Christmas in Seventeen Seventy-Six
by Anne Hollingsworth Wharton
"On Christmas day in Seventy-six,
Our gallant troops with bayonets fixed,
To Trenton marched away."
Children, have any of you ever thought of what little people like you were doing in this country more than a hundred years ago, when the cruel tide of war swept over its bosom? From many homes the fathers were absent, fighting bravely for the liberty which we now enjoy, while the mothers no less valiantly struggled against hardships and discomforts in order to keep a home for their children, whom you only know as your great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, dignified gentlemen and beautiful ladies, whose painted portraits hang upon the walls in some of your homes. Merry, romping children they were in those far-off times, yet their bright faces must have looked grave sometimes, when they heard the grown people talk of the great things that were happening around them. Some of these little people never forgot the wonderful events of which they heard, and afterward related them to their children and grandchildren, which accounts for some of the interesting stories which you may still hear, if you are good children.
The Christmas story that I have to
tell you is about a boy and girl who lived in Bordentown, New
Jersey. The father of these children was a soldier in General
Washington's army, which was encamped a few miles north of
Trenton, on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Bordentown,
as you can see by looking on your map, if you have not hidden
them all away for the holidays, is about seven miles south
of Trenton, where fifteen hundred Hessians and a troop of British
light horse were holding the town. Thus you see that the British,
in force, were between Washington's army and Bordentown, besides
which there were some British and Hessian troops in the very
town. All this seriously interfered with Captain Tracy's going
home to eat his Christmas dinner with his wife and children.
Kitty and Harry Tracy, who had not lived long enough to see
many wars, could not imagine such a thing as Christmas without
their father, and had busied themselves for weeks in making
everything ready to have a merry time with him. Kitty, who
loved to play quite as much as any frolicsome Kitty of to-day,
had spent all her spare time in knitting a pair of thick woollen
stockings, which seems a wonderful feat for a little girl only
eight years old to perform! Can you not see her sitting by
the great chimney-place, filled with its roaring, crackling
logs, in her quaint, short-waisted dress, knitting away steadily,
and puckering up her rosy, dimpled face over the strange twists
and turns of that old stocking? I can see her, and I can also
hear her sweet voice as she chatters away to her mother about "how 'sprised papa will be to find that his little girl can knit like a grown-up woman," while
Harry spreads out on the hearth a goodly store of shellbarks
that he has gathered and is keeping for his share of the 'sprise.
"What if he shouldn't come?" asks Harry,
"Oh, he'll come! Papa never stays away on Christmas," says
Kitty, looking up into her mother's face for an echo to her
words. Instead she sees something very like tears in her mother's
"Oh, mamma, don't you think he'll come?"
"He will come if he possibly can," says Mrs. Tracy; "and
if he cannot, we will keep Christmas whenever dear papa does
"It won't be half so nice," said Kitty, "nothing's
so nice as REALLY Christmas, and how's Kriss Kringle going
to know about it if we change the day?"
"We'll let him come just the same,
and if he brings anything for papa we can put it away for him."
This plan, still, seemed a poor one
to Miss Kitty, who went to her bed in a sober mood that night,
and was heard telling her dear dollie, Martha Washington. that "wars were mis'able, and that when she married she should have a man who kept a candy-shop for a husband, and not a soldier--no, Martha, not even if he's as nice as papa!" As
Martha made no objection to this little arrangement, being
an obedient child, they were both soon fast asleep. The days
of that cold winter of 1776 wore on; so cold it was that the
sufferings of the soldiers were great, their bleeding feet
often leaving marks on the pure white snow over which they
marched. As Christmas drew near there was a feeling among the
patriots that some blow was about to be struck; but what it
was, and from whence they knew not; and, better than all, the
British had no idea that any strong blow could come from Washington's
army, weak and out of heart, as they thought, after being chased
through Jersey by Cornwallis.
Mrs. Tracy looked anxiously each day for news of the husband and father only a few miles away, yet so separated by the river and the enemy's troops that they seemed like a hundred. Christmas Eve came, but brought with it few rejoicings. The hearts of the people were too sad to be taken up with merrymaking, although the Hessian soldiers in the town, good-natured Germans, who only fought the Americans because they were paid for it, gave themselves up to the feasting and revelry.
"Shall we hang up our stockings?" asked
Kitty, in rather a doleful voice.
"Yes," said her mother, "Santa Claus
won't forget you, I am sure, although he has been kept pretty
busy looking after the soldiers this winter."
"Which side is he on?" asked Harry.
"The right side, of course," said Mrs.
