A Christmas Eve to Remember

In 1941, Christmas came just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor.

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.

 

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 moist eyes of tiny tots) and before the “culture wars” in our day there was a world war that threatened to darken the lights of Christmas. But a surprise appeared that would make it a Christmas to remember.

But a surprise appeared that would make it a Christmas to remember.

We often pause for Pearl Harbor Day, on December 7, to recall the suffering and consequent courage of the “Greatest Generation” after the surprise attack of Imperial Japan upon our naval forces in Hawaii. Yet, we don’t place this difficult time into its context on the Christian calendar. Christmas came just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. The nation had to deal with the emotional complexity of a war it did not prepare for and did not want, as well as a national festivity of the soul that it had to celebrate. The children of our nation and the hearts of all men, regardless of age and regardless of faith, needed the message of Christmas. This is the same yesterday, today, and forever and was what 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 options of dealing with the internal emotional discord may seem to be cruel Stoicism, on the one hand, and unhappy denial of joy on the other. 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 determined. 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, there would be a Christmas Eve ceremony, with none other that 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 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.

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 sense of 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 a 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.

Read More