The 1941 Christmas Tree: A Bright Light in Dark Times


Roosevelt addresses the crowd at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony from the White House South Portico on December 24, 1941. Churchill can be seen on the right. (FDR Presidential Library)

The Roosevelts had planned for a “more homey” lighting of the National Christmas tree on December 24 in 1941. FDR had directed that the tree be moved from the Ellipse to the White House grounds, just next to the South Lawn Fountain.  But after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was some doubt that the ceremony would take place at all. With firm backing from the President, the tree-lighting went forward, and thousands came to the White House to share a bright moment of hope during dark and uncertain times.

Plans for this “more homey” event had been set in motion the previous December. A few days before the ceremony, the Roosevelts had an idea. At the 1940 tree-lighting ceremony, FDR raised the issue to the crowds gathered on the Ellipse, “Next year the celebration must take place on the South End of the White House, where all can see the tree,” and “all you good people” would be invited to the gardens of the Executive Mansion to hear the President deliver his message.

A few months later, FDR wrote a memo to Col. Edward Starling,  the head of the Secret Service detail: “I was not fooling and I think the proper place for the tree is right next to the fence at the south end of the White House grounds.”

The 1941 Christmas Tree would be the first ever inside the White House grounds. By November, two oriental spruce trees (to be used in alternate years) had been transplanted from the White house tennis courts to either side of the South Lawn Fountain. All was in place for a “homey celebration.”

And then Pearl Harbor was attacked.

In the aftermath of December 7, 1941, the President sided with custom, tradition, and his promise. An estimated 20,000 people passed through the military inspection on Christmas Eve afternoon, with many checking their last-minute holiday purchases outside the East Gate.

The Secret Service scrutinized the assembled crowd—perhaps grateful that in 1939, because of the “war clouds” over Europe, they had replaced the 3-foot-high fence surrounding the White House with a 6-foot-high one.

As twilight settled into evening, the warm lights of the White House silhouetted two leaders—President Roosevelt and an added attraction, Prime Minister Winston Churchill—standing on the South Portico.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt give a joint press conference in the Oval Office of the White House, December 23, 1941. (FDR Presidential Library)

Their words at the ceremony reached millions throughout the country and in distant lands by conventional and shortwave radio. President Roosevelt reminded the audience, “Our strongest weapon against this war is the conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies—more than any other day or any other symbol.” He continued, “Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practise them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.”

In his address, Prime Minister Churchill called on the listeners to “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grownups share to the full in their unstinted pleasure, before we turn again to the stern tasks and formidable year that lie before us.” Churchill continued, “Resolve that by our sacrifice and daring these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance, or denied the right to live in a free and decent world.”

As the last strains of the Star Spangled Banner faded into the night, the 35-minute ceremony came to a close.

The ceremony went on as scheduled in 1941, but it was in question over the next few years of the war. In 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt and the city’s school children collected scores of Christmas tree ornaments in order to save the ceremony. In 1943, large tags attached to the ornament dedicated the decorations to hundreds of servicemen and women, some of whom were missing in action. Through the war years, trees were lit symbolically with chimes.

The historical 1941 tree, although out of the holiday spotlight, stills glows occasionally throughout the year. For nestled in its branches is a red light that, when lit, provides a directional landmark for the Presidential helicopter Marine One.

This post by C. L. Arbelbide originally appeared in the National Archives Calendar of Events.

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