Christmas Edition: Christmases Past

Christmas Day 1776

The waning months of 1776 were not pretty ones for the Continental Army. Things began to go seriously downhill in November.

Fort Washington, situated on a bluff high above the Hudson River on the northwestern end of Manhattan Island and its sister Fort Lee across the river on the New Jersey palisades were supposed to secure the lower Hudson. And they probably would have had their defenses not been compromised by a deserter named William Demont who gave the plans for Fort Washington to the British. With this critical information to hand the British seized Fort Washington on November 16, 1776. Four days later, the British arrived at Fort Lee to find it abandoned. Major General Nathaniel Greene had ordered its evacuation and pushed the remainder of his troops towards Hackensack, New Jersey where he intended to join Washington’s forces. Once in the empty fort, the British helped themselves to the valuable stores of food, artillery, and ammunition that had to be left behind.

Washington watching the capture of Fort Washington from Fort Lee

The loss of these forts was a disaster for the patriot cause and for Washington personally. There were many in the Continental Congress who routinely questioned the wisdom of putting him in charge of the Continental Army and these events only served to further erode what support he had left. After his defeat at White Plains, Washington seriously considered abandoning Fort Washington, Greene convinced him the post was essential and that he could hold it securely.

But by December George Washington was in a frantic retreat into New Jersey. Prospects were bleak. The Continental Army was poorly supplied, ill fed, and scarcely clothed. More than 2000 militia men from Maryland and New Jersey were at the end of their term of enlistment and they left for home. Morale was at an all time low. Washington’s plea to General Charles Lee for reinforcement fell on deaf ears. Lee wanted Washington’s job, and the sooner Washington imploded, the better.

On December 11, the rag-tag army scrambled onto any boat they could find, and destroyed those they couldn’t use, to cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Allegedly, as the British forces got to Trenton, they saw the last of the Continental forces rowing away. In an ironic twist, General Lee belatedly arrived in New Jersey, to help Washington on December 13, but was captured at Basking Ridge. John Sullivan assumed command of Lee’s troops and took them to Pennsylvania to meet with Washington.

By now, everyone in the general vicinity was in retreat, including the Continental Congress, which was in session in Philadelphia. They packed their bags and reconvened in Baltimore for a few weeks. The British forces, thinking the possibility of further rebellion or uprising was unlikely in the harsh winter months decided to hunker down for the season. They would secure the areas they already occupied and believed Washington and the Continental Army to be sufficiently crippled as to be of little consequence for the time being. Washington was unaware of these plans until late December.

But new things came to light by late December.  Two of Washington’s scouts captured a person of interest, probably a British spy, on the outskirts of Trenton. This person, John Honeyman, was definitely a spy, but he was one of Washington’s spies. Honeyman was a Scots-Irish weaver who had been conscripted into the British forces during the French and Indian War. When the hostilities ended he remained in America, married, and settled in Griggstown,New Jersey. As tensions escalated between the American colonists and the British government, his sentiments fell decidedly on the American side. He used his accent and his lowly, unobtrusive social position to the advantage of the patriot cause. He roamed quietly through Trenton gathering intelligence that he presented to Washington on December 22, the day of his capture. Washington insisted on a private meeting with Honeyman, who informed him Cornwallis had called off the British advance, that British forces were settling into their winter encampments, and New Jersey was occupied by Hessians under the command of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall.

Rall was comfortably ensconced in Trenton and gearing up for lush Christmas festivities. Rall disdained the Continental Army as an “army of farmers” and did not bother to build fortifications around Trenton as he thought they were hardly necessary. Washington had not only been routed but forced to retreat, what was left of his army was shattered and starving. The last thing he was worried about was an attack from the rebel forces.

Honeyman’s information corresponded to other intelligence Washington had gathered. Knowing the British and the Hessians were off their guard, he decided to attack Trenton. Although the circumstances were, at best, awful, Washington needed a victory to raise morale and his sagging prestige. At the rate he was loosing soldiers, he also knew if he didn’t attack in December, he probably wouldn’t have a chance to try again at a later date.

