Every Christmas morning for 66 years, hundreds of reenactors have gathered at Washington Crossing Historic Park to recreate George Washington’s daring crossing of the Delaware River in 1776.
At some point, a “dress rehearsal” was added to the December calendar, usually on a Sunday about two weeks before Christmas.
This extra reenactment – which the park now calls the First Crossing – has become increasingly popular since it offers the same experience spectators get on Christmas Day but with smaller crowds and a full day of activities in the Historic Village.
But when and why this extra reenactment began is a bit of a mystery.
Dan Kinnamon, a crossing reenactor since 1975, may have the best clue. Kinnamon has saved his personal calendars for decades. When he looked back through the collection, he saw “dress rehearsal” marked on December 9, 1984. None of his previous calendars listed it.
That seems to sync with what long-time reenactor and park historical interpreter Bruce Cobb remembers. “The early 1980s sounds right…I know it didn’t take place when I began reenacting in 1976,” says Cobb, who first portrayed a dock boy when he was 19.
“Around that time, we also added a boat drill that came before the dress rehearsal. The drill used to be on the river, but now we take one of the boats out on Lake Luxembourg in Core Creek Park. During the drill we practice rowing and teach any new oarsman the 18th-century commands as well as how to handle the oars and maneuver the boat.”
“What people don’t realize is that Durham boats were designed to move up and down the river, not across it,” adds Kinnamon. “So George Washington actually did something that was fairly difficult to do, which is what we’re recreating.”
John Niemiec, another longtime reenactor who will mark his 46th crossing reenactment in 2019, says the dress rehearsal was probably created to “help make sure we had our act together for Christmas Day.”
Consider that act officially together, says Jennifer Martin, executive director of the Friends of Washington Crossing Park.
“The reason we don’t call it the ‘dress rehearsal’ anymore is because that makes it sound like it’s a lesser event. In reality, it’s the same polished event people see on Christmas Day,” she says. “As an added bonus, during the First Crossing we offer special colonial-era activities and demonstrations that provide families with a full day of fun and learning.”
After publishing the above story in the November 2019 Crossing Currents newsletter, we received two helpful notes from readers:
“The ‘dress rehearsal’ was added by Mrs. Anne Hawkes-Hutton and the Washington Crossing Foundation in 1983 to ‘look our best’ on Christmas Day.” -James S.
“In early spring of 1974, I joined the staff of Washington Crossing Historic Park, but prior to that time I had been helping at the park in various jobs since 1956. When the crossing became an annual event sometime in the early 1960s, the men doing the crossing would gather for a work day the first Sunday of December. The men would get their boat assignments, and newcomers would be trained to take their places as part of the troops and boatmen. The newcomers would also be told what to wear and where to acquire the clothing. This “reenactment” was not publicized nor was admission charged. If you happened to stop by, you were welcome to see what was going on—as long as you stayed out of the way. By the early 1970s, it had become a chance to see the crossing without giving up your Christmas dinner and fighting all the crowds. At that time, it was a true dress rehearsal without some of the pomp and polish of the Christmas day production.” -Pauline C.