Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Bo Type of Christmas

The White House theme this year for Christmas decorations is “Simple Gifts”….emphasizing what Mrs. Obama says are the simple things at Christmas time, such as music, children, friends, and family, and gifts made from nature.

However, the Obama’s dog, Bo, has his stamp all over Christmas at the White House this year. A larger-than-life version of the Obama family pet, made of 40,000 twisted black and white pipe cleaners, is one of the first things tourists and other guests will see when they stroll through the White House all decked out for the holidays.

Bo also features prominently in a 350-pound, white chocolate-covered gingerbread White House. A tiny version of the family dog made from almond paste sits on the edible grounds near of replica of Mrs. Obama’s fruit and vegetable garden.

Bo’s signature….of sorts….is even found on the official White House Christmas card seen below:

Notice everyone in the Obama family signed the card including Bo. His little paw print is seen along with everyone else’s.

The cover of the card features a picture of the White House taken by Pete Souza following a snow storm on February 3, 2010.

Past articles of mine regarding the White House Christmas greetings can be found here, here, here, and here, and I’m still looking for that original Wyeth painting that was used for the Nixon Christmas card from 1971.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Honey of A Christmas

I love the premise behind the National Treasure movies where members of the Gates family feel compelled to solve a series of historical clues in order to find a treasure that will ultimately save the family reputation. Unfortunately, there are always a few bad men along the way and some of the clues and found artifacts end up painting the Gates family in a bad light. It must be difficult to have your family ridiculed and doubted because historians don’t believe your ancestor’s role in the American story. Luckily for the fictional Benjamin Gates he finds all the pieces of the historical puzzle and in the end he finds the treasure, saves a few lives, and even gets the girl.

Not so for the real-life family of John Honeyman, a spy for Washington and little known hero of the Battle of Trenton during Christmas, 1776. I’m not surprised if you have never heard of John Honeyman because most contemporary historians have relegated his story to the back burner and allowed the pot to simmer a bit because cold hard evidence is lacking.

I really can’t say I blame them because I like hard cold evidence, but the Honeyman tale, if it could be substantiated, makes for great history!

John Honeyman first came to the British colonies as a soldier for Great Britain in 1758 to fight in the French and Indian War. Having shared this war many times with my young students it’s very easy to allow them to be lulled into thinking the French and Indian War was fought only by colonists. They need to remember the war in the colonies were merely an offshoot of the Seven Years War in Europe. Honeyman is a great example to use with students to exhibit the French and Indian War was not only fought by colonist but British soldiers were sent to the colonies to assist them as well. Like many soldiers though at the time, Honeyman wasn’t exactly thrilled about having to fight. It’s also a great time to emphasize that men like George Washington also fought for the British during the conflict. Many British soldiers like Honeyman decided to stay in the colonies.

While serving in the British army Honeyman was noticed by Colonel James Wolfe and eventually served as his bodyguard. When Honeyman left the army he had his discharge papers as well as a letter from Wolfe confirming his position as bodyguard.

Fastforward a bit to 1776 and at some point so the story goes Honeyman meets up with General George Washington and the British paperwork Honeyman possesses is mentioned. Washington realizes the paperwork will be helpful to allow Honeyman access to British camps and Honeyman is asked to pose as a Tory to gather intelligence for the Patriots.

The first instance regarding John Honeyman’s involvement in the Battle of Trenton was published in 1873 in an article titled 'An Unwritten Account of a Spy of Washington' in Our Home magazine. The story was written by Judge John van Dyke, a grandson of John Honeyman, using oral accounts told to him by his Aunt Jane, the daughter of John Honeyman.

The article states Honeyman did pose as a Tory in Griggstown and Trenton and apparently he was so believable in the role, he made many Patriot neighbors mad at him to the point they would attack his house. The only thing that saved the family was the fact John Honeyman had a letter of protection from General George Washington. The letter identified Honeyman as a Tory, but also requested safety for the family. The British trusted Honeyman so much that he was given the freedom to walk about the British garrison at Trenton.

The story continues that just prior to the Battle of Trenton Honeyman was captured by the Patriots…..part of his plan….and he gave up his information he had gathered to Washington and his men. When a fire broke out close to where he was being held Honeyman escaped and made his way back to Trenton where he advised Colonel Johann Rall the Patriots wouldn’t attack even if they wanted to. They were demoralized and did not have the necessary equipment for an attack.

Honeyman knew better……his information was part of a great ruse since Washington was planning to attack during the Christmas holiday.

It was easy for George Washington to make the decision to attack on Christmas. While some Americans did celebrate the holiday by December, 1776, it was overlooked by many Patriots as they considered it a celebration for the British. While Christmas held more significance in 1776 than it did during the mid to late 1600s it wasn’t held in such high regard as it is today. Washington knew the British would celebrate, but knew the Hessians camped at Trenton would celebrate heartily with food, drink, and games as was the German custom. It would be the perfect time for a Patriot attack.

