This year’s December 1 National Christmas Tree lighting at the White House is designed to be a cheerful family affair. The ceremony will feature, among others, James Taylor, Yolanda Adams, and Kelly Clarkson, and is sure to be a sentimental occasion as the Obamas mark their last Christmas in the White House.
But the National Christmas Tree lighting has not always been lighthearted. Like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree has in the past been the occasion for serious reflection on the state of the nation.
Seventy-five years ago, with the attack on Pearl Harbor just 17 days old, President Roosevelt began a tradition of making the National Christmas Tree lighting a solemn occasion. On December 24, 1941, with Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill by his side, Roosevelt began his Christmas Eve talk to the nation by asking, “How can we light our trees? How can we give our gifts?” Roosevelt’s answer was that Christmas was relevant to the war. “Our strongest weapon in this war,” FDR declared, “is the conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man, which Christmas Day signifies—more than any other day or any other symbol.”
For the next three years, Roosevelt continued to limit himself to speaking soberly to the country on Christmas Eve about the progress of the war rather than holding a ceremony in which a White House Christmas tree was lit. An unlit national Christmas tree, representative of the effort to save energy in wartime, was the symbol Roosevelt wanted for his Christmas eve messages of 1942, 1943, and 1944.
“I cannot say ‘Merry Christmas—for I think constantly of those thousands of soldiers and sailors who are in actual combat throughout the world—but I can express to you my thought that this is a happier Christmas than last year in the sense that the forces of darkness stand against us with less confidence in the success of their evil ways,” FDR told the country in 1942.
A year later, Roosevelt delivered a similar message with added reassurance. “But—on Christmas Eve this year—I can say to you that at last we may look forward into the future with real, substantial confidence that, however great the cost, ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ can be and will be realized and insured,” he observed.
By 1944, FDR was even more optimistic about the outcome of the war, but he was still unwilling to hold a tree-lighting ceremony. “On this Christmas day, we cannot yet say when our victory will come. Our enemies still fight frantically. They still have reserves of men and military power,” Roosevelt told the nation. “But, they themselves know that they and their evil works are doomed.”
FDR died before he had a Christmas in the White House that allowed him to mark the end of the war, but President Harry Truman used the 1945 lighting of the National Christmas Tree as an occasion to celebrate victory. Several thousand people joined him in the snow on the south lawn of the White House as he lit up a 25-foot-high tree and told the country, “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years.”
But Truman retained the serious tone FDR had employed during the war years. Truman believed there was much to do by way of making the world safe for the future. “With our enemies vanquished we must gird ourselves for the work that lies ahead. Peace has its victories no less hard won than success at arms. We must not fail or falter,” he declared.
Truman sought a measured approach to 1945 that reflected the uncertainties of the postwar world. From the long lines at New York’s Radio City Music Hall to the thousands of veterans using the G.I. Bill to enroll in college, the country was starting to enjoy the benefits of peacetime, but many veterans still remained on duty overseas, and the dangers posed by the atomic bomb represented a terrifying new military development.
Roosevelt’s and Truman’s serious National Christmas Tree lightings were a break with the tradition that President Calvin Coolidge established in 1923, when he lit the nation’s first National Christmas Tree, a 48-foot balsam fir from his native Vermont. Coolidge wanted a casual ceremony. His Christmas good deed consisted of letting 50,000 federal employees take off work at noon on December 24.
Coolidge’s White House tree was the first to be decorated with electric lights, and his outdoor tree ceremony marked a departure from the custom of setting up an indoor tree for the president’s family and visitors to enjoy that President Benjamin Harrison established in 1889. Crowds came by the White House to see Coolidge’s National Christmas Tree well into the evening.
It’s hard to imagine that we will go back to the Roosevelt-Truman tradition of making our National Christmas Tree lighting a reflective occasion without being faced with a national crisis. But that choice isn’t surprising. Even in the postwar years of the ’40s, the country showed no willingness to recall its wartime Christmas eves; 1946 and 1947 were the years when our two most enduring, fairytale Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, became instant classics.
Nicolaus Mills chairs the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College. He is author of Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed.