DIfficult Presidential Christmases #2

Lighting of the National Christmas Tree, 12/24/41

Times of war and difficulty do not hold for Christmas.  Our Presidents know this better than many.  Many Christmases in the 20th century saw the US at war with other nations, our troops fighting or preparing for battle.  Christmas 1941 was one of these challenging Christmases.  The US had only weeks earlier been attacked by the empire of Japan at Pearl Harbor.  Americans all prepared for war.  Citizens closely listened to the words from President Roosevelt.  His words rallied a nation to service to become what many call the “greatest generation”.  Christmas Eve 1941 was a night of inspiring words from our President.  FDR made his speech from the south portico of the WHite House following the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.  His opening words captured the moment well:

“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.”

Roosevelt concluded his remarks and then introduced his surprise guest to share remarks with the American people.  Winston Churchill had arrived in Washington just weeks after Pearl Harbor for secret meetings with FDR, code-named “Arcadia”.  Today we know the meeting as the First Washington Conference.  Churchill was staying at the White House and joined FDR for the tree lighting ceremony.  His visit was wildly popular with the Americans, other than Mrs. Roosevelt- she found her guest to be a but much, to say the least!  Churchill echoed the ideas shared by the President.  “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.”   Take a moment and watch the recording from that night- Tree Lighting 1941.   It is truly remarkable how the magic of Christmas serves to unite people, families, and even a nation in times of trouble.

 

Difficult Presidential Christmases #1

Not all Presidential Christmas memories are ones of pageantry, decorations, beauty and tradition.  Many of our presidents have found Christmas to be a difficult and challenging time in their lives and/or their presidency.  You need only look back to the earliest days of the United States to find proof of this with General George Washington.

Christmas night 1776.  The colonial troops were not faring well.  General Washington was planning a night crossing over the Delaware River into New Jersey to launch a surprise attack on the Hessian troops amasses in Trenton.  The challenge of his plan was incredible.  Over 2000 men, munitions, and limited supplies to get across the river undetected.  To make the difficult near impossible the conditions quickly changes from a cold rain to sleet to near blizzard, AND the river was full of ice.  To inspire his men Washington read from the new work of essayist Thomas Paine- American Crisis.  The inspiring selection begins with the timeless line “These are the times that try men’s souls”.  Washington and his men were successful in their crossing.  They moved towards the Hessians in the pre-dawn hours.  The battle lasted a mere 45-minutes and ended in victory with the capture of over 900 HEssian prisoners.  The colonials also gained much-needed supplies and ammunitions.  This sacking of the British lead to the revolutionaries regaining control of New Jersey.  The group crossing with Washington included not just our first President but other prominent patriots as well.  Riding with Washington was fifth President Monroe, future Chief Justice John Marshall, and Alexander Hamilton.

The feat accomplished by Washington and his men that Christmas night has become a celebrated moment in US History.  It has been faithfully recreated every year since 1952.  Perhaps the most famous recognition came from German American painter Emanuel Leutze.  Leutze created the classic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1850.  The painting was sold in 1851 for an amazing $10,000 (roughly $250,000 today).  Leutze’s version of the events included future President Monroe on the boat with Washington.  Monroe is the one holding the flag.