Reprinting, with permission, an article from the Florida Weekly Not directly pertinant to Tribal Art, but a worthy read anyway.
In the American cultural vernacular, which may prove as confusing to you as it frequently does to me, the first Christmas did not occur 2,013 years ago.
Instead, the first Christmas took place exactly 237 years ago on a frigid night a few miles north of Philadelphia.
In this whimsical, transformative nation, holidays that began as one thing inevitably become another, and none more so than Christmas.
During the evening of Dec. 25, 1776, Christmas Love (defined as the love of Christ come, for Christians) must have seemed as remote as the North Pole to the 2,400 men who crossed the Delaware River out of Pennsylvania. They moved out in sleet and snow equipped with newly issued flints for their weapons on George Washington’s command, gathering on the riverfront from positions near McKonkey’s Ferry.
At that point the self-declared United States of America — where you and I will eat to our heart’s content this Christmas — amounted to 174 days worth of upstart nation. Brand new, the nation was also under siege, wrapped in a winter storm, and starving.
Most of Washington’s men couldn’t swim, but they swallowed their fear. Ice floes in the river presented a significant danger to their heavily-laden boats as they labored in frigid darkness toward the Jersey shore.
None of it was pretty. In sloppy, struggling fashion, commanders and a regiment of experienced seamen from Marblehead, Mass., with others, finally landed the force mostly intact at Trenton, on the east bank of the river.
There, things changed forever. That fact remains the nation’s most singular Christmas gift to itself.
The Americans caught the winter-encamped Hessian troops (competent professional soldiers in the pay of the British army) completely off guard and drunk. Thus they won the first real victory in our history, at the end of what had been a very bad year.
Had Washington been killed or captured — a distinct possibility since he was among the first to land on the far shore — history would have gone barking up a different tree.
It almost did, anyway. Previously, his men had succeeded only in having their rear ends kicked out of New York and chased all over New Jersey by the British and their allies.
But only six days before Christmas, Thomas Paine came out with a feisty pamphlet called “Common Sense,” in Philadelphia. It included the most famous lines he ever wrote. The language was so compelling that against all reason it boosted morale among the half-frozen, half-sick, woefully undernourished Americans.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Mr. Paine wrote. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
No doubt many would have settled for an easier conflict and reduced rations of glory along with a hot meal, but they weren’t given the choice.
For all those Americans, including women, children and the old people left to manage farms and homes, Christmas Love required sacrifice and the recognition of imminent mortality.
To all of them, everything must have seemed tenuous.
I’ve always thought of Christmas that way, too — as a time when existence can become, paradoxically, both sumptuous and desperate.
In such a time, each of us must cross our own Delaware, which means that each of us must define Christmas Love as any force or energy that allows us to make the crossing, no matter how tenuously or what shape it takes.
If, for example, you haven’t spoken to a relative or an old friend with whom you’ve fallen out, you’re facing the river.
If you haven’t forgiven yourself for a mistake made in another time — which means confronting your own weakness or blindness, and moving on — you’re facing the river.
If the echoes of the dead or the memories of Christmases past become not the voices of angels but a chorus of tyrants beckoning you to surrender the joyous moment in order to suffer the once-upon-a-time, you’re facing the river.
Charles Dickens, the great British novelist, knew the music of this tune intimately, which was why he wrote “A Christmas Carol.”
In any case, something has to be faced and changed. And you have to face it and change it. Christmas is a time to do that, just as it was for Washington and the men, women and children who faced his Delaware River.
For somebody I never knew, here’s one more Delaware. Late on Dec. 24, 1976, I drove out of the gates of Camp Lejeune, N.C., home of the Second Marine Division, bound toward Wilmington 50 or so miles to the south. I was bent on attending midnight Mass at an orthodox church.
The narrow two-lane blacktop ribboned a North Carolina night so black in the flat piedmont that I could see nothing beyond my own headlights for miles, until a flashing of red and blue came distantly into view.
I slowed, approached and passed. Two cars had collided head on. The bodies of five dead lay under sheets near the devastated wreckage. Midnight was 90 minutes away.
At the church, a packed Christmas celebration of such candlelit, incense-infused magnificence occurred — with chanting, bells, the sprinkling of holy water and all the sensuous ornamentation of celebratory life — that I’ve never been able to forget either the blood or the glory.
And now it’s only Christmas Love I want for them: for those nameless souls who may still cherish the victims of that long ago night. May they, with all of us, find it in themselves to cross the other Delaware. ¦
— A version of this column originally ran on Dec. 21, 2011.