Christmas Time in Early American History
We come now into another Christmas season. It is another one of relative peace and prosperity. Yes, we are engaged in a war on terror-a kind of war which will probably go on for sometime, but it is a war mostly in distant lands. Certainly, those families who have members in those combat zones feel keenly the danger of this war, but for the most of us it is Christmas season as usual; at least the shopping malls seem to indicate it is so. Hopefully, we are not guilty of the situation General Washington faced in the difficult winter of 1779-1780 when it is said that, “the tragedy of it all was that while Americans starved and died at Morristown, other Americans in the surrounding states waxed fat and prosperous”, many of whom were nearly oblivious to the struggle for independence.
It is not until recent times that Christmas has taken on such an incredibly commercial flavor. It was quite different in most of this nation’s history. Most of the time it was enjoyed in a family and church setting. Bible reading, deeds of thanks and remembrance, and expressions of love were the order of the day. Still, there were significant historical events that happened on or around Christmas Day.
Contained in the American Freedom Library CD are 1920 references to Christmas. About a hundred of these took place in early America. The following are a few selected from these accounts.
Columbus is Recipient of Kind Deeds by Indians on First Voyage
Tuesday, Dec. 25, 1492. Christmas. Last night they kept along the coast with a light wind, from the Sea of St. Thomas [exploring other islands after his first landing on October 12th] to the headland named Punta Santa, and at the end of the first watch, about eleven o’clock, being off this point about a league distant, the Admiral laid down to sleep, having taken no rest for two days and a night past. As the sea was calm, the man at the helm left his place to a boy, and went off to sleep likewise, contrary to the express orders of the Admiral, who had throughout the voyage forbidden in calm or storm, the helm to be entrusted to a boy. The Admiral was free from any dread of rocks or shoals, as the Sunday before, when he sent the boats to the king, they had passed three leagues and a half to the east of Punta Santa, and the sailors had surveyed the whole coast for three leagues beyond that point, and ascertained where the ships might pass, a thing never done before in the whole voyage. But as it pleased our Lord, at midnight, it being a dead calm, and the sea perfectly motionless, as in a cup, the whole crew, seeing the Admiral had retired, went off to sleep, leaving the ship in the care of the boy abovementioned, when the current carried her imperceptibly toward the shoals in the neighborhood, upon which she struck with a noise that might be heard a league off. The boy at the helm hearing the roar of the sea, and feeling the current beating at the rudder, cried out, at which the Admiral awoke, and sprang upon deck before any of the sailors perceived that they had run aground; presently the master, whose watch it was, came up, and the Admiral ordered him and others who quickly made their appearance, to hoist out the boat and carry an anchor astern; the boat being hoisted out, the master and many others went into her, as the Admiral supposed to fulfill the order. Instead of doing this, they rowed off to the caravel, which was about half a league to the windward. Those on board, however, with great propriety and justice refused to receive them, and sent them back, dispatching also their own boat, which arrived first at the ship. Meantime the Admiral finding his men deserting him, and the ship down upon her side, with the water leaving her, saw no other remedy but to cut away the mast, and throw overboard everything they could spare, hoping that this would lighten and set her afloat, but in spite of all, the water continued to ebb, and the ship to lie down towards the sea, which fortunately continued smooth, and presently she opened between the ribs. The Admiral proceeded to the caravel to dispose of his crew, and as a slight breeze blew from the land, and much of the night remained, they lay to till day, not knowing how far the shoals extended; at daybreak he proceeded inside of the shoal to the ship, having first sent the boat to land with Diego de Arana, of Cordova, alguazil of the fleet, and Pedro Gutierrez, page of the royal wardrobe, to carry the news of his misfortune to the king [leader of the natives of the island], who had sent him the invitation the Saturday before, and whose residence was about a league and a half beyond the shoal where the ship lay. This person, as they stated, upon hearing the information, shed tears, and dispatched all the people of the town with large canoes to unload the ship; with their assistance the decks were cleared in a very short time, so great was the diligence of the king and his men. He, with his brothers and relations came to the shore, and took every care that all the goods should be safely brought to land, and carefully preserved. From time to time he sent his relations to the Admiral weeping, and consoling him, and entreating him not to be afflicted at his loss, for he would give him all he had. The Admiral here observes to the King and Queen, that in no part of Castile would more strict care have been taken of his goods, not the smallest trifle was lost. The king ordered several houses to be cleared for the purpose of stowing the goods. Here a guard was set over them who watched throughout the night. “The people as well as the king shed tears in abundance,” says the Admiral. “They are a very loving race, and without covetousness; they are adapted to any use, and I declare to your Highnesses that there is not a better country nor a better people in the world than these. They love their neighbors as they do themselves, and their language is the smoothest and sweetest in the world, being always uttered with smiles. They all, both men and women go totally naked, but your Highnesses may be assured that they possess many commendable customs; their king is served with great reverence, and every thing is practiced with such decency that it is highly pleasing to witness it. They have great memories and curiosity, and are very eager in their inquiries as to the nature and use of all they see.”