On Christmas night 1776, the American forces re-crossed the Delaware River for what was supposed to be a 3 pronged attack on the forces in New Jersey. The weather was, of course, bad. The river was littered with chunks of ice. The boats were overloaded. We can say navigation was difficult, between the driving sleet and snow, the heavy boats, and ice floes, but that would be an understatement.

One segment never arrived at the destination. Another group arrived, but their supplies did not arrive with them, so they returned to camp. Only one contingent of three arrived ready to do business. Washington intended to strike before dawn but he wasn’t in place until 8:00 AM on December 26.

Loyalist observers had seen Washington’s advance and sent a note to Colonel Rall to warn him, but Rall was busy with Christmas dinner and put the note in his pocket where it remained unread. Rall was also placated by news from John Honeyman, who had “escaped” from Washington’s clutches. Honeyman told Rall the rebel forces were in such shambles that they were on the verge of mutiny.

By the time the Continental Army opened fire, Rall and most of the rest of the Hessian garrison were sleeping. The troops led by Nathaniel Greene and John Sullivan were able to get the upper hand before the Hessians could react.

Rall was mortally wounded and died shortly after the attack started. The crumpled unread note of warning was found in his pocket. The Hessian forces were left with no alternative but surrender.

Washington’s stunning victory at Trenton on December 26, 1776 was the first instance his troops defeated a regular army in the field. The Continental troops only lost two men, both of them from exposure. The Hessians suffered approximately 100 casualties and 900 others were taken as prisoners, and others are thought to have disappeared into the landscape. The Continental Army refurbished itself with six cannon, forty horses, and sundry other useful supplies the Hessians had on hand.

Thanks to this victory, Washington’s command was now secure and legitimate. The army had regained prestige and recruitment dramatically increased following the Battle of Trenton.

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Christmas Edition: White Christmas

For the entire week leading up to Christmas, all we heard about was the rare promise of  a White Christmas. The last time this happened around here was in 1947. The impending snow storm was all the weather forecasters could talk about. Because they wouldn’t let the topic go, it was all we began to talk about. “Are you on the road Christmas Day? Well, be careful–we’re supposed to get bad weather,” or “they’re predicting snow this weekend so stay so stay out of the grocery store if you can,” and  etc.

As the experts tweaked the forecast, we were assured it would not snow Christmas Eve, only on Christmas Day, and we might only get an inch, which is enough to make it count but not enough to cover anything decently. We all went to bed thinking, “ho hum, snow on Christmas, like that’s going to happen,” and we were vindicated on Christmas morning when we looked out of the window to see cloudy skies, but not a snowflake in sight. Off and on during day someone would have to say, “Where’s all that snow we’ve been hearing about?”

It started to rain about 8:00 PM. Folks wandered to the windows or the patios just to look and  occasional reports from anxious children, smokers en route to their outdoor exile, or the tipsy who were milling aimlessly around the house, drifted in announcing they could see a few snowflakes mixed in with the rain, and then they could see more, until it was clear it was finally really snowing. It didn’t look like it wanted to stick to anything, but it was snowing, and it was still Christmas day, so it could still count for something, maybe, if it kept at it.

By 10:00 PM there was a small accumulation and you could definitely say Charlotte had its White Christmas although it was too dark to appreciate it very much. By 11ish the snowflakes were little and wispy. This was probably the end of it.

Apparently not–

I bring you the Christmas Snow of 2010.

Happy 2nd day of Christmas

from the desk of  PMS
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Christmas Edition: Christmas Eve

We have arrived at the eleventh hour.

It’s Christmas Eve.

It’s beyond do or die time.

