Before the “war on Christmas,” or the “war on religious liberty” in America, or the hasty dismantling of nativity scenes at military bases and city halls (while scenes of city workers carrying off plastic Mary, Joseph, Jesus, wise men, and the sheep, cattle, and donkeys reflect in the weepy eyes of tiny tots), and before the “culture wars” there was a world war that threatened to darken the lights of Christmas. But a surprise guest appeared at the White House. That guest and his message would make it a Christmas Eve to remember.
But a surprise guest appeared that would make it a Christmas Eve to remember.
We often pause for Pearl Harbor Day, on December 7, to recall the unimaginable suffering and inconceivable courage of our “Greatest Generation.” That era of noble Americans distinguished themselves with rarely-seen heroism after the surprise attack of Imperial Japan upon U.S. Naval forces in Hawaii. Yet, we might forget the relationship of Pearl Harbor to the Christian calendar. Christmas came just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. A stunned nation had to process both the emotional complexity of a savage attack with the inevitable declaration of war and the annual season of Advent and Christmas. The juxtaposition of the two emotionally polarising events is sadly familiar to anyone reading this who has lost a loved one to sudden calamity during the Christmas season. Coffins and carols just don’t go together. We might forget that these clashing events acted as a communal barbiturate that affected every family in America. Emotions are elastic, but the events of December 1941 tested the capacity of Americans’ resiliency. The children of our nation and the hearts of all of our people, regardless of age and regardless of faith, needed the message of Christmas. The consequences of unforeseen tragedy amidst expected cheer is the same yesterday, today, and forever—so President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew and believed. So, the President and the American people faced an emotional conflict which many families have had to face—acknowledge the beauty of Christmas without denying the reality of suffering. Families face this each year. We deal with illness, death, family breakdown, or separation and the welcome, but awkward, appearance of jubilant Christmas and its invariable pull at the heart to join in the deeper meaning of a God who came to us from heaven in the form of a child. The courses of action before the President in 1941 were each less-than-ideal: compartmentalize the events—Pearl Harbor and Christmas—and just internalize the internal emotional discord, a cruel Stoicism, at best; or, postpone the celebration—deny the joy, face the hardship and promise to get to Christmas in a better time. Yet President Roosevelt wisely chose a third way—a right way—for the nation that Christmas. The question of the national Christmas tree at the White House—to light it or not or even have it—was posed by White House aids and answered in the heart of America’s wheelchair-bound president. There would be a Christmas tree lighting service at the White House. There would be a clergyman praying. There would be a hymn-sing. There would be a broadcast to the nation on radio. The president was resolved. Yet, there would, also, be issues: attention to security, delicacy about the national mood, and a certain guest to deal with. Winston Churchill was to be there.
Churchill was coming for war-planning. The Prime Minister had wasted no time in making his way to the White House to prepare for the Allied response to the Japanese attack and by that time, to the declaration of war on the United States by Nazi Germany. President Roosevelt obviously recognized Prime Minister’s presence in Washington D.C., just 17 days after Pearl Harbor, as a gift of history. Roosevelt determined that there would not only be a Christmas Tree lighting, but there would also be a Christmas Eve ceremony, with none other than Winston Churchill. Churchill would be the “St. Nicholas” that America needed at this time in her history. Churchill would point the nation to the meaning of Christmas without letting her forget the reality of the struggle awaiting. Of course, Churchill readily agreed.
This would be one of the greatest parts he would ever play for his American allies. Since Churchill saw the English-speaking world as a united front against the menaces of the earth, such as Hitler and Tojo, his stand for the United States of America would be a stand for the British Empire as well. The part he would play? Churchill would use Christmas 1941 to become a comforter and a counselor for the American people and the President. This would be the unexpected and triumphant capstone of his war planning trip to America.
Churchill would use Christmas 1941 to assume the part of a comforter and a counselor for the American people and the President. This would be the unexpected and triumphant capstone of his war planning trip to America.
