Thursday, 18 December 2008
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through West PointNot a creature was stirring, not even a TAC!The Plebes were nestled all snug in their beds,While visions of endless boodle danced in their heads.
This bit of doggerel may have applied in the past, before the Plebes of the Class of 1968 were granted Christmas leave (foregoing the joys of Plebe Christmas at West Point), but it also applied to all cadets during the early years of the Academy, with one exception. Many cadets slept in blankets on the floor of barracks, not in beds, until 1838 when cots were issued. The more affluent cadets purchased their own beds.
Since Clement C. Moore (exclusive authorship in question) did not publish A Visit from St. Nicholas until 1823, however, the earliest cadets would not recognize the literary allusion, but they would have been expecting a special meal on Christmas Day. They would not, however, have a Christmas tree. The British Royal family (Queen Charlotte was German) had trees after 1761, but few others did. The first tree in the United States is believed to have appeared in Easton, PA, in 1816, among German settlers there, but it did not become popular elsewhere for some time (no internet, you know).
The Ghost of Christmases Past at West Point informs us that, as early as 1825 (Thayer became superintendent in July of 1817), all four classes of cadets were permitted to celebrate both Independence Day and Christmas with wine at their main meal (no Christmas leave back then). Since several cadets indulged a bit too freely on 4 July 1825, the libations were limited to cider for the Christmas of 1825 and both holidays in 1826, leading to the so-called Egg Nog Riot of 1826, led by none other than Cadet Jefferson Davis, Class of 1828.
Although dancing had been forbidden during the early years, the Board of Visitors in 1820 had recommended that dancing be taught cadets as a form of innocent amusement, probably in response to a suggestion from Sylvanus Thayer. In 1821, the fencing master, Pierre Thomas, taught dancing; by 1823, a noted dance master from Boston named Papanti was hired to teach this social skill during the summer training. In the winter months, cadets invited by officers of the staff and faculty could skate near quarters 100. What is now the Superintendent’s garden was a pond until sometime after 1863. Other cadets had to be satisfied with a more rustic site behind the south barracks. Cadets of the post-Civil War era were known to have skated on the Hudson River (some using that means to “run” to Benny Havens during the winter months).
Springing forward a half century, we know that the Class of 1919 had a hop (dance) at the West Point Hotel (built by Thayer near Trophy Point in 1829) and another at the Supe’s house (with 360 cadets entering Beast Barracks with the class, it must have been a tight fit) during what became known as Plebe Christmas at West Point. The only activity mentioned by the Class of 1920 was a series of Christmastime “freak contests” (whatever they may have been). The Class of 1921, the famous “Orioles,” who entered on 2 November 1918 and wore olive drab uniforms and campaign hats with orange bands because there were no cadet uniforms available, made no mention of their Plebe Christmas. Perhaps they had none, since they had arrived just eight weeks earlier. The Class of 1922, however, set up a rudimentary skating rink in Central Area and many Plebes hiked Crow’s Nest in the snow.
The Class of 1923 spent ten days at West Point enjoying hops, “tea fights” (basically afternoon social events at which the Plebes attempted to consume as many tea sandwiches, pastry and cookies as possible), and coasting (sledding) parties. They even produced a vaudeville show entitled “The Same to You.” Evidently such a show already was a traditional part of the New Year’s celebration, even though few other classes make mention of it. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the Plebe class gave a cheer to welcome the New Year, since they could expect to become upperclassmen within six months.
The Class of 1924 had a rather sad Plebe Christmas as they watched the upper classes depart on Christmas leave amid wild speculation that they too would be afforded that privilege. They were not. Disgruntled, they made no mention of how they spent their Christmas at the Academy. Plebe Christmas for the Class of 1927 evidently included a record snowfall, but they did manage to enjoy hops at the West Point Hotel and a formal Class Hop in Cullum Hall with “drags” (young ladies brought to the Academy by their parents or female relatives of members of the staff and faculty). The Class of 1928 enjoyed formal and informal hops, teas, sledding parties and motion pictures (most likely silent), also with “drags.”
The Class of 1929 mentioned their “nine days of freedom” that included sledding on Chapel Hill, skating on Lusk Reservoir, and hops at Cullum Hall and the West Point Hotel. The Class of 1930 noted that their first winter was extremely cold. Nevertheless, they had Christmas trees in the dining hall and Cullum Hall and hops at the West Point Hotel (the replacement Hotel Thayer was under construction at the time). The Class of 1931 referred to painting the Post red (figuratively) with tea hops, skating bees and chicken ala king (?). The Plebes of the Class of 1932 evidently enjoyed their days without upperclassmen a bit too well—30 of their number received slugs based upon their conduct during the holiday period. More about Plebe Christmases Past in our next installment of Gray Matter, to be transmitted early on Christmas Eve.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire
Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to mailto:JPhoenix@wpaog.org
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