The year 2008 will not go down as a banner year in American history. It has been, as Queen Elizabeth described 1992, the year of the Diana-Charles divorce, an “annus horribilis.” Financial implosions at home, upheavals abroad, and the specter of unemployment stalk too many families this holiday season.

But no matter how bad we think we have it — no matter how awful we think it can get — our problems are but a pittance compared to the horrors that were staring George Washington in the face during the Christmas season 202 years ago.

We all know the general outline of what happened that December 25-26 in 1776. Washington crossed the ice-choked Delaware River with his little army to attack the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. His victory was a shot in the arm to a flagging cause and helped assure American independence.

That’s the school book version, anyway. The full story is a little more problematic and a lot more frightening. In fact, there is every reason to believe that without Washington’s little excursions into the New Jersey countryside (not just once but again on January 3 at Princeton), the patriot cause would have died and the idea of an independent America would have been delayed — if not destroyed.

There has never been as bleak a Christmas in America as that awful early winter of 1776. The winter at Valley Forge the following year was rough but there was reason for hope; the Franco-American alliance was on the way and the tender ministrations and training of Baron Von Stueben was making the fiercely independent American soldier into a disciplined and effective weapon of war.

But no such hope was evident in the patriot ranks as they shivered in their makeshift camp on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River. More than 90% of the army that had fought in New York the previous summer and fall had been killed, captured, or deserted what they believed was a lost cause. The Continentals had known nothing but defeat and disaster. Washington had been outmaneuvered, outflanked, and outgeneraled at every turn; Brooklyn Heights, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Forts Washington and Lee (where 3,000 Continentals surrendered instead of abandoning the indefensible forts) became a sad litany of failure for the American army.

The British commander, General Sir William Howe, took up the chase of Washington’s disintegrating army across most of New Jersey until early December when winter closed in and Howe decided to go back to the friendly confines of New York and partake of the distractions there. The Continental Army — hungry, cold, and demoralized — sat disconsolately in their camp awaiting the final blow from the British. But winter campaigning back then, while not unheard of, was still considered risky. Howe thought he knew the mettle of the men he was facing and determined that in six weeks there would be no army left to fight anyway.

It appeared the rest of the country felt that way as well. Patriots in New York and New Jersey took advantage of General Howe’s generous offer of a pardon and flocked to the British standard. Fearing capture, the Congress fled Philadelphia for Baltimore. They placed Washington in charge of both military and civilian affairs, thus making him a de facto military dictator. Not that there was anyone or anything to dictate to. Washington himself believed the cause was lost when he wrote his cousin in mid-December “I think the game is pretty near up.”

It may very well have been except for two things: Washington’s fierce determination to go on the offensive and the writings of a dour, New England leveler named Thomas Paine.