Christmas Past – Christmas Present

Diane Alden
Dec. 24, 2000


Americans have a Christmas legacy. I know for a fact this legacy lives today in towns and rural areas all over these United States. In this country today, Americans are quietly feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Some unfortunates may fall through the cracks, but it isn't because no one cares. If there is a poor man or woman today who has nothing and is lonely, once it is known, America will give that individual what is needed and then some.

While some Americans spend themselves into credit card hell, others look at the season as a time to remember. Remembrances are often difficult these days because we must overlook a mountain of political correctness in this oddball world of Grinches who would steal it from us.

We must endure as some cities and individuals call a Christmas tree a "unity" tree and the Christmas season is referred to as "sparkle" season. In some towns mangers are not allowed on public property and some towns do not even put up lights. In Oregon there are towns that have essentially banned Christmas and don't allow Christmas trees on public property.

The United Way publishes a Christmas newsletter that sings the praises of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and relegates Christmas to a few lines about how Christ, the namesake of the season, was not even born at this time of year. It continues that many Christmas customs, such as the Christmas tree, are pagan in origin.

That may be, but the German immigrants who brought the tradition to America would probably wonder that the evergreen, the symbol of joyful and hopeful anticipation, should be relegated to nothing but pagan pantheism. The custom of the Christmas tree has often brought people together and has been used as a focal point of celebration.

The intolerant attitude toward customs with a Christian connotation keeps growing every year. We have exchanged the Christmas traditions of generations for the lifeless and soulless politically correct world and spiritless celebration we have today.

But the anti-Christmas attitude, I believe, is not the attitude of most Americans. Christmas is a celebration that brings us together in community more than any other. We have stories and food and gifts as our way of celebrating our humanity and the birth of the Christ. The stories of Christmas in almost each and every case speak of the transcendence of our limited natures to something approaching the divine.

My favorite Christmas story is "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. But some Christmas stories are not as familiar as Scrooge and Tiny Tim, and that is too bad, because they are uniquely American and should be customarily told to children to pass on to their children. Here are three of those stories.

Christmas At Valley Forge

One of the most famous paintings in patriotic Americana is "Prayer at Valley Forge." The famous picture depicting Washington on his knees in the snow at Christmastime has given heart to many. It depicts the cold he must have felt, and it also implies the weight of the future of a young country falling on one man's shoulders. Valley Forge has come to be associated with sacrifice and hope in the face of adversity.

Washington chose Valley Forge for a winter encampment because Congress had hidden thousands of barrels of flour, horseshoes and equipment in the hills near Valley Forge. The temperatures that winter of 1777 were hovering near 6 degrees above zero. The troops were ill-clothed and certainly ill-housed.

Following the setback at Brandywine and Germantown, plus the loss of Philadelphia to the British, Washington held a meeting with his generals and they chose Valley Forge as their winter encampment. It was not chosen so much for strategic reasons but because Pennsylvanians demanded the army camp close to Philadelphia in order to prevent the British from raiding that state's inland farms.

If the Continental Army did not aver to these demands, Pennsylvania vowed to stop sending troops, supplies and money, so Valley Forge was chosen over other potential sites.

A morning report of December 23, 1777, listed 8,200 men as fit for duty and a few thousand others sick. Shelter was built from tree trunks and the branches used for firewood. Washington lived in a tent like the others vowing to share the hardships until the troops had shelter.

A heavy snowfall on Christmas Day forced him to rent Isaac Potts' house nearby. He invited his generals for Christmas dinner and they ate sparsely and drank water. On New Year's Day, however, every man received a pint of rum and for one day spirits were high.

As it is today, part of their lack of necessities was due to the bureaucracy of Pennsylvania's ruling elite. The men were ill-clothed because Pennsylvania bureaucrats overruled purchases of goods and clothes because they wanted the procurement to be handled by the "clothier general."

The following Christmas, Washington was preparing to take Trenton, N.J., a battle that would become one of the major turning points of the war. On Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, Washington and his men struck Trenton. He did not lose one man in that battle, although several of his close friends lost their lives in the days and weeks that followed. They chose Christmastime to strike because they understood that they could surprise a superior force. Crossing the Delaware in the dead of winter at Christmas has come to symbolize one of those bold acts that led to victory.

George Washington resigned his commission as general of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783. "I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God and those who have the superintendence of them into His holy keeping."

I wonder what he would say about "sparkle season," what the good people in some places in Pennsylvania and elsewhere now call Christmas season, and the fact it is now politically incorrect to mention the Almighty in most public places. The reason for the season is forgotten or relegated to a side issue, but we now have Kwanzaa or sparkle season. Christmas is relegated to the state of silence in the land of political correctness.

What would the PC crowd do with Thomas Jefferson, who ordered copies of the New Testament distributed at government expense to Indian tribes in the Louisiana Purchase "so that they learn the moral code crucial to the prospects of liberty"?

Corps of Discovery

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Army Corps of Discovery to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. His goal was to find a water passage to the Pacific and unite the continent from sea to sea. Lewis and Clark and their expeditionary force spent their second Christmas on the trail at Fort Mandan in the Dakotas. In celebratory fashion the captains handed out dried apples, pepper and extra flour to the men. Just before dawn the men rushed in and greeted the captains with gunfire. The outgoing and jolly Capt. Clark presented each man in the party a glass of brandy, hoisted the American flag and everyone had another glass of brandy.

