Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas at Valley Forge

It's gotten cold in Indiana, which is of course to be expected in late December. What's less expected is my first reaction to the first really cold morning of the winter, as I walked from my car to work : "I'm sure glad I didn't wake up in a tent this morning."

This may, first of all, be a sign that I've been reenacting too long and the minutaie thereof has completed its takeover of the workings of my brain. It may also be that, though I've never woken up to a snowstorm or single-digit temperatures, I've dragged myself out of a bedroll into an automatic shiver enough times to have a taste of what it feels like. Finally, it's most likely because I had just read the short story "Valley Forge" by Van Wyck Mason in my Christmas anthology.

I make reading my favorites from this tome an annual tradition, and "Valley Forge" is one of those favorites. Set, unsurprisingly, in Valley Forge during the winter encampment of 1777, it recounts a cold Christmas Eve that ought, from the want of fuel and food, to have been lacking entirely in cheer. It's the sort of old-timey patriotic story that would be laughed off the shelves now, but its earnestness keeps it fresh even today. As his soldiers shiver and lie through their chattering teeth writing good tidings home to their families, General Washington is writing his resignation to the Continental Congress. Yet, after he tours the camp, thoroughly impressed each time he stops at a weak campfire with his men's steadfastness, he returns and burns the letter.

It's a very simple story, and one that the historian in me could pick apart. I could also, in a moment of uncharitable speech, call it "corny." Even "corndog." But I choose not to, because it's really about what we choose to believe about other people--that they have good in them. And isn't that one of the best parts of Christmas--believing?

And besides, I'm full of good cheer of the season--I didn't wake up in a tent this morning.

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