George Washington's Christmas Crossing

An annual holiday tradition since 1952, re-enactors bring Washington crossing the Delaware to life

Re-enactors dressed as George Washington and his volunteer Continental Army cross the Delaware River. (Courtesy of Washington Crossing Park)

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“In 1776, there were those who thought the crossing would end in defeat, as many prior battles had,” says Rinaldi. “These men followed their officers, and I believe the inspiring words Washington spoke persuaded them to continue against overwhelming odds.”

Rinaldi, knowing he had to relinquish the cherished role of Washington, did so this year in deliberate fashion. He served as one of the judges at the audition to select the new commander. The audition took place in the auditorium of Pennsylvania’s Washington Crossing State Park, steps from an 1895 monument marking the spot where Washington’s boats were launched. The six veteran re-enactors competing for the role of Washington, who had submitted letters expressing their desire and qualifications, would be judged on the quality of their letters and uniforms, their ability to deliver passages of Thomas Paine’s American Crisis, their knowledge of Revolutionary War history and of Washington’s life.

Each man took the stage against a backdrop copy of Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting of the crossing and faced an audience of park visitors and “insiders”—fellow re-enactors, friends and families. While the uniforms all appeared to be of good quality, the candidates varied dramatically in physical appearance, from short and somewhat stout to tall and lean. The judges posed questions that touched upon the economic strictures imposed by the British, as well as details of various battles. Then they deliberated.

The winner was John Godzieba who, at age 50, standing six feet, four inches tall and lean of build, most physically resembles Washington. He has participated in the Delaware crossing the past 17 years. When his name was announced, there were loud period cheers of “Huzzah! Huzzah!” from the members of his re-enactment regiment. “I was in shock,” says Godzieba, who looks forward to addressing his troops and, of course, making the crossing. “Stepping out of the boat onto the New Jersey shore as Washington will be an amazing experience.”

The boat crossing is an experience Ron Rinaldi still wants, too, so he will return to audition once more in 2011. (He has crossed in the past as a regular reenactor, but still wants to do so as Washington.) Asked why he, like so many veterans, keeps coming back, Rinaldi says, “We have a heart-felt duty as Americans to keep the spirit alive that made our country the great place it is.” Besides, “the crossing’s been an important part of my life and my family’s Christmas tradition for 33 years,” he adds. “I was in the Bicentennial Crossing and I’ve told my son that if he sticks with it, he could very well take part in the Tricentennial Crossing—and that would be some feat.”

But on the next Christmas Day, it will be John Godzieba who gets up early, dons the General’s uniform, checks weather reports and river conditions. “I've stood there in the cold, snow and sleet watching my predecessors interpret Washington as he embarked on an all-or-nothing roll of the dice,” says Godzieba. “It is the re-enactors who make this event and who are the harshest critics—which makes the role of Washington especially challenging.”

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