On Christmas Day the following year the corps had reached the Pacific Ocean in Oregon and holed up at what they called Fort Clatsop. Again the men woke the captains with gunfire and song. and Pvt. Whitehouse gave Clark a pair of moccasins he had made. Stephen Ambrose in the book "Undaunted Courage," which chronicles the expedition, relates that "... Sacagawea gave [Clark] two dozen white weasel tails, and Captain Lewis gave him a vest, drawers, and socks. ... The celebration didn't last long. It was a wet and disagreeable day, and, as Clark recorded, 'We would have spent this day the nativity of Christ in feasting, had we anything either to raise our spirits or even gratify our appetites, our dinner consisted of poor [spoiled] elk, so much spoiled that we ate it through sheer necessity. Some spoiled pounded fish and a few roots.' "

At Fort Clatsop the captains' accommodations featured a fireplace with a chimney. The enlisted men's rooms had fire pits dug in the floors and smoke vented through the holes in the roof. The low pressure weather systems, however, made for poor draft and the men had to rush to build chimneys. Two latrine pits were dug outside the gates of the fort. On Christmas Day the fleas moved in with the men and stayed for the duration of their encampment at Fort Clatsop.

Only a few years after the explorers' triumph chronicling and mapping the northern part of Jefferson's purchase, Meriwether Lewis committed suicide. For almost a hundred years, hardly anyone recalled or honored the two explorers, and it was well into the 20th century before historians and botanists understood what they had accomplished. And in the midst of their exploration and with hardships that modern man cannot begin to fathom, they still found time to honor Christmas and the person for whom it is named.

In America's Christmas past there was a unity of spirit about the season. Those who came before us would not understand why, to some, Christmas is now a dirty word.

I Heard the Bells

My friend, mentor and former editor Ralph Heller died this year. One of Ralph's favorite stories was the one he told at Christmastime. I can't tell it as well as Ralph, but you will get the gist.

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem that, since his death, has been set to music and has become one of America's favorite carols. That poem was "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Longfellow wrote the poem on a Christmas Eve during the Civil War. He was alone that evening and distracted because his son was off fighting in the war. Someone knocked on the door; it was a messenger with a letter from the Secretary of War notifying Longfellow that his son had been killed.

Later that night Longfellow heard the bells which rang at midnight. With his heart overflowing with grief, he sat down and wrote the lines:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Happy to know he could still write in spite of his grief, he continued:

I thought of how this day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rung so long the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

As the night passed, grief gave way to anger and bitterness, reflected in the third stanza:

Then in despair I bowed my head,
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Longfellow did not sleep that night but sat numb and overcome at his loss. At dawn the bells from the church steeples began to ring again. Moved by the new day and the ringing of the bells, Longfellow finished his poem with the last stanza. As Ralph Heller reflected, it is "one of the greatest affirmations of faith in Western literature":

Then pealed the bells now loud and deep:
"God is not dead nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Ralph completed the story with a quote from Russian writer Stefan Trofinmovitch, who saw obsessive secularism as mankind's biggest challenge: "The one essential condition of human existence is that man should always be able to bow down before something infinitely great. For if men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair."

Another Ralph, one Ralph Waldo Emerson, reflected on the condition of the American soul, and it is too bad his observations and advice have been thrown into the politically correct ash heap. Emerson said:

" ...our system of education ... is a system of despair. ... We do not speak to the divine sentiments in man; we do not try. We adorn the victim [student] with manual skill, his tongue with languages, his body with inoffensive and comely manners. So have we cunningly hid the tragedy of limitation and inner death we cannot avert ... the human mind now labors in want of faith."

Some in the American world today want to totally rid us of all notions of the spiritual and profound. They babble about separation of church and state oblivious to the fact that such a separation is nowhere to be found in the Constitution but rather is a judicial hybrid and a creation of those who hate or choose to misrepresent or misunderstand all religions. The ones who speak of "freedom from" have it wrong. The Founders only had in mind that no state religion should be instituted.

Yet we do have a state religion now. That religion is secularism and materialism and political correctness. It is a poor substitute for the faith that was the engine for the greatest republic, and once home of liberty, in the history of mankind.

In our day we have pale and inconsequential straw men, quasi-religions and celebrations. These offer no joy or love or passion. These replacements for Christmas are the result of small, intolerant and obtuse minds. They give us Kwanzaa and sparkle season to replace the shining time with a glorious reaffirmation of the faith of our fathers.

Those worldly wise who will not allow or tolerate Christmas and its symbols are building a little world of airless and sterile and fragile towers. It is too bad the architects of this new environment are blind to the greatness of one of the world's most compelling and important philosophies. From Judaism to Christianity, those founding beliefs and principles have been our guidon for over 200 years.

No matter what the new order or political correctness requires or demands, Christmas will never go away. After the fancies and fashions of the moment have passed, Christmas will live on in the heart of man as it has for 2,000 years.

So to all of you, believers and nonbelievers, I wish you well. I wish you the joys of the season and hope for tomorrow, because in the final analysis that is what Christmas is about.


Diane Alden is a research analyst with a background in political science and economics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Times as well as NewsMax.com, Etherzone, Enterstageright, American Partisan and many other online publications. She also does occasional radio commentaries for Georgia Radio Inc. Her e-mail address is wulfric8@bellsouth.net

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26 dec 2000