Christmas is always a special time of year for millions of American families. 1941 was not an ordinary Christmas in America or around the world. By Christmas 1941, Nazi Germany had conquered most of Europe and its armies were moving deep into Russia. Great Britain, led by Winston Churchill, had been at war against Germany since September 1939. The Japanese Empire had spread its reach across the Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia. Millions were suffering as totalitarianism controlled much of the world.
The United States was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941 and brought to war against Japan, Germany and Italy. The Christmas season of 1941 brought the realization that many hardships and uncertainties lay ahead. Despite the world situation, traditions such as the National Christmas Tree Lighting at the White House continued. That year the two leaders of the free world were together on Christmas Eve. How did they view the Christmas season in light of the world war? President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave the following joint address on December 24, 1941 at the White House in Washington, D.C.:
Even during a time when evil was spreading throughout the world, Christmas was a time to pause and reflect on the best aspects of the human experience. (President Roosevelt speaks at 9:08 while Prime Minister Churchill speaks at the beginning of Part II.)
Below is President Roosevelt’s speech:
Fellow workers for freedom:
There are many men and women in America- sincere and faithful men and women—who are asking themselves this Christmas:
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.
“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.
“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.
Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.
It is in that spirit, and with particular thoughtfulness of those, our sons and brothers, who serve in our armed forces on land and sea, near and far- those who serve for us and endure for us that we light our Christmas candles now across the continent from one coast to the other on this Christmas Eve.
We have joined with many other Nations and peoples in a very great cause. Millions of them have been engaged in the task of defending good with their life-blood for months and for years.
One of their great leaders stands beside me. He and his people in many parts of the world are having their Christmas trees with their little children around them, just as we do here. He and his people have pointed the way in courage and in sacrifice for the sake of little children everywhere.
And so I am asking my associate, my old and good friend, to say a word to the people of America, old and young, tonight Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Prime Minister Churchill’s speech:
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 delight 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.