Since many Americans–the ones abroad fighting for their country–had no more than a makeshift Christmas this year, columnist George Will has come to remind us that America’s greatest Christmas was actually made by fighting men, the 2,400 troops of the Continental Army whom George Washington led across the ice-clogged Delaware River on the night of Dec. 25, 1776, to win crucial battles at Trenton and Princeton, N.J., that changed the course of the Revolutionary War. Will’s column gets my vote for best Christmas Day op-ed piece of 2004.

We know the story mostly from Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s famous 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, and also from the old yarn that Washington won the Battle of Trenton because the Hessian mercenaries he was up against were a bunch of indifferent soldiers-for-hire too soused on Christmas cheer to put up much of a fight. But Will cites a new book, Washington’s Crossing, by Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer, pointing out that the Hessians were actually a brave and formidable force that was merely worn out from a week of standing up against American insurgents in New Jersey. The Hessians nonetheless fought well, writes Will:

“Not well enough, however, to prevent a triumph that Fischer…says was — combined, over the next eight days, with a second Battle of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton — the most important victory in U.S. military history. Since the Declaration of Independence on July 4, the Americans had lost every battle fought to make independence a fact. The military disasters inflicted by 33,000 British and German troops in what is now Brooklyn, and on Manhattan Island, contributed to Washington’s losing 90 percent of his army. New Jersey’s loyalty was tilting toward the crown.

“By marching his shivering men — two froze to death on the march — to the banks of the ice-clogged Delaware River and making the crossing that became the subject of the most familiar American painting, Washington rolled the dice, risking everything. Had he lost the gamble — had his men been repulsed from Trenton and pinned against the river — the continent would have been lost. The brief American rebellion would be a historical footnote akin to the insurrections of the Scots in 1745 or of the Irish in 1798, and world history would have been very different.”

Furthermore, as Will points out, unlike the British, who massacred their prisoners, the Americans, at the insistence of Washington, treated the defeated Hessians honorably and mercifully–so much so that 3,194 of the 13,988 Hessians who survived chose to make America their home at the end of the war (and, as the folklore goes, give us the Christmas tree, a German holiday custom).

Both Fischer’s book, a candidate for this year’s National Book Award, and Will’s column make the point that history is made, not by blind impersonal forces as the Marxists say, but by the myriad decisions of individuals, for good or for ill, for bravery or for cowardice. As Will writes:

“Such theories, which are varieties of ‘historicism,’ induce fatalism by diminishing mankind’s sense of agency. The theories mock the idea of great persons, and the belief that the free choices of small groups could knock History out of its preordained grooves.

“Such ideas have largely lost their ability to seize the imaginations of people other than intellectuals, who often are the last to learn things. Still, it is exhilarating to be reminded by historians such as Fischer just how radically wrong the historicists were, and are.”

And lest you think that George Washington and his ragtag troops were anything but supremely heroic on that fateful Christmas night 228 years ago, be reminded that the Delaware River is so frigid and treacherous in late December that reenactments of the crossing have been canceled for the past three years running.