Not a great religious holiday, it might be a...

IF THIS WERE

December 25, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

IF THIS WERE not a great religious holiday, it might be a grea patriotic one. According to many historians, 215 years ago tonight a military operation was launched that made possible the American victory in the Revolutionary War.

The Battle of Trenton was not actually fought till Dec. 26, but George Washington began loading his boats for the crossing of the Delaware River on the 25th. No less a historian than Sir George Trevelyan said of the Battle of Trenton, "It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed for so short a space of time with greater and more lasting results upon the history of the world."

It was certainly a famous one-day battle. Is there a school child anywhere in America who does not know the stirring story of how the German mercenaries at Trenton got drunk celebrating Christmas and were routed by General Washington's troops?

Actually many American students do not know the story. A recent survey showed more Japanese school children know the story than do Americans. In their version, transistors were the key to victory.

In fact, transistors had nothing to do with it. Washington was a great general who inspired his men and who worked out a clever plan that resulted in complete surprise.

The element of surprise was so great that the victory was Hollywoodish in its proportions. Washington's Americans captured 918 Hessians, killed 22 and wounded 84. Hundreds escaped. American losses were at most four. James Monroe was wounded. I wonder if this was not the only battle in history in which two future presidents of the United States participated. Alexander Hamilton was there, too.

Say "Washington crossing the Delaware" to most people, and they think of the famous painting of Washington standing up in a boat forging through rough, ice-littered waters. Almost everyone who has ever contemplated this assumes he in fact would have hunkered down for balance and warmth.

But who can object to the painter, Emanuel Leutze, invoking his artistic license? The rules of composition called for Washington to be standing as he is; so do the greater rules of myth and legend and symbolism. The point of the painting was that a resolute, commanding figure was leading a new nation and the world into a new history -- the old ways of thinking and acting did not matter. One doesn't hunker down and symbolize that.

Leutze, a German, painted the picture to inspire his countrymen to emulate the new nation. Which, of course, they did, as is best symbolized in the later painting, "Hitler Crossing the Rhine."

Other things that never happened are associated with this day. Humphrey Bogart, born Dec. 25, 1899, never said, "Play it again, Sam." And Sir Isaac Newton, born Dec. 25, 1642, never had an apple fall on his head.

The world is a better place for believing such nonsense.

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