This is my favorite day of the year, because at some point you have to admit the rush is over. Christmas is coming whether you like it or not, whether you’re ready or not. It’s coming, you can’t stop it, and you may as well give in. The day doesn’t belong to you anymore.

At some point on Christmas Eve day or early Christmas Eve, I hope you can sense the quiet as the day winds down. At some point the madness stops, or it should, and there is a peace where there was chaos, serenity where there was craziness.

Enjoy the quiet and welcome the holiday with open arms.

Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the Southern Muses


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Christmas Edition: Recipes From the Archives

When we think of Christmas food and drink, we are really thinking of 2 things: booze and fruitcake, maybe booze with fruitcake, or booze with the intention of avoiding fruitcake.

Today we offer the most efficient way to get both. But remember, this is the season to give generously, entertain warmly, and for gawd’s sake, drink responsibly.

A few cups of this and you’ll Fa La La your way through the season.

If you are a fruitcake aficionado, you will probably argue the time to have made one’s fruitcake was months ago, because a really good fruitcake needs months of soaking in brandy, and the brandy needs to be applied at regular intervals. If you haven’t already make such a fruitcake for the holidays, it really is too late for that. However, if you crave the fruitcake experience without the fuss, we offer the following:

I hope they turn out too. Now go find some raisens and get cracking.


From the recesses of the Stathakis archives

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Christmas Edition: There are Christmas Trees and there are Christmas Trees

As we have all seen by the previous post, Muse Marsha’s family had the latest, greatest in Christmas décor-the aluminum tree with the fancy color wheel. She was one of the lucky ones. I remember seeing such things in store windows and in department store displays. I also remember staring in awe at this amazing creation of color and sparkle, knowing damn well we would never get to have a tree like that.

My grandmother had an aluminum tree, a table top size that she perfunctorily put on the coffee table in the living room we weren’t allowed to play in. The living room was painted turquoise and the draperies were pink. The balls on the tree were pink too, and that was the only effort to color co-ordinate anything in the living room. The sofa was green, the armchair was orange, the carpet was maroon,  there were two shield back chairs upholstered in a tapestry framed baroque scene of a man and woman staring at each other with intense boredom, and of course there were lace antimacassars everywhere. With the crazy quilt of color in this room you might think my grandparents would have invested in a color wheel for the tree-why not–it would “go” with every color in the room anyway. But no, the living room was not for sitting in, it was for having, and for entertaining their friends on special occasions, and it’s where my grandfather hid on Sundays after church where he could read the paper in peace, have his scotch and a bowl of chips to himself while he waited for dinner (southern and old fashioned for lunch).

Anyway, they didn’t have Christmas trees in the old country, aluminum or otherwise, so I’m not sure my grandmother was into the Christmas tree thing, or even doing much decorating for the holidays. So all we had to look forward to was an aluminum tree in the living room that we weren’t allowed to go in. Underneath the tree would be our presents, usually socks and/or underwear.

I’m surprised she wasn’t more receptive to Christmas trees, now that I think about it. She liked doing whatever the Americans were doing. Maybe it was too foreign, too German. But she admired the Germans. Very clean people, she told me more than once. Clean was big in her book. Never mind the Germans burned her village to the ground in the Second World War. They are very clean, unlike the French who are not. She divided the world into the clean people and the dirty people, allies be damned. But I digress.

I knew such trees and color wheels existed, and I also knew my parents would have no truck with any such modern, fancy, exciting, stylish thing. My dad was old school. Not so old school we had go to to the woods to get a tree–old school as in buy a real one on the tree lot–often a day or two before Christmas. The timing varied from one year to the next but what never changed was he would not spend a lot on money on a tree, because in his mind, perfect and expensive did not mean beautiful.

He would roam the lot, walking past the big, lush, symmetrical trees. They weren’t there. He was looking for the diamond in the rough. Invariably he would stumble on the one, the tree that was crooked, short, and had bare patches. He would hold it up and say “That’s a pretty tree. Don’t you think that’s a pretty tree?”

