Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were not particularly religious men. This fact did not hinder their appreciation and use of ritual moments. Their first big opportunity came not three weeks after Pearl Harbor, on Christmas Eve, 1941.

Churchill had come to the United States aboard the battleship Duke of York to confer with his new ally about strategy in the worldwide conflict that lay before them. He arrived December 22 and stayed at the White House. As their staffs busied themselves, the two leaders took advantage of Christmas to frame the task ahead and elevate the purpose for which their two countries had gone to war. Though in the hands of lesser men it might have come off as such, their use of Christmas for political purpose was not cynical but natural. This was so because the received consensus around the cultural, if not strictly religious, import of the Christmas story had not yet shattered. For millions of ordinary citizens not yet embarrassed to show a degree of civic piety, the “true meaning of Christmas” remained part of the cultural woodwork in the United States and the United Kingdom. Their peoples had not yet forgotten what the Christmas message was all about, even if it was already becoming diluted and commercialized.

The two leaders held a brief press conference in the Oval Office on December 23, but Christmas Eve would be the main public event, specifically the ritual lighting of the national Christmas tree on the White House lawn at 4:30 in the afternoon. The Washington Post lyrically painted the scene: “A crescent moon hung overhead. To the southward loomed the Washington Monument as the sun dipped behind the Virginia hills.” Twenty thousand looked on. Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s movements were tightly guarded secrets in wartime, and the prime minister’s presence was omitted from the pre-printed program—“Christmas Eve Celebration at the Nation’s Community Christmas Tree, 1941.” The U.S. Marine Band played a short program of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Handel; massed choristers sang the Hallelujah Chorus; a boy scout and a girl scout greeted President and Mrs. Roosevelt on behalf of the people of Washington, D.C.; the president threw the switch that lit the tree and then spoke. Millions listened, on network radio and around the world via shortwave.

Roosevelt asked and answered the question of how it is, amid the war effort relentlessly under way—“Our urgent labor of arming a decent humanity against the enemies which beset us”—that we pause for a day “to rejoice in the birth of Christ.” The reason, he said, lay with an even more important kind of preparation: “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—with all its memories and all its meanings—as we should.” He then declared New Year’s Day 1942 a national day of prayer, “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.”

Mindful of the political character of most any public occasion—especially now that the United States was no longer a courted neutral but a belligerent with huge responsibilities on multiple fronts—the president graciously passed the podium to the prime minister, his guest and new ally. America was not alone but joined with others already engaged “in the task of defending good with their life-blood.” “One of their great leaders,” he saluted, “stands before me.” Well-prepared, Churchill was at his soaring sentimental best. Though far from country and kin at Christmas, he felt at home. Partly it was ties of blood on his American mother’s side that made him feel this way, but something grander and more profound also played a role: his renewed realization of “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.” Americans understood that it gave him a right “to sit at your fireside and share your Christmas joys.”

Still, Christmas 1941 was an exceedingly strange one and would have been even more so were it not for a good conscience. Here Churchill reprised themes of the Atlantic Charter that he and Roosevelt had worked out the previous August in Newfoundland: “No greed for land or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambition, no morbid lust for material gain at the expense of others has led us to this field.” Hold fast, he prayed of his audience, and give “the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm” and grown-ups a strengthening peaceful moment; then, rejoin the fight to assure “these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.” Churchill seldom failed to match the right image with the moment, and he did not fail here. Even with the war just off American shores, “we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart. For one night only, let every home be a brightly lighted island of happiness and peace.”

That scene is eighty years gone now, and with it the moral consensus that underwrote national solidarity in Britain and the United States. Both countries have seen less and less of it since then and certainly cannot claim much at this Christmastide. It then mattered little that the prime minister and the president brought slight religious understanding to phrases like “peace of the spirit” and “arming of our hearts.” They were politicians, not theologians. It mattered more that their performance gave to the world, that Christmas Eve, 1941, this sound advice: after the carols are sung, the speeches finished, and the tree lit, and no matter how embattled the affairs of men may be, step back, draw close, be still, and pray. Take time, as the Lord commanded the people of Israel, on whose Sabbath this Christmas happens to be.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation strengthens our efforts to preserve the gifts of our cultural heritage.