Christmas Eve, Washington, 1941: Eighty Years On

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

  1. 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

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