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Christmas In Seventeen Seventy-six






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, suddenly.

"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 eyes.

"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 come home."

"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 merry-making, 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, Fido, Fido!"

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.





Next: Christmas Under The Snow

Previous: The Cratchits' Christmas Dinner



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