Christmas Eve 1941 came. Listening to the recording today brings a certain warmth. There was an American innocence here. The Girl Scouts presented Mrs. Roosevelt with her Christmas present. The Boy Scouts did the same for the President. There was an awkwardness of the speakers that you will hear as you listen to the National Archive preserved recording. There was the stalwart prayer of the Bishop and his unconditional appeal in the name of the Trinity as he began to pray and his solemn close in the name of Jesus Christ. We who are ministers often have a more salubrious tone in today’s world. However, in that day, clergymen of all denominations seemed to conduct public worship or offer public prayers with a certain authority, as if they were fearless ambassadors from heaven. We would expect, of course, a very Jewish prayer had a rabbi prayed, for there was a practice of “cooperation without compromise” in the civic square in those days that needs to be recovered, a reverence for others as well as for God. After the ruffles and flourishes and “Hail to the Chief,” the President of the United States spoke. President Roosevelt addressed the conflict in the souls of Americans on that Christmas Eve 1941. The Christmas Eve message is a classic:
“But how would our spirits be lifted to do this without the mourning we still feel from Pearl Harbor? We need help. How can we light our trees? How can we give our gifts? 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 a day, even for Christmas Day, in our urgent labor of arming decent humanity against the enemies which beset it? How can we put the world aside, as men and women put the world aside in peaceful years, to rejoice in the birth of Christ These are natural—inevitable—questions in every part of the world which is resisting the evil thing. 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. There is demanded also of us the preparation of our hearts; the arming of our hearts. And when we make ready our hearts for the labor and the suffering and the ultimate victory which lie ahead, then we observe Christmas Day—with all of its memories and all of its meanings—as we should. Looking into the days to come, I have set aside a day of prayer, and in that Proclamation, I have said:
‘The year 1941 has brought upon our Nation a war of aggression by powers dominated by arrogant rulers whose selfish purpose is to destroy free institutions. They would thereby take from the freedom-loving peoples of the earth the hard-won liberties gained over many centuries.'”
The spirit of the disabled leader soared.
“The new year of 1942 calls for the courage and the resolution of old and young to help to win a world struggle in order that we may preserve all we hold dear.
We are confident in our devotion to country, in our love of freedom, in our inheritance of courage. But our strength, as the strength of all men everywhere, is of greater avail as God upholds us.”
The attentive eyes of a mourning nation were upon the President.
“Therefore, I… do hereby appoint the first day of the year 1942 as a day of prayer, of asking forgiveness for our shortcomings of the past, of consecration to the tasks of the present, of asking God’s help in days to come. We need His guidance that this people may be humble in spirit but strong in the conviction of the right; steadfast to endure sacrifice, and brave to achieve a victory of liberty and peace. 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.”
Beautiful. Here Christmas is most certainly not a “winter holiday.” No moral high ground for an army could ever come of a “winter holiday.” To the contrary, Christmas, for Roosevelt and the government of the United States of America, was a theologically-rich day that held promise for those who believed. Yet, the religious holy day which the nation was encouraged to celebrate held meaning for all people. The event was and is a national holy day. Christmas led to national repentance and a call for God’s help. There can be little doubt about the place of public faith in this nation and this president. The public faith of the American people invested in their President, Franklin Roosevelt, was faith in Almighty God. Imperial Japan knew they had awakened a sleeping giant. What they didn’t know was that they had driven a nation to their knees at Christmastime. America entered World War Two in a time of national prayer. It was this service on Christmas Eve 1941 that really started a cycle of national worship—a spiritual resiliency necessary to meet the enemies in days, months and years ahead.
Imperial Japan knew they had awakened a sleeping giant. What they didn’t know was that they had driven a nation to their knees at Christmastime.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill then addressed the American people. He was introduced by an admiring emcee, Guy Mason, as that “Christian crusader” from Great Britain. Yes, he had been fighting the good fight, defending Christmas and religious liberty, alone. But now, his friend, the President, and his American cousins would join “the old Bulldog” in defense of his homeland. The fabled war journalist, soldier, author, parliamentarian, and the prime minister was not merely appealing to common heritage and history. The people of Great Britain needed America, but Churchill knew that at that moment the people of the United States needed Churchill. The Prime Minister knew this. He stood resolute before a broken nation. Microphones from the great media companies of the day bunched together to carry his inimitable voice across the plains, the bayous, the great urban centers, and the small towns and rural settlements of the New World. He began by saying that though he was far from his family he felt he was at home. He referred to his American mother and thereby sought to confirm his unity with us. Whatever else the great man might have felt, his tone at that time was warm and comforting. What other statesmen in the world besides Churchill could have addressed the American people at that time? No one else could have done so. Only Sir Winston could fill such a singularly demanding role. There is an intuitive and mostly unspoken understanding among Americans (that even the British cannot understand) that the United Kingdom holds a special place in our hearts that no other nation shares, not even Canada. Does it have to do with our founding? Jamestown and Plymouth? Do we turn to England when the world is against us for a motherly embrace? No one knows. Whatever happens, it happened that night. Listen to the recording. They cheered him (I predict that you will too). The aristocrat from Blenheim Palace spoke to the hearts of the common people: our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. On Christmas Eve 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his American cousins the freedom to celebrate Christmas, even as she mourned the awful injury from Pearl Harbor. Churchill told America that is was alright to let the children play on Christmas day. There would be time for war, but Christmas 1941 was a time for strengthening faith for that fight.