Even if you didn’t think so, you agreed with him, and as we had more of these experiences under our belts, we started believing in the beauty of the misshapen, Charlie Brown tree. Crookedness gave it character. If it was a little short so what–back in those days people didn’t have towering Christmas trees, I don’t even remember they were available and in any case, way back when, that degree of ostentation was indecent. And of course you can always turn the bare side to face the wall, or you can embrace it as a decorating challenge. I prefer to think of it as the evergreen shadowbox.

When I grew up, or rather got old enough to have my own place and my own tree, I shopped with a mission for my Charlie Brown tree and trained my husband to do the same. My father would be proud of all the times we scoured tree lots in search of the most forlorn tree we could find, the unloved tree that no one else noticed, so we could take it home, enjoy its fragrance, and make it pretty.

Dad was like that about other things besides Christmas trees. He could see the worth in people others might not bother to notice. That’s why he had so many friends, why he struggled against his prejudices, and probably why I was allowed to live past the age of fourteen.

From the desk of Paula M. Stathakis

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Christmas Edition: O! Christmas Tree, O! Christmas Tree

O! Christmas Tree, O! Christmas Tree

from the pen of Marsha L. Burris

When the best years of your childhood fall during the Sputnik phenomenon, you will be affected. A guy named Sergei, employed by the Soviet space program, developed a spectacular satellite that could orbit the earth in OUTER SPACE so you know a good old fashioned red-blooded American engineer named Bob, employed by ALCOA had to offset that technological advance with something just as awesome: A shiny silver-colored aluminum Christmas tree.

Back in those days, when I was a kid, we hung our freshly washed clothes on a clothes line (outdoors), we washed dishes after each meal (with our own two hands), and we walked across the pasture to the woods and cut a cedar sapling for our Christmas tree every December (using a hand saw). But then Space Age culture dawned and with it spawned a new world outlook. We put aside such organic pursuits as gathering holiday greenery for decorative purposes. Instead, inspired by The Jetsons, we coveted digital diaries, moving sidewalks, holidays to Venus and metallic holiday decor.

I’m certain that many families in Newell owned and displayed one of those store-bought erector-set metallic Christmas trees as proudly as those of us who resided at Route #10, Orr Road did. As I ponder that last statement, however, I realize that I cannot recall a single other family who admitted to having one. Nevertheless, my family was not willing to pass up an opportunity to mark a profound moment in history. We were on the cutting edge of the new trend in Christmas tree innovation.

Aluminum Christmas Trees! Upon close analysis, I appreciate that there are good points and bad points associated with trees of this style.

Good points: A tree of this fine quality and magnificence is strikingly beautiful with or without decorations. May I just use the word ethereal here? And for any vacuum-wielding housewife looking for time-saving shortcuts during the busy Yuletide Season, she will appreciate that there is no dropping of needles that requires attention. And to my finely honed esthetic requirement for visual symmetry, this tree (being Man-Made at all) was, well, symmetrical. Precisely-drilled holes in the three-piece trunk held varying lengths of frilly long-lasting non-tarnishing aluminum foil branches provided with every kit. The short branches went in the top one-third, the medium length brances fit into the middle one-third, and the longest branches filled in the bottom, completing its tree-like shape. Eye-catching, as every inch of its five-foot tall gloriousness towered over us children.

Bad points: There were no bad points. Oh, except that, what good is a Christmas tree without beautiful twinkling colored lights hugging it like a hairnet on a short-order cook? Yet if you strap a string of electric lights on this man-made lightening rod, you’re courting disaster. Metal is a pretty good conductor of electrical current and the shock sustained by the meeting of that metal with 125 volts of electricity will not be covered by your homeowners insurance any more than bathing with your Philco radio will.

