Pennsylvania albeit in tatters, but as still a semblance of a fighting force.

The winter season in the 18th Century military terms was a time to not campaign, but to attend to the Holiday festivals and balls. The festive period was a time for excess, especially drink among those who were in command. But the Americans were largely fighting a guerrilla war and such formalities or niceties didn’t really apply.

What happened next was one of the most incredible moments in American History. Christmas Night, as immortalized above in one of the most famous paintings in our nation-state, Washington was able to get a large percentage of his men across the frozen Delaware River into New Jersey. The weather took its toll and the Americans were across the river three hours too late to engage in the pre-dawn surprise attack on Hessian soldiers camped at Trenton that had been envisioned.  Once across, the river the Americans attacked at about 8 am, on Boxing Day December 26 after marching to Trenton. Legend has it the Hessian’s were drunk and dazed from a day of partying on Christmas – This might be true or mat not be, as the historical account deviates on this point. Nonetheless, the Americans won a great victory and lived to fight on days from potentially being out of the war. The battle gave the Continental Congress more impetus to press forward in the battle for independence. Days later, in early January British General Charles Cornwallis confronted the Americans at Princeton. That was another American victory, the first over British regulars in some time.

Hugh Mercer’s death days later from wounds suffered on January 3rd at Princeton deprived Washington of one his most trusted lieutenants. The Scottish-born Mercer passed in early January despite best efforts of Dr. Benjamin Rush the most famous patriot-doctor.

Christmas for me is about George Washington and the colonials. Having re-watched Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s , The Vietnam War in the last few days I realize so much of Ho Chi Minh’s thinking originated from George Washington. Perhaps even the Tet Offensive was Ho’s ode to Washington’s daring Crossing of the Delaware.

Trumbull painting depicting surrender of Trenton


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