“Here in the midst of war…here amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart…Here then for one night only, each home…should be a brightly lighted island of happiness and peace.”
The next morning the President, the Prime Minister, the Roosevelt family and the attending staff, went to church. They sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which Churchill never had sung it before. This hymn by The Reverend Phillip Brooks, the noted Civil War-era Episcopal minister and later Bishop of Massachusetts, would become a Christmas favorite of Churchill. Indeed, the words to the hymn and the story of how the hymn brought peace to the composer in the trial of war and death, became the perfect hymn for Christmas 1941. Since we seem to always enter Christmas in the midst of trials of one sort or another, it remains a beloved hymn for every year of our lives.
There are lessons from that unforgettable night when Churchill came to light the Christmas Tree at the White House. There are lessons about the times when friendship matters most, about how we need others to help us through the trials we face in life, and how we can embrace a faithful celebration of the holiday without denying the emotional reality of mourning, or twisting it into some sort of distorted, inhuman, and Stoic compartmentalization. There are also lessons that remind us that while our nation does not establish any religion, she has embraced the blessed contributions of religion, until the pressured uneasiness of these recent days. Perhaps remembering such times as Christmas Eve 1941, will help us to recover our faith as a people. Perhaps it will help us to resist the unsettling demands to rid the public square of any expression of the People’s faith when that faith is clearly expressed in so many ways in our history and national life. Christianity has been, and remains, the faith of an overwhelming majority of our people. Judaism, likewise, is a central tradition to a lesser number but is pervasive in our country’s identity. Between those two major faiths, our nation is now and has been, guided in ethics and values. We must ask ourselves if we are prepared to replace them with the ethics and values that will come if they are withdrawn.
The thing about Christmas is that when you try to get rid of it, as Herod did when Jesus was born, you only cause Faith to grow. A world war cannot stop Christmas, although Christmas can stop a world war. Churchill and Roosevelt believed that. They were right. Reagan believed that Communism could not stop Christmas and on his first Christmas address to the nation he specifically aimed his address at people in the Eastern Block and cast a theological vision from the White House of the glory of Christ. He was right. Pope John Paul II was right. Margaret Thatcher was right. Communism could not stop Christmas. And taking down a nativity cannot stop Christmas. But it will cause the Child of Christmas to grow in the hearts of those who follow Him and, yes, in the hearts of those who oppose Him. That is just the way He works. That is just the way Christmas comes to us. So…fear not. Neither let your hearts be troubled.
Roosevelt’s speech and Churchill’s speech appealed to the faith of the people as a recognition of the best values that would not only hold together the faithful but also reach out to all men everywhere. Indeed, the President and Prime Minister sought to recognize the theological implications of Christmas Day as the foundation of uniting the nation and strengthening the resolve of the people to ready themselves for the battle before them in 1942 and beyond. Roosevelt declared that the nation would begin 1942 with a New Years Day of repentance before God and prayers that the people may walk before Him in humility.
Before the GIs’ hunger at frozen Bastogne, before the red blood of GIs and Tommys, Canadians and Aussies, New Zealanders and other Allies seeped into the angry white foam on Normandy’s shores, or demonic petrol fires raged on Navy tin-cans in the sweltering Pacific; before Japanese riflemen gunned down 17-year-old farm boys in Marine Corps uniforms from places like Baldwin, Kansas and Brooklyn, New York; before too many young men fell face-down into the far away twisted-vine-volcano-islands that no one had ever heard of—before all of the courageous acts and the noble sacrifices of Allied heros—there was a Christmas Eve prayer to the Lord Jesus, and a crippled President who said there will be a Christmas tree; and a surprise guest from a green and pleasant Island Nation, fabled in our national memory, who told waiting Americans, who needed to know what to do, that Christmas was allowed, even in war.
Somehow, I think we really need that message again this year. And every year.
We are grateful to share the video of The White House Christmas Tree Lighting Service 1941 with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister of Great Britain Winston Churchill: