Christmas is a Christian holiday commemorating the birth of a savior, but in the America of 1783, the Christmas season was dedicated to celebrating the achievements of a man who saved a nation. As the year neared its end, General George Washington traveled through the newly independent American colonies to spend the holidays at Mount Vernon and retire from public life. It would mark his first Christmas at home since taking command of the army eight years before.
Washington's little-known six-week journey is the subject of Stanley Weintraub's new book, <B>General Washington's Christmas Farewell: A Mount Vernon Homecoming</B>, 1783. A finalist for the National Book Award and author of many historical works, Weintraub has written not only a history book, but an insightful portrait of one of our greatest heroes. He documents Washington's travels to New York City to accept control of the city from the British, to Annapolis to personally resign his military command before the Continental Congress, and finally to his home in Virginia. He intended the trip to be his final retirement from public life, although his country would call him back five years later to serve as its first president. During his journey, we see him feted at every stop, saying his farewells to citizens and troops. As Washington wrote to a friend, it was a scene of "festivity, congratulations, Addresses, and resignation."
It is Weintraub's portrayal of Washington as man, however, that makes this book so intriguing. He humanizes the deity history has created while not diminishing his greatness. He shows that through Washington's entire journey home, his apotheosis preceded, accompanied and followed him. While rising to the prestige of his reputation, Washington angrily rejected the omnipresent calls for his dictatorship or monarchy and continually spoke of the need to consolidate ruling power in the Congress. Weintraub doesn't shy away from showing Washington's foibles as well, including his admission to a friend that it soothed his vanity to sit for portraits. As the title suggests, the book is centered on Washington's desire to be home at Mount Vernon for Christmas. That desire imbues the story and creates a wonderful anticipation in the reader. Sadly, description of the Washingtons' actual Christmas experience is brief, due to a lack of documentation. Yet this does not diminish the book's value to anyone who loves American history or admires our first president.
<I>Jason Emerson is a writer based in Fredericksburg, Virginia.</I>