Coming just 18 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Christmas 1941 was a holiday unlike any other. For many Americans, it was the last time they would be together. In Stanley Weintraub’s “Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941,” he describes the mood of the nation at the time, and President Roosevelt’s determination to keep to tradition.
After much politics-as-usual debate about the appropriate age for draft registration, Congress on Dec. 19, 1941, had timidly settled on 20 for induction and 18 for registration. On both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the services had hurriedly set anti-aircraft guns on the roofs of buildings and alongside docks. Some weapons were obsolete, others wooden fakes, there to instill spurious confidence. Sentries, often bearing 1918-vintage rifles, were posted at railway stations and armaments factories. Although the only interloper likely over the American skies at Christmas was likely to be Santa Claus with his sleigh and reindeer, a 24-hour sky watch in the Northeast was ordered for the holidays by Brigadier General John C. MacDonnell, air-raid warning chief for 43,000 volunteer civilian observers. “Experience in war,” he declared, “has taught that advantage is taken of relaxation in vigilance to strike when and where the blow is least expected.” Lights remained on almost everywhere.
Anxiety on the Pacific coast about Japanese air raids, however absurd, had already panicked San Francisco, thanks to the paranoia of Fourth Army commander Lieutenant General John DeWitt at Fort Ord. Every Japanese fisherman and vegetable farmer along the coast was suspected of covertly warning nonexistent enemy aircraft, and the hysteria resulted in the relocation of the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl extravaganza from California to somnolent Durham, North Carolina, where Duke University would play Oregon State.
On war maps in the press, limited to much less than the actual facts, a dismal Christmas loomed, but it did not appear that way in shop windows across America. Enhanced by holiday lights, the street lamps and storefronts glittered, and a plethora of merchandise long vanished from high streets in Britain awaited shoppers now benefiting from jobs created by proliferating war contracts and a burgeoning army and navy. Christmas trees were plentiful, seldom priced at more than a dollar or two, and in the traditional holiday spectacle at Radio City Music Hall in New York, the star-spangled Rockettes, in mechanical unison, high-stepped away any war gloom. In newspapers across the nation the Japanese were thwarted in the “Terry and the Pirates” comic strip, and in film Gary Cooper as Sergeant York was defeating the Germans single-handedly in the earlier world war.
The hit book for Christmas giving, at a hefty $2.50, was Edna Ferber’s Reconstruction-era romance “Saratoga Trunk.” For the same price, war turned up distantly yet bombastically in a two-disc set of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” performed by Artur Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra. In New York gift crates of oranges and grapefruit from Florida were $2.79 at Bloomingdale’s. A new Ford or Chevrolet, both soon to be unobtainable, cost $900. Hattie Carnegie’s designer dresses began at $15. The upscale Rogers Peet menswear store offered suits and topcoats from a steep $38. (At recruiting stations nationwide, the army was offering smart khaki garb at no cost whatever to enlistees.) Henri Bendel featured silk stockings at $1.25 a pair; stockings in the current wonder weave, nylon, sold for $1.65. By the following Christmas nylons would be almost unobtainable. The fabric would be the stuff of parachutes.
Among the long-prepared Christmas toy glut, shops across America advertised a remote-control bombing plane at $1.98, which ran along a suspended wire to attack a battleship. The Japanese high seas Kido Butai had not needed suspended wires at Pearl Harbor, nor in the Philippines, Malaya, or Hong Kong. The Royal Navy’s principal warships on the Pacific Rim were at the bottom of the Gulf of Siam, and the depleted Pacific Fleet, with seven battleships sunk or disabled at their anchorages, had only two destroyers available to patrol the long coastline between Vancouver and San Diego. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would put it, “Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere [were] weak and naked.”
For security in wartime the Secret Service proposed to have the formidable national Christmas tree erected in Lafayette Park, a seven-acre expanse across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, as the event Dec. 24, 1941, would draw thousands of unidentifiable persons. The President insisted that tradition required the White House lawn. Within the patrolled iron-picket fence around the White House grounds, only those specifically invited would get close to the participants on the South Portico. Even so, guards warned, “No cameras, no packages.” A tent outside the two gates had been set up as a package checking station, but some visitors refused to give up their places in line at the 4 o’clock opening and dropped their Christmas bundles at the fence, hoping they would find them again afterward. The uninvited could watch from beyond — and under a crescent moon thousands were already gathering in the early winter twilight.
Was a brilliantly lit hazard being created at odds with unenforced wartime brownouts? The White House was assured that no enemy could penetrate Washington airspace. Also, Christmas Eve traditions were exempted in the interest of national confidence. Despite restrictions involving landmarks, the red aircraft-warning light 550 feet atop the Washington Monument remained aglow and could be seen from the White House lawn. At the lighting ceremonies in 1940, realizing that war was approaching from somewhere, and perhaps soon, the President had told the crowd that it was welcome to return in 1941 “if we are all still here.” Many were back.
Christmas Eve 1941 was the only public occasion when Roosevelt and Churchill spoke from the same platform. As they gathered with guests and the White House staff in the East Room an hour before the ceremonies at 5, the Marine Band on the South Lawn struck up holiday music, beginning with “Joy to the World,” accompanied by choirs from nearby churches. Outranking the Prime Minister in the party were stately, beautiful Crown Princess Marthe of occupied Norway and her princely husband, the future King Olav V. Marthe, whom FDR adored, was one of the rare women he kissed whenever they met. With her children, she had been offered a temporary White House residence after fleeing Norway, until she could find an American home, which she did nearby in Maryland. In what seemed like a royal gesture, each White House employee was presented with a signed photograph of Franklin and Eleanor.
When the sunset gun at Fort Myer, across the Potomac, boomed, the band began “Hail to the Chief,” and the President, on the arm of an aide, was escorted slowly out to the south balcony with Mrs. Roosevelt and the Prime Minister. Following them, the White House party, many shivering in the chill evening, watched as FDR pressed a button lighting the big evergreen at the lower slope of the lawn. The crowd applauded, their eyes especially on Churchill. Then the Rev. Joseph Corrigan, rector of Catholic University in northeast Washington, delivered a brief invocation tailored to the times. “Hear a united people, girded for battle” he began, looking up, “dedicate themselves to the peace of Christmas.” He confessed “strangeness” in such a contradiction in words, yet “All the material resources with which Thou has blessed our native land, we consecrate to the dread tasks of war.” It was what Churchill wanted to hear and the reason he had come.
Radio carried their voices across the country and abroad. As the Christmas lights glowed, Roosevelt spoke directly to the event. “It is in the spirit of peace and good will, 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 and endure for us — that we light our Christmas candles now across this continent from one coast to the other on this Christmas evening.”
Now, he added, “my associate, my old and good friend” wanted to speak to Washingtonians and to the world. No one in hearing distance had any doubt as to who that was, especially once his rolling, almost antique, voice echoed across the lights and shadows. “This is a strange Christmas eve,” Churchill began:
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 has led us to the field. Here, in the midst of war, raging and soaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and our homes, here, amid the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in each generous heart. There, we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for our 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.
While far from his own hearth and family, he continued, “Yet I cannot truthfully say that I feel far from home.” He referred to his kinship with his audiences, listening rapt on the White House lawn, and nationwide:
Whether it be 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 at 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.
It was, he conceded, “a strange Christmas eve,” with war “raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes.” Nevertheless, the PM concluded, using the English equivalent for Santa,
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.
– Adapted excerpt from “Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941” by Stanley Weintraub. Copyright © 2011. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.