On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge walked out of the White House, pressed a button, and lit a 48-foot fir tree decorated with 2,500 red, white, and green bulbs. Coolidge thus became the first president to light the National Christmas Tree, an annual tradition he maintained through the rest of his term. President Hoover continued it, and President Roosevelt carried it on through his first two terms.
But as Christmas 1941 approached, no one was certain if the tree would be lit. It’s difficult to overstate how bleak the national mood was in December 1941. Earlier that month the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor had killed nearly 3,000 Americans; now, young men across the country were signing up to join a war that had already been raging across Europe for two years.
Besides Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had attacked American forces in the Philippines and Wake Island, and Hitler had essentially conquered Europe. Only Great Britain stood in defiance of Hitler.
Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, understood immediately that Pearl Harbor would bring the United States into the war, which was a welcome relief for the British. Churchill knew America was traditionally slow to enter into war, but once committed, “fought to the last desperate inch.”
After Pearl Harbor, Churchill wasted no time in traveling to America to meet with FDR to plan a master strategy for winning the war. Churchill’s perilous trip across the submarine infested Atlantic was a closely guarded secret, so his arrival in America on December 22 was a happy surprise to the nation.
With Churchill by his side, FDR – sensing that Americans needed their spirits lifted – decided to proceed with the tree lighting ceremony. And so it was that in the Christmas Eve twilight, more than 20,000 people gathered on the South Lawn, and a nationwide radio audience listened as the president stood on a White House balcony, pressed a button, and lit the tree.
When FDR spoke, he began by identifying what many Americans were asking themselves: “How can we light our trees?…How can we meet and worship with love and with uplifted spirit and heart in a world at war, a world of fighting and suffering and death? How can we pause…even for Christmas Day, in our urgent labor of arming a decent humanity against the enemies which beset it? How can we put aside, as men and women put the world aside in peaceful years, to rejoice in the birth of Christ?”
“These are natural…questions,” he said. “And even as we ask these questions, we know the answer. There is another preparation demanded of this nation beyond and beside the preparation of weapons and materials of war…the preparation of our hearts; the arming of our hearts.”
“Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies – more than any other day or any other symbol.”
After his speech, FDR brought Churchill to the microphone. It was an extraordinary moment – a foreign leader addressing America from the White House on Christmas Eve.
Churchill said that although he was far from his country and his family, “I cannot truthfully say that I feel far from home. Whether it be the ties of blood on my mother’s side, or the friendships I have developed here over many years…, or the commanding sentiment of comradeship in the common cause of great peoples who speak the same language, who kneel at the same altars, and to a very large extent, pursue the same ideals, I cannot feel myself a stranger here in the center and at the summit of the United States.”
He acknowledged that this “is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. Ill would it be for us this Christmastide if we were not sure that no greed for the land or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambition, no morbid lust for material gain at the expense of others, had led us to the field.”
“Here, in the midst of war, raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and home, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart.”
Churchill knew – as did most Americans – that dark days were ahead, that things would get worse before they got better, and that victory would come at a terrible price.
Indeed, this night would be the last time FDR would light the National Christmas Tree. The ceremony would be suspended for the remainder of the war, and the tree would not be lit again until Christmas 1945, when President Truman – having taken office in April 1945 when FDR passed away – would preside over the ceremony.
But on Christmas Eve 1941 – even if all was not right with the world – Churchill recognized the need for a respite of peace before the tempest of war. And so he concluded his remarks with a timeless message that resonates still.
He urged everyone “for this night at least,” to cast aside “the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.”
“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasure before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.
“And so, in God’s mercy, a happy Christmas to you all.”