Solution: Add a color wheel to the mix. A rotating wheel, complete with a four-color spotlight which projects an alternating array of yellows and greens and reds and blues every few seconds illuminates the otherwise monochromatic tree precluding the necessity of a dangerous string of electrical lights. And that’s what my Momma did. No California-styled flocking of trees was allowed in our house. We had standards and would never stoop to such commercial pressures.

Any onlooker or passerby would be attracted to the magic of Christmas science as seen through the picture window on the front of our house. And being a classy lady who was ahead of her time, Rusty would not hang just any old random colored ball on our spiritual symbol of Christmas. She chose a selection of blue and green glass balls that highlighted the same blues and greens in the long threads of our shag carpet. Just click on the color wheel and let the Christmas spirit abound.

I spent hours lying cozily on the deep pile carpeting of our living room floor, chin propped upon my clasped hands, gazing, mesmerized, at that tree in awe and wonder of its beauty.

O! The divine and marvelous memories of Christmases past.

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Section: Seersucker & Sunshine

When We Were Young

Swimming with Snakes

from the pen of Marsha L Burris

Baby, it’s cold outside! Christmas hasn’t even arrived yet and it’s seventeen (17) degrees! My gloves are asking for gloves. Reflecting on the summers of my youth warms my heart – and that warmth sticks with me longer than a cup of hot cocoa.

Who else can claim to have grown up with the most wonderful friends ever? For those of us who call Newell ‘home’, this is an often heard boast. I see many of these old friends still but more and more our reunions take place at funeral services for beloved family and friends. Chatting about the old days on Facebook is quickly surpassing cemeteries as the location for our gathering of the minds, though, and that suits me just fine. We repeat our stories to each other and I’m glad to know that my recollections of the good old days match theirs. We got ourselves in some fixes way back then that we did not necessarily want our mothers to know about. But for many of us, sadly, it’s now safe to tell the tales.

I record one such account here.

Visiting my friend Mimi at her house was an adventure and not just because she had horses that roamed the green rolling hills of the Roberts family pasture, but because of the pond. Mimi had a great ‘swimming pond’. Most of us had ponds in Newell and each pond had its own personality. Our pond was especially good for getting us stuck in muck and mud. And in a made-up game of ‘Tarzan’ we pretended that the mud was quick sand. Those of us who adopted the roles of Natives dramatically sunk ourselves up to our ankles in the ooze while begging Tarzan (usually played by my brother Robert because he could do the yell just like Johnny Weissmuller) to come and save our lives.  And then there were a few times when my sibs and I ice-skated on our pond if the temperatures dipped low enough and long enough to freeze it over. Our dad led the way on such a winter excursion and we knew no harm would come to us when he was there.

But back to Mimi’s pond!

Mimi’s pond was an official swimming pond. It had a pier built on the shore line which extended out over the water several feet so that when we jumped off it we landed in deep enough water to be safe.

Let’s remember here that ‘safe’ is a relative term in Newellese. Before safe swimming could take place in Mimi’s pond, a little pre-dip ritual had to be performed. We had to splash the water enthusiastically. Yes, we beat the water with sticks and made all manner of wild sloshing movements from the shore or the pier before jumping into the water. Why? Well, to disperse the snakes and turtles and fish that gathered around the supports of the pier of course. You read that right… to scare away the SNAKES and turtles and fish.

As Mimi herself admitted only recently, “we usually tried not to tell our friends much about the critters in the pond or they might chicken out on swimming. We never got bit except by nibbling fish.”

We, her friends, could suffer being called just about any name except ‘chicken’. So we splashed. And then we jumped. We swam around like little tadpoles. Tadpoles in clothes that is. Cut-offs and tee shirts made the preferred summer uniform. Rarely did we think ahead enough to prepare for various activities such as swimming – but it was probably best to have on as much protective clothing as possible anyway in case something other than the fishes decided to nibble at us.

The most vivid part of this memory? IT WAS WARM!

Bundle up dear friends.

Listen to PODCAST here



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