Wednesday will mark the 238th time that We The People will celebrate Christmas as citizens of the United States of America.
If it had not been for the events that occurred on that first Christmas, after having declared our independence from Great Britain, it might have been the only one.
Most who are reading this already know the story. Others may not. Regardless, it ought to be retold annually as one of the most important and remarkable days in all of American history.
I like to share added material every year because I believe, as does Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, that you can never know too much about the lives of those who launched the world’s most successful experiment in self-government.
Our fledgling new country was at war with the most dominant military force on Earth. It was a ragtag collection of farmers and merchants versus highly trained soldiers equipped with awesome weapons of war.
It was no surprise to anyone that things weren’t going very well for our side.
The American army had lost every battle of the Revolutionary War and George Washington’s army, which just a few months earlier numbered more than 20,000, had dwindled to about 3,500 brave but badly worn fighters.
In hasty retreat across the frozen countryside, leaving behind guns, supplies and men who lost their lives to the twin enemies of redcoats and weather, it certainly appeared that the new nation was facing the fate so many had predicted.
Washington’s men suffered from every kind of physical and emotional problem. Many were sick or wounded, and most were without shoes, coats, blankets or tents to cover them from constant wind, rain and snow.
It is no wonder that deserters were numerous and all but a few who remained were going home when their enlistments were up in a matter of days.
A British commander summed up their plight: “The fact is their army is broken all to pieces and the spirit of their leaders and their abettors is all broken … I think one may venture to pronounce that it is well nigh over with them.”
Washington, in the words of his top deputy, Gen. Nathaniel Greene, “never appeared to so much advantage as in the hour of distress.”
On Christmas Eve, 1776, his audacity, brilliance and resolve all converged on the banks of the Delaware River.
He had the inspired work of journalist Thomas Paine read to his men as they prepared to attack the enemy encamped across what seemed an impassable flow of frozen hunks of ice drifting downstream.
Paine’s words included the understated declaration of the times trying the souls of men. He talked of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots shrinking from the service to their country.
He encouraged them with an appeal to a firmness of heart and a conscience of conduct to pursue the principles of independence unto death.
Those long-suffering, valiant warriors loaded themselves into small boats with plans to surprise their foes on the other shore. What happened next is considered among the most decisive military engagements in history. It ultimately changed the world.
In addition to Washington in the battle that night, there were two other men who would become president, another a vice president and one more who would serve as secretary of the Treasury.
Their names and all the other extraordinary details of America’s first Christmas are available in McCullough’s landmark work, 1776.
You would also enjoy the marvelously illustrated The Crossing by Jack Levin.
Or you could discover all of it right from the phone most now carry in their pockets.
Whatever way you choose, I promise that checking it out will add meaning to your Christmas this year and for all that will follow.
Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.