Journal of First Voyage to America p.145 – 146
Washington’s “Necessary” Victory at Christmastime
Under these desperate circumstances he planned the surprise of Trenton. “Necessity,” he wrote, “dire necessity, will, nay, must justify an attack.” It was designed with admirable skill and executed with admirable courage. On the night of Christmas, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware, surprised the German troops in the midst of their Christmas revelries, and with a loss of only two officers and two privates wounded, he succeeded in capturing 1,000 prisoners and in re-crossing the river in safety.
The effect of this brilliant enterprise upon the spirits of the American army and upon the desponding, wavering, and hostile sentiments of the population was immediate. Philadelphia for the present was saved, and the Congress speedily returned to it. Immediately after the victory a large force of militia from Pennsylvania joined the camp of Washington, and at the end of December the disbandment of the continental troops, which a week before he had thought inevitable, had been in a great measure averted.
William E. H. Lecky, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton, Great Epochs , Vol.3, p.151
Terms of Peace Reached at Christmastime in War of 1812
December 24 th . A few mistakes in the copies were rectified, and then the six copies were signed and sealed by the three British and the five American Plenipotentiaries. Lord Gambier delivered to me the three British copies, and I delivered to him the three American copies, of the treaty, which he said he hoped would be permanent; and I told him I hoped it would be the last treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States. We left them at half-past six o’clock..
December 25 th . Christmas Day. The day of all others in the year most congenial to proclaiming peace on earth and good will to men..
We received shortly after dinner a note from the Intendant, informing us that he had just received an official communication of the conclusion of the peace, and inviting us to dine with him on Wednesday next, to celebrate the event..
John Quincy Adams, Discussing the Terms of Peace , America Vol. 5, p. 267
Washington Seeks Peace and Tranquility at Home on Christmas Eve
Washington waited until the last of the British forces had disembarked from New York on November 25, 1783, before he was willing to depart for home. On December 4 he went to Fraunces’ Tavern in New York to bid his officers farewell and embrace each of them. On December 23 he reported to the Congress (which had moved to Annapolis), and there he resigned his commission. Then Washington spurred his horse homeward in time to arrive on Christmas Eve.
In resigning his commission Washington had told the Congress he intended to take “leave of all the employments of public life.” He wanted to dispel any remaining suspicion that he might still be persuaded to head up a military government to solve the nation’s problems. He wanted nothing more than the peace and tranquillity of a quiet family life at Mount Vernon.
Little did he know that the greatest test of the “great American experiment” lay directly ahead and that his personal involvement would be inescapable.
W. Cleon Skousen, The Making of America, p.108
Washington’s Christmastime Donations to Worthy Causes and the Needy
Despite his inability to find time for personal reading, Washington’s deep interest in education continued. During his later years he saw to the education (and support) of twenty-two nieces and nephews. He donated £1,000 to an academy in Alexandria. He also contributed to other charitable causes, and virtually every Christmas he anonymously donated several hundred dollars to the poor.
Andrew Allison, The Real George Washington, p. 598
Georgia Ratifies Constitution on Christmas Day
The union of the central states was of the best omen. Before knowing their decision, Georgia at the extreme south had independently taken its part; its legislature chanced to be in session when the message from congress arrived. All its relations to the United States were favorable; it was in possession of a territory abounding in resources and large enough to constitute an empire; its people felt the need of protection against Spain, which ruled along their southern frontier from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, and against the savages who dwelt in their forests and hung on the borders of their settlements. A convention which was promptly called met on Christmas day, with power to adopt or reject any part or the whole of the proposed constitution. Assembled at Augusta, its members, finding themselves all of one mind, on the second day of the new year, unanimously, for themselves and for the people of Georgia, fully and entirely assented to, ratified, and adopted the proposed constitution. They hoped that their ready compliance would “tend to consolidate the union” and “promote the happiness of the common country.” The completing of the ratification by the signing of the last name was announced by a salute of thirteen guns in token of faith that every state would accede to the new bonds of union.
George Bancroft, History of the United States , Vol. 6, p. 392
President Andrew Johnson Fulfills Lincoln’s “malice toward none” Goal
On Christmas day, 1868, President Johnson had proclaimed full pardon and amnesty for all who had participated in secession, without reserve or exception..
Woodrow Wilson, History of the American People , Vol. 5, p. 97
These and other accounts seem to teach that some special events have occurred at Christmastime-miracles, kindnesses, good decisions, softened hearts, renewal of past acquaintances-have all happened and continue to happen during Christmastime.
And let us remember that the United States Supreme Court, after citing a number of historical references to our Christian heritage, from Columbus to modern time, concluded:
“These and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.” (Holy Trinity Church v.U.S., 143 U.S. 457, Feb. 29, 1892)
May this Christmas season bring a happiness to you and yours which is beyond human power to express as you contemplate the blessings of liberty and the wonderful work of those who have gone on before that we might have peace in our day.