On this night, 235 years ago, 12,000 beleaguered soldiers from all over the colonies huddled against the cold at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
The Continental Army, they were rather grandly called, but many of them lacked coats and shoes. Gen. George Washington lamented the bloody footprints they left in the snow.
The half cup of rice and vinegar that each man had received a week earlier to celebrate a national Day of Thanksgiving for a rare victory at Saratoga, N.Y., had quickly given way to "fire cakes" made of nothing but flour and water.
About 2,000 of these men would die by mid-spring. The survivors would suffer incredible hardship to liberate themselves and those who would come after them from the tyranny of a distant monarch.
What would they make of us today, with our expectations of comfort and ease, our acceptance of widespread vice and violence? What would they think of how we use our hard-won liberty?
Their time -- like ours, I feel -- was one of discouragement, uncertainty and fear. They'd embarked on their historical course with great ambition and noble aims, but things weren't going well. We're certainly better shod, but couldn't we assess today's national mood in much the same terms?
Through the winter and spring of 1778, these colonials were drilled in weapons handling by an elite Prussian Army officer, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who taught them how to load their single-bullet muskets more quickly and use their bayonets in close combat.
Would they marvel at the drone technology that allows us to kill from across oceans and continents? Would they envy the guns that fire round after round without painstaking reloading? Perhaps, but they would surely weep to see those rounds ravage the innocent, to see a school or shopping mall turned into a killing field.
They were fighting the tyranny of "Mad King George" who taxed them without their approval and invaded their homes without their consent. Mad rulers still threaten the world's tenuous stability, and mad citizens shatter our peace at home. What would our forebears make of all this? That there's nothing new under the sun?
Their English contemporary Samuel Johnson was a Tory who hated their war of independence, but many undoubtedly shared his assessment of mankind's predicament: "How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure!"
They weren't fighting for a government that would cure ills but for one that would not create ills by usurping their God-given, unalienable rights. Rejecting the English king, they sought to govern themselves with minimal concern for how their fellow citizens saw fit to pursue happiness.
One thing is certain: What they were willing to endure to secure the right to live as they saw fit demonstrates that they expected very little else of life and fate. On the contrary, they expected and accepted suffering in order to bring their shared ideals to fruition.
They emerged from Valley Forge renewed, encouraged and newly skilled in the art of war. The land they eventually won and the forces they unleashed combined to create the greatest prosperity for the most people the world has ever seen.
But we've learned, as another man put it, that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. And we're tired right now, our eyes perhaps still too full of tears to see clearly.
We've learned that being physically free is no guarantee of a greater, deeper freedom. Too many are still trapped by disease or weakness of body, mind or soul. Neither laws nor king can fix that.
What we've learned in pursuing happiness is how elusive it is, how fleeting once caught.
As a nation, we are going through the valley of the shadow of death. We may yet emerge with renewed purpose and joy. We celebrate soldiers who risk their lives in our stead and teachers who lay down their lives for their students. We honor sacrificial love.
Tomorrow many millions of us will celebrate the first day of a life that was entirely about sacrificial love. It's a story that offers purpose and joy. Jesus' birth is not, of course, the only narrative that offers hope or explains an often painful world, but for many this season's spiritual comforts will be especially welcome.
No matter what our creed, this is a moment to ponder what neither laws nor kings can cause or cure, and to remember that great things can be forged in a valley.
Ruth Ann Dailey: firstname.lastname@example.org