Christmas Eve, Washington, 1941: Eighty Years On
Lighting the White House Christmas tree
Not so many are left now who remember Christmas Eve eight decades ago. In Washington Roosevelt and Churchill lit the White House Christmas tree. It was not an ecumenical ceremony. It was overtly Christian, but no non-Christians were offended. Some of them, indeed, were present. It was a different age then, but moreover, sterner matters were afoot. The United States was at war. “Up to the neck and in to the death,” as Churchill would write later.
A chaplain spoke, and then Roosevelt. Those exaggerated speaking voices remind us that that the art of oratory is sometimes better today. You can hear the full 30-minute audio by clicking here. Churchill’s remarks were the briefest, and arguably the most inspiring….
“This is a strange Christmas Eve…”
I spend this anniversary and festival far from my country, far from my family, yet 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 of active life, 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 centre and at the summit of the United States. I feel a sense of unity and fraternal association which, added to the kindliness of your welcome, convinces me that I have a right to sit at your fireside and share your Christmas joys.
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 homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart. Therefore we may cast aside for this night at least 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 light their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures 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.
A 1941 Christmas Eve Story
David McCullough, biographer of Harry Truman and John Adams created In the Dark Streets Shineth for the 2010 Christmas season. It combines an essay by the author, with the radio addresses of Roosevelt and Churchill lighting the White House tree. There is a photo collection of Americans during World War II; and a DVD of McCullough’s presentation at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s 2009 Christmas concert. The Choir performs “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” It is still available, still modestly priced.
Critics seemed undecided on the book. Eva Mitnick in the Library Journal considered the lead essay (“Music is part of our history”) inconsequential. The work “isn’t particularly successful as either a Christmas book or an account of an important moment in history.” The story of Churchill’s 1941 visit, of course, is already well known. Roosevelt’s speech on Christmas Eve was brief, and Churchill’s even briefer.
But most readers praised the volume, especially its DVD recording. “It would take a tougher heart than mine not to shed a tear,” one wrote. “Appropriate for those with loved ones serving their country far away on Christmas eve.” We children for whom that generation gave the “right to live in a free and decent world” are ever grateful.
One thought on “Christmas Eve, Washington, 1941: Eighty Years On”
Sheer class! I’m late to the party, as I’ve only just seen this post now, but better late than never. I hope you enjoyed a lovely Christmas, and a Happy New Year, Richard. This is such a charming and beautifully stated message of festive peace – I shall have to refer to these words next Christmas Eve, as I sip on a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label. What a Wordsmith Sir Winston was! Alas, we shall never again witness such an eloquent PM.
Thanks so much. Your message puts me in mind of another passage like that, about HM The Queen: We may think of Churchill as an amiable or even reverent agnostic, who conceived of himself not as a pillar of the church but perhaps as a flying buttress. He did not invoke the Deity casually or cynically, a fact which confers its own interest upon his touching and heartfelt reply to the Queen:
“Our Island no longer holds the same authority or power that it did in the days of Queen Victoria. A vast world towers up around it and after all our victories we could not claim the rank we hold were it not for the respect for our character and good sense and the general admiration not untinged by envy for our institutions and way of life. All this has already grown stronger and more solidly founded during the opening years of the present Reign, and I regard it as the most direct mark of God’s favour we have ever received in my long life that the whole structure of our new-formed Commonwealth has been linked and illuminated by a sparkling presence at its summit.”
Quoting this, Prof. David Dilks added: “…and if you will allow the remark in parenthesis, ladies and gentlemen, do you not sometimes long for someone at the summit of our public life who can think and write at that level?” —RML