A President's Day
By A. D. Freudenheim

19 February 2001

In the winter of 1776, on what was recorded as a stormy and windy night, General George Washington crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. Thus began another offensive against the British Army, which subsequently led to an important victory at Trenton, New Jersey. In 1776, General Washington was still five years from the triumphs that would ultimately free the American colonies from British rule. Nonetheless, the story of Washington crossing the Delaware, fording the river's strong currents and leading his Continental army in the middle of a storm, is rightly part of American legend.

I just visited the town of McConkey's Ferry, Pennsylvania, from which Washington staged his attack; it has since been renamed "Washington Crossing." Visitors can walk through this small historic town and reflect on how Washington might have felt as he stood by the banks of the Delaware River - about to cross what he perhaps thought to be his Rubicon. And it was here, standing by the same river and looking at the brochure from the Washington Crossing Historic Park visitor's center, that I read of something described almost in passing: every year on 25 December a reenactment of Washington's historic journey takes place. A reenactment on Christmas day? Why?

For those who don't know - as I didn't - the why is simple. General George Washington, first among American heroes, began his renewed assault on the British Army on Christmas night in 1776. This is a small fact that I do not recall ever learning in school, and the Park's brochure is oblique on the point. Yet it is an easy fact to confirm by checking other reference books.

At first, I was taken aback; the idea of a Christmas offensive struck the same chords that resonate when I read about the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Israel was attacked. But upon further reflection, I think that it is not an awful tidbit of history the way it may first seem. Rather, it should serve as a reminder of the perspectives of our Founding Fathers, whose intellectual grounding in what we think of as the Enlightenment was about blending spirit and rational thought, science and God. Divinity was part of their view of the world, but it was a divinity by-and-large freed from the restraints of a given church. That God created all men equal was important; this view helped establish a divine basis for the colonists' need for independence from the King of England and of their belief in their own right of self-determination. There was no "divine right of kings" for these men.

But Jesus was not king either, at least not overtly. Nowhere in the founding texts of these United States is Jesus Christ mentioned. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution contain no references to Christ or Christianity. Nor, for that matter, does the Constitution mention a church. In fact, the First Amendment to our Constitution explicitly prohibits Congress from establishing a state-sanctioned religion, and prohibits it further from infringing upon the rights of citizens to practice a particular religion. As was proven by George Washington, ours is not an explicitly Christian heritage, even if it is implicitly so because those who first came to these territories seeking refuge were Christians.

With our new compassionate-conservative Chief Executive (and our conservative - if not compassionate - Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who is known to believe that Americans have no king but Jesus), this seems an important point to remember: that on 25 December 1776, Christmas day, in the dead of a Pennsylvania winter, what mattered to General George Washington was victory and independence, and the right to control his own future - in religion as much as anything else. The holiday that Christian Americans now celebrate on Christmas is the same one that Washington observed then. The difference may be that Washington understood clearly that what mattered first and foremost was not the symbolic worship of Christ's birthday but the practical worship of life and liberty. This rational understanding lead him to continue the prosecution of the Revolutionary War - without which we would now be that much less free to select our own religious observances, and to place our own value on the Christmas holiday.

Copyright 2001, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.