Christmas Gifts

An unexpected drama is unfolding in our nation’s capital as Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Him whom the Gospel of John proclaims: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” Seeking to remind the world of that gift, the Archdiocese of Washington has appealed a federal court decision that sided with the Washington Metro’s refusal to accept the Archdiocese’s Christmas ad to be placed on the outside of Metro buses.

The ad does not directly mention Jesus but depicts shepherds silhouetted against a starry sky and mentions a website called “Find the Perfect Gift” (, whose homepage states, “Jesus is the perfect gift. Find the perfect gift of God’s love this Christmas.” According to the complaints ( filed by the Archdiocese, the ad was refused because “it depicts a religious scene and thus seeks to promote religion.”
The irony of the Metro’s position will not be lost on anyone who has visited the capital and seen the pervasive religious imagery and inscriptions, including the words “In God We Trust” emblazoned in both legislative chambers of the Capitol Building. There also the Congressional Prayer Room ( features a stained glass window portraying the man for whom the city is named, George Washington, kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge (he prayed there frequently, according to General Knox).

Washington and his 11,000 troops began their winter encampment at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777. “On Christmas day,” writes A. J. Langguth, “the men were still in drafty tents. The number of sick increased, and they were treated more often with grog than with medicine. Some of the men did not have a single shirt or pair of breeches, and they went through camp wrapped in blankets and walked barefoot through the snow to haul water from the creek. For sentry duty they would stand with their naked feet inside their hats. Feet and legs froze, turned black and were amputated.” Within weeks, over 2,000 would perish from starvation, exposure, and disease while just 20 miles away in British-occupied Philadelphia, enemy troops were wintering in relative comfort.
On that bitter-cold Christmas day at Valley Forge, Washington and his aides made the rounds to look in on the men huddled around campfires and boiling their pots of meager Christmas gruel. Remarkably, the accounts report that the men were cheerful, expressing confidence in their cause and their commander. By the time the General returned to his own tent, he found it decorated with garlands of cedar and holly. That simple Christmas celebration was a public expression of the personal faith those men had in the Almighty, who had been so prominently acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence and to whom Washington had referred earlier that year when he wrote that “Providence has heretofore saved us in a remarkable manner, and on this we must principally rely.” With that faith, he fought on in the face of overwhelming opposition, “convinced,” as he would later say, “that our religious liberties were as essential as our civil.” Rightly called “the indispensable man” by James Thomas Flexner, Washington had what David McCullough called “phenomenal courage—physical courage and moral courage.”

So, if you were to summarize what that Christmas day at Valley Forge was all about, you might end up with two words, religion and morality — the same words Washington would employ decades later in his farewell address as President. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity… Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” The same truth would be affirmed by John Adams. “Statesmen,” he wrote, “may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.”
After winning the war, and shortly before resigning as commander-in-chief, General Washington declared, “The establishment of civil and religious liberty was the motive which induced me to the field; the object is attained, and it now remains to be my earnest wish and prayer, that the citizens of the United States would make a wise and virtuous use of the blessings, placed before them.” John Adams later issued a similar plea, with a reminder of the sacrifice by which that liberty was purchased. “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.” 

Today, “with freedom of religion currently under assault at home and abroad” (as noted by Mary Ann Glendon), perhaps the best Christmas gift we can bequeath to our posterity is our resolve to defend the gift bequeathed to us by the courageous men who celebrated Christmas that memorable day at Valley Forge.
Note: This essay is reposted with permission of the Organization for the Family, 934 North Main Street, Rockford, Illinois 61103, phone: 815-964-5819; email: