On December 26, 1776 George Washington Sneak Attacks the Hessians in Trenton

George Washington: “I can’t believe I’m going to spend Christmas in New Jersey.”

If there’s one thing you learned as a child in America, it’s that George Washington had some rough Christmases. Christmas 1777 tested his unshakeable perseverance in the face of suffering. Christmas 1776 he and his men crossed the Delaware in a Durham boat and sneak attacked the Hessian soldiers in Trenton. As we all know, there’s nothing more horrifying than the prospect of losing a revolution or of spending Christmas in New Jersey.

By Christmas 1776 the Americans were low on men, ammunition, and morale. They had just been kicked out of New York and had been chased across New Jersey. Before being annihilated, Washington and his troops had hightailed it across the Delaware and destroyed or brought all of the watercraft with them. Belief in Washington and the cause were at a nadir, desertions were rampant, and reinforcements either couldn’t or wouldn’t come. They were fighting superior enemies. The British was better equipped and better trained. The martially-intuited Hessian were the scary mercenaries enlisted by the Brits to help whip the revolutionaries back into submission. After chasing Washington’s men across the Delaware to Pennsylvania, the Hessian took up winter quarters in Trenton. Alongside the desertions, many American soldiers’ enlistment was up and they were planning on going home to practice eating marmite without vomiting. Washington was up against a wall. What could he do?

He did what Americans have done now for 140 years – he exploited Christmas. Because if the scary Hessian loved two things it was brutal, violent combat and Christmas. The Germans celebrated Christmas with drinking and putting up a tree. The American colonists celebrated depending on where they were. In Puritan New England, they viewed Christmas as a pagan feast and so they worked all day, went to bed at 6 pm, and wished they were pagan. In the Mid-Atlantic states they partied, drank, and thanked God they didn’t live in New England. Some colonial American Christmas traditions revolved around the verb “wassail,” which means drinking copious amounts of booze and then strongarming rich people via song into handing over “figgy pudding.”

As the Hessian tradition was to drink and an American tradition was to drunkenly crash parties, sneak attacking the Hessian in the predawn hours of December 26th should have been expected. In fact, the Hessian leader Johann Rhall was warned that the Americans might do just that. He apparently asked for support but was denied. What happened on Christmas 1776 is part of American Revolution mythology and the story and the stage were so perfectly set that it’s like an American movie. The heroes are the near-beaten underdogs, the “all hope is lost” moment is upon them. People are packing it in and giving up. Americans steel themselves for 300 years of drinking tea and adding U to words that function perfectly without. Amid the darkness, a tall man in tights is desperately trying to save the day. Many Americans think he’s something of a god (despite the tights). Brave fellows fend off exhaustion and cross a treacherous river and march in the snow with no boots. In Trenton, a hostile place held by a terrifying enemy (arguably to this day), they fought bravely in the streets. George Washington and John Stark led charges against Johann Rhall’s Hessians. In the end, the enemy was beaten, the Hessians were captured or killed in the battle. The Americans had taken advantage of Hessian inebriation to win the day. However, and brace yourself for the moral of the story, the Hessians were found to be neither hungover nor inebriated. The Americans had not needed an advantage after all. The ability to win had been with them all along. It writes itself like a Hollywood script. The movie poster portrays resolute Washington standing in his Durham boat, his thoughts almost readable: “I can’t believe I’m going back to New Jersey.” Washington’s Crossing couldn’t be more an American movie if George Washington kicked Johann Rhall off the steeple of Trenton City Hall shouting “Yippee ki-yay, foul fiend!” followed by Rhall exploding among some horses below.

As a result of the victory at Trenton, enlistments rose, morale blew through the roof, the British and the Hessians had been totally caught off guard and were forced to take the revolution and the Americans more seriously. Washington’s genius was proclaimed, the Americans scratched out the U from color and neighbor, and fire for the revolution was relit.

To celebrate, we drink rum. Rum was the drink of colonial America. Many cocktails, punches, and even beer drinks included rum. George Washington himself spoke of the benefits of rum on the soldier’s spirit and health. Nevertheless, after the battle of Trenton he ordered that the Hessians’ forty plus hogsheads of rum be poured out. This was probably because he did some quick math and found that rum + American soldiers + a freezing Delaware river = many people dead. Still, before he could give the order the Americans began drinking and more than a few tumbled into the frigid waters. So, rum.  

Unless you feel like taking pulls off a hogshead of rum (and feel free if you have one lying around), we will suggest a colonial-era cocktail – a rattle skull. Probably named to match the effects of the drink to an 18th century English idiom for chatterbox, the rattle skull will make you forget the fact that you have gained seven pounds between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Colonial Americans drank a bunch of booze daily. This was because of unhealthy water and the fact that there was like a 9/10 chance of a painful death and an 8/10 chance that it would occur before the age of 40. Revolution Era Americans drank up to eight shots of alcohol a day, and their drink of choice would have been rum. So a rattle skull is not only awesomely named and accurate, it’s damned efficient.  


·         12 oz porter beer

·         1 ½ shots of rum (brandy in a pinch)

·         ¾ oz lime juice

·         ½ oz brown sugar syrup (or 1:1 sugar water)

·         (grated) nutmeg


Pour everything in a pint glass and grate the nutmeg on top. Drink rattle skulls until it seems like a great idea to demand via song that your neighbors give you pudding. Extra points if they’re German or British.

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