George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River: A holiday tradition for fans of history
Muskets and cannon fire probably aren't the traditional way most Americans associate their Christmas Day with but for dozens along the New Jersey and Pennsylvania border, it is the perfect way to remember one of the most inspiring parts of the nation's founding.
The historical reenactment of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River is held every December in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Thousands of spectators gather along the riverbank to watch reenactors row period-correct wooden boats across the river to New Jersey.
John Godzieba, who's portrayed Gen. Washington at the reenactment for 13 years, told ABC News' "Start Here" podcast the event is more meaningful than putting on an 18th century uniform.
"We're trying to keep history alive," he said. "It's important to the survival of these sites and the volunteer groups that try to keep them alive."
Godzieba is a retired police officer from Philadelphia and president of the Friends of Washington Crossing Historic Park. The non-profit raises funds to keep the park operating and manages the crossing event every year, weather-permitting.
"You're at the mercy of the river whether or not there's enough water or there's too much water," Godzieba said. "I've crossed some years and some years I haven't crossed."
It was a cold Christmas in 1776 when Washington planned a surprise attack against the British-aligned Hessians. Through heavy sleet and snow, his Continental Army troops defied the odds and crossed the icy Delaware River overnight from Pennsylvania to British-occupied New Jersey where they successfully charged Hessian outposts in Trenton.
The surprise victory increased morale and encouraged reenlistments among the patriots at a time when Washington had faced a series of devastating losses leading up to the crossing. It meant that Washington's mission of securing independence from the British survived another year.
"Most of them couldn't swim," Kathy Pasko, the registrar for the crossing and park volunteer, told "Start Here." "They got on boats in the dark, in a blizzard, to cross a river to attack the best soldiers in the world. Who does that? And we need to remember that. We need to teach it to the next generation. And for the next generation to learn, we need to do things like this."
The crossing reenactment has been held for decades at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County. Hundreds of reenactors take part in two crossings held in the middle of December and on Christmas Day.
It's a familial tradition for this close-knit community of hobbyists, who welcome members of the public to get involved.
"When one participates in something like this year after year, one looks forward to the camaraderie, the memories, and the joy of a shared tradition," Stacy Roth, the leader of the Washington Crossing Fife and Drum Corps, told "Start Here." "The friendships that I have with the members… and other people who support Washington Crossing Historic Park are close ones that continue year-round."
It was raining when this year's first crossing was held on Dec. 11, but the weather didn't dampen the spirits of the reenactors and spectators.
"We want to make sure it's as authentic as possible. I think we were missing some sleet," Godzieba laughed.