Performing Arts

Re-Creating Gen. Washington's Delaware Crossing

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Every year for 20 years, actor Robert Gerenser has spent Christmas Day as Gen. George Washington, helping to re-enact the stressful day in 1776 when Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And yes, the holidays can be stressful, but if you think you're having a difficult Christmas day, NPR's Robert Smith has the story of one man who probably has it worse.

ROBERT SMITH: On Christmas morning, 1776, General George Washington was not a jolly man.

Mr. ROBERT GERENSER (Historical reenactor): It is a very bad time for Washington, and the cause of the revolution was about to collapse completely in less than week.

SMITH: Robert Gerenser is spending this Christmas day dressed up as General Washington on the banks of the Delaware River. For 20 years, he's been part of a reenactment of Washington's perilous crossing that happened on Christmas night.

Mr. GERENSER: When conditions are right, when the river is just about ready to freeze, and that bitter, bitter cold wind springs up until it is a full sized floating sheet of ice, it becomes almost a time machine, and you can feel what they were all about.

SMITH: So what is your family think of this? Have you missed Christmas for 20 years?

Mr. GERENSER: They got their presents. We do Christmas Eve and Christmas night and everybody seems happy with that.

SMITH: But isn't Dad wet by that time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GERENSER: Hopefully not. That's my greatest fear.

SMITH: What's your greatest fear?

Mr. GERENSER: Falling out of the boat, are you kidding me?

SMITH: Thousands of spectators show up every Christmas to watch, and not just for the possibility of seeing the father of our country go over board. Gerenser says they come because the Delaware Crossing is as inspirational a Christmas story as anything Jimmy Stewart served up.

George Washington at this point was pretty much a loser, his army was defeated by British forces at Long Island, barely managed to escape from Manhattan, and he'd been retreating back through New Jersey. As he planned his counter-attack back across the Delaware, a northeaster was blowing in, Washington was having about as lousy a Christmas as you can imagine.

Mr. GERENSER: Washington was very, very alone. And I dare say that he would loved to have had a contentious dinner with some in-laws rather than what he was facing at that moment. You don't have it half hard if it's just a couple of presents you didn't get. We have this wonderful legacy from our commander in chief, our first president that saw the value of this country.

SMITH: And just like any holiday tale, Washington provided us with a happy ending. It took eight hours to get the Continental Army across the Delaware River, but the hellish weather turned out to be a blessing. The enemy was caught by surprise at Trenton, and the American Revolution lived on to fight another day.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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