Tracy, which was the most sensible answer she could possibly
have given. So:
"The stockings were hung by the chimney
with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there."
Two little rosy faces lay fast asleep upon the pillow when the good old soul came dashing over the roof about one o'clock, and after filling each stocking with red apples, and leaving a cornucopia of sugar-plums for each child, he turned for a moment to look at the sleeping faces, for St. Nicholas has a tender spot in his great big heart for a soldier's children. Then, remembering many other small folks waiting for him all over the land, he sprang up the chimney and was away in a trice.
Santa Claus, in the form of Mrs. Tracy's
farmer brother, brought her a splendid turkey; but because
the Hessians were uncommonly fond of turkey, it came hidden
under a load of wood. Harry was very fond of turkey, too, as
well as of all other good things; but when his mother said, "It's such a fine bird, it seems too bad to eat it without father," Harry cried out, "Yes, keep it for papa!" and Kitty, joining in the chorus, the vote was unanimous, and the turkey was hung away to await the return of the good soldier, although it seemed strange, as Kitty told Martha Washington, "to
have no papa and no turkey on Christmas Day."
The day passed and night came, cold
with a steady fall of rain and sleet. Kitty prayed that her "dear papa might not be out in the storm, and that he might come home and wear his beautiful blue stockings"; "And eat his turkey," said
Harry's sleepy voice; after which they were soon in the land
of dreams. Toward morning the good people in Bordentown were
suddenly aroused by firing in the distance, which became more
and more distinct as the day wore on. There was great excitement
in the town; men and women gathered together in little groups
in the streets to wonder what it was all about, and neighbours
came dropping into Mrs. Tracy's parlour, all day long, one
after the other, to say what they thought of the firing. In
the evening there came a body of Hessians flying into the town,
to say that General Washington had surprised the British at
Trenton, early that morning, and completely routed them, which
so frightened the Hessians in Bordentown that they left without
the slightest ceremony.
It was a joyful hour to the good town people when the red-jackets turned their backs on them, thinking every moment that the patriot army would be after them. Indeed, it seemed as if wonders would never cease that day, for while rejoicings were still loud, over the departure of the enemy, there came a knock at Mrs. Tracy's door, and while she was wondering whether she dared open it, it was pushed ajar, and a tall soldier entered. What a scream of delight greeted that soldier, and how Kitty and Harry danced about him and clung to his knees, while Mrs. Tracy drew him toward the warm blaze, and helped him off with his damp cloak!
Cold and tired Captain Tracy was, after a night's march in the streets and a day's fighting; but he was not too weary to smile at the dear faces around him, or to pat Kitty's head when she brought his warm stockings and would put them on the tired feet, herself.
Suddenly there was a sharp, quick bark
outside the door. "What's that?" cried Harry
"Oh, I forgot. Open the door. Here,
Into the room there sprang a beautiful little King Charles spaniel, white, with tan spots, and ears of the longest, softest, and silkiest.
"What a little dear!" exclaimed Kitty; "where
did it come from?"
"From the battle of Trenton," said her father. "His
poor master was shot. After the red-coats had turned their
backs, and I was hurrying along one of the streets where the
fight had been the fiercest, I heard a low groan, and, turning,
saw a British officer lying among a number of slain. I raised
his head; he begged for some water, which I brought him, and
bending down my ear I heard him whisper, 'Dying--last battle--say
a prayer.' He tried to follow me in the words of a prayer,
and then, taking my hand, laid it on something soft and warm,
nestling close up to his breast--it was this little dog. The
gentleman--for he was a real gentleman--gasped out, 'Take care
of my poor Fido; good-night,' and was gone. It was as much
as I could do to get the little creature away from his dead
master; he clung to him as if he loved him better than life.
You'll take care of him, won't you, children? I brought him
home to you, for a Christmas present."
"Pretty little Fido," said Kitty, taking the soft, curly creature in her arms; "I
think it's the best present in the world, and to-morrow is
to be real Christmas, because you are home, papa."
"And we'll eat the turkey," said Harry, "and
shellbarks, lots of them, that I saved for you. What a good
time we'll have! And oh, papa, don't go to war any more, but
stay at home, with mother and Kitty and Fido and me."
"What would become of our country if
we should all do that, my little man? It was a good day's work
that we did this Christmas, getting the army all across the
river so quickly and quietly that we surprised the enemy, and
gained a victory, with the loss of few men."
Thus it was that some of the good people of 1776 spent their Christmas, that their children and grandchildren might spend many of them as citizens of a free nation.