Washington planned Christmas surprise included taking 2400 men across the Delaware River in order to attack the Hessians camped at Trenton. One thousand enemy soldiers were taken prisoner within an hour, and the much needed victory spurred the Patriots on.

So, did John Honeyman really serve as Washington’s spy? There is no hard evidence even though many historians in the past have referred to him. Everything boils down to family lore and the Honeyman family have never produced the letter from George Washington giving the family protection. However, many in support of the story argue that Honeyman never left the colonies for Nova Scotia as most Tories did, and he was able to purchase three tracts of land following the American Revolution when most could not afford anything. Was this payment for his service?

This American Heritage article seems to support the Honeyman service while this article from the Central Intelligence Agency site does a fantastic job of negating the whole thing.

You can be the judge, but it is still a fascinating story either way.

I’ve written about Trenton and the crossing Washington and his men undertook before. You can find my articles here and here.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Pilgrims and Christmas

The Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock in November, 1620.

Can you imagine moving to a “New World”?

Can you imagine moving anywhere for that matter right before the rush of the Christmas season?

I can’t.

Maybe it’s just a woman thing, but I know what would have been on my mind had I been on the Mayflower. I would be thinking.......Here it is nearly the first of December, I have no home, and Christmas is just around the corner. I have shopping to do, the decorations need to be up (hope I remembered where I packed them), and then I have all the cooking to do. How am I going to fit 30 various parties, dinners, and gatherings into four weeks? When are the greeting cards going to get addressed? does one ship gifts back home from the “New World”?

By December, 1620 many of the Pilgrims were sick with scurvy and many more were suffering from wild coughing fits   They hardly felt like celebrating, but the fact of the matter is any Pilgrims well enough spent their first December 25th in the New World by sending out scouting parties, building their first structures, and all of the other necessary tasks to build “New Plymouth”

The Pilgrims didn’t ignore Christmas because they had bigger fish to fry like securing shelter and gathering food. It was much more than that.

They didn’t celebrate Christmas….

… all.

Not a Christmas carol, a Christmas tree, or a Christmas meal. Nothing. Not even Santa.

The Grinch would have loved New Plymouth.

The Pilgrims were a very no nonsense, no frills type of people. If the Bible didn’t direct it, they didn’t do it. This means they didn’t buy into any additions made to Christianity especially church traditions.

Since Christmas was not mentioned in the Bible the Pilgrims ignored the holiday. They disapproved of the way their fellow Englishmen celebrated the day with parties, feasting, drinking, and bawdy behavior in some instances.

One year after the Pilgrims arrived in the New World on December 25, 1621, Governor William Bradford discovered a few recent arrivals to New Plymouth didn’t want to work on what the Pilgrims considered just another day. He made a notation in Of Plymouth Plantation:

“On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called [the settlers] out to work as was usual. However, the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it [a] matter of conscience he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.”

When the working party returned they found the men who had a conscience decided not only to refrain from working in recognition of the day they also decided to play games and shockingly they were having ……..FUN. The governor ordered them to stop making an exhibition in the streets for all to see. The men were told if they wanted to act like that to go to the privacy of their homes.

The Puritans who differed from the Pilgrims  regarding the Anglican Church merely wanted to change certain practices of the church while the Pilgrims totally separated themselves from it, however they were on the same page regarding celebrating Christmas. They knew there was absolutely no Biblical proof regarding December as the birth month for Christ, and they knew history. They realized Christmas had roots in the pagan winter solstice festivals like the Roman Saturnalia. The argued the early Roman Catholic Church had taken a pagan holiday and merged it with Christian beliefs.

In the book The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum sums it up this way:

“The Puritan knew what subsequent generations would forget; that when the Church, more than a millennium earlier, had placed Christmas Day in late December, the decision was part of what amounted to a compromise, and a compromise for which the church paid a high price. Late-December festivities were deeply rooted in popular culture, both in observance of the winter solstice and in celebration of the one brief period period of leisure and plenty in the agricultural year. In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been. From the beginning, the Church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always.people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult day to Christianize. Little wonder that the Puritans were willing to save themselves the trouble.”

For sure – the Puritans didn’t trouble themselves. They just outlawed the holiday.

In fact, by Christmas, 1659 the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law was enacted by the General Court of Massachusetts. The law stated:

Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forebearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.

Boston actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681.

Even after the law was set aside in 1681, New Englanders were slow to accept Christmas. The customs of gift giving and parties and even decorations were considered to be pagan customs. My research indicates even as late as 1870 Boston schools held classes on Christmas Day.

It’s interesting to note that today we still have the Christmas tug-of-war. The church is still fighing the masses over the Christmas issue. Christians fuss and fume because it seems everyone celebrates the holiday even if they don’t actually believe in the reason for the season. Folks are in it for the parties, the drinking, the gifts, the decorations, the food, the general falderal whether they believe in the divinity of Christ or not.

Heck, even Christians enjoy the falderal. I do.

I’m just glad I can celebrate how I wish, believe what I want to, and I don’t have to pay fine while doing it.