Christmas is made of memories. For many it’s recalling the warmth and soft light of the fire, the twinkling of the lights in the window or on the tree, the angelic voices of carolers at the door, the joy of being with friends and family, presents under the tree or receiving Communion at midnight, even traipsing through the malls.
For me there are many happy and fond thoughts of Christmases past. A couple stand out.
The year that I was deemed old enough to go to Church at midnight is one. I felt like a man. I’d always loved organ music. Its brilliance made me think of God’s power; it’s quietness made me reflect on His peace. That night the booming organ was accompanied by brass and timpani. It was spectacular. As we left into the dark and silent night, there was peace in my heart.
The other is of my father telling us stories. My dad was a great storyteller and his voice could modulate in ways to make every word emotionally packed. He always told us the story of the Nativity. He’d read us Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” every year.
One Christmas he told us the story of Christmas night, 1776, when George Washington crossed the Delaware to surprise the British and their Hessian mercenaries at Trenton.
As dad filled in the details, it was easy to understand why Thomas Paine, who accompanied Washington’s beleaguered army on their retreat from New York through the fields of New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, called it “the times that try men’s souls.”
General Howe had defeated Washington in several battles in New York. Washington was forced to retreat. His army had been decimated. Desertions and enlistments that ended on December 31 threatened to further deplete his ranks. Ammunition, clothing and food were in short supply. Morale was very low.
Washington himself had said, “I think the game is pretty near up.”
Yet Washington sensed an opportunity to reverse the tide. Trenton, then still a small town, was occupied by Britain’s Hessian auxiliary. Washington knew that the general rules of European warfare meant they weren’t prepared to fight in the dead of winter. He also knew the German penchant for big celebrations of Christmas. He believed a surprise attack would win the day.
Washington’s plan relied on launching simultaneous attacks from multiple directions. He would lead the main force.
The weather on December 25 was miserable, so bad that the Hessians, also enjoying their Christmas festivities, didn’t send out any patrols. Reports to the Hessian command of American movements were discredited or ignored.
Washington and his troops pushed off their Durham boats in sleet and snow and freezing waters. The terrible weather threw the attack off schedule making a pre-dawn attack impossible. Many muskets were rendered useless by the sleet and snow.
Nevertheless they reached the other side and began the slog towards Trenton. Many of the men had no shoes and only rags covered their bloody feet. Two died along the way.
By the time they got to Trenton, Washington had cut off any escape routes, pushed his two main columns into the town and positioned his artillery at the head of the two streets that formed the heart of the town.
The Hessians finally formed for battle and began to try to repulse the American guns and advancing troops. But they couldn’t come up the Main Street as the American artillery prevailed. At the other end of town, a bayonet charge, necessitated by still wet muskets overwhelmed Hessian defenses.
In the end, the Hessians retreated. Washington troops killed more than 20 in the battle and captured virtually all the rest, along with badly needed food, boots and clothing.
Washington’s battle cry had been “Victory or Death.” Victory was his without a single American life being lost to gunfire or bayonet.
One of the worst injuries the Americans suffered was to a young Lieutenant who was shot in the shoulder severing an artery. He would no doubt have bled to death except for the quick and effective action of a field surgeon. The young officer was James Monroe, who went on to serve as the fifth President of the United States.
By early afternoon Washington and his ragtag army were back across the Delaware, with them their prisoners and new stores. The victory gave the Continental Congress renewed optimism, fueled re-enlistment of those about to expire, proved they could defeat the enemy, and became a turning point in the war for independence.
Today we also live in “times that try men’s souls.” But, for all the divisions that surround us, this is the season to find peace and harmony amongst us.
We could all use a little peace on earth and goodwill to all.
For those who celebrate the birth of our Lord, here’s a wish for a blessed and wonderful Christmas. For those who don’t, a hope for all the joys and happiness of the season to be yours.
And to all “Peace on earth.”