Absent was the typical holiday cheer for General George Washington and the Continental Army stationed in Pennsylvania during December, 1776.
Despite the marginal success American forces found at the beginning of the year, steady defeat followed Washington and his troops as the months wore on. The army thinned as enlistments expired; other soldiers found desertion the better path. Morale plummeted with the temperature.
By the end of December, Washington was in no position to win the war, let alone get his troops through the winter. He wrote to the Continental Congress on Dec. 16: "(the troops') distresses are extremely great, many of 'em (are) being entirely naked and most (of them) so thinly clad as to be unfit for service."
Starved, naked and humiliated.
A dozen miles away from his Pennsylvania camp lay Trenton, New Jersey, a city under Hessian control. The general devised an unusual plan — a sneak attack — requiring thousands of men and their artillery to ford a frozen river in the dead of night, the eve of Christmas Day, and surround the unsuspecting enemies.
Securing Trenton was a minor military success in the greater arc of the war, but it became a priceless victory for struggling patriots who had lost the flicker of hope.
It's also illuminating for anyone — or any country — facing their own river crossing.
With quiet determination and a few days planning, one man lifted the spirits of the entire Continental Army. Today's America makes evident the power of one to divide, destroy and excite, but do we believe in that same power to unite, uplift and inspire?
Washington somehow gave his ragged and destitute soldiers enough optimism to skip a night of sleep, brave the freezing waters and throw themselves in harm's way. After the safe return of all but four American soldiers, Washington wrote in humility, "their Behaviour upon this Occasion, reflects the highest honor upon them."
It's fitting Washington's small victory fell so close to Christmas, a day for celebrating the man who perfectly manifests the singular power of one to change lives.
Christ's humble birth brought angels to shepherds and wise men to their knees. It enraged a jealous king and consoled an aged and devout man at the temple.
His mortal acquaintances saw in him a unique power to heal the afflicted, preach to the learned and lift the social outcasts. Fishermen found through him the power to drop their nets and follow him without thought for food or raiment. Those who place their faith in him feel his power to forgive, redeem and justify.
To merely say Christ exemplifies the power of one omits that he is the only one on whom mankind can wholly rely. Wrote the poet, "Where can I turn for peace? … Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish? Who, who can understand? He, only One."
This Christmas may find those who merrily gather and exchange good cheer, but it also will find any who, like shivering troops in Pennsylvania, have little reason to hope for a better world. These may not have power of themselves to change the night to day, but they can welcome the figures of history and faith as companions on their journey.
It's not insignificant the password for Washington's troops the night of the crossing was "victory or death." This season we remember the birth of a Savior who was the victor over death, the one who ensures we need not cross our Delaware alone.