The 1941 Christmas Tree: A Bright Light in Dark Times

The Roosevelts had planned for a “more homey” lighting of the National Christmas tree on December 24 in 1941. FDR had directed that the tree be moved from the Ellipse to the White House grounds, just next to the South Lawn Fountain.  But after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was some doubt that the ceremony would take place at all. With firm backing from the President, the tree-lighting went forward, and thousands came to the White House to share a bright moment of hope during dark and uncertain times. 

Roosevelt addresses the crowd at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony
from the White House South Portico on December 24, 1941. Churchill can
be seen on the right. (FDR Presidential Library) 

Plans for this “more homey” event had been set in motion the previous December. A few days before the ceremony, the Roosevelts had an idea. At the 1940 tree-lighting ceremony, FDR raised the issue to the crowds gathered on the Ellipse, “Next year the celebration must take place on the South End of the White House, where all can see the tree,” and “all you good people” would be invited to the gardens of the Executive Mansion to hear the President deliver his message.

A few months later, FDR wrote a memo to Col. Edward Starling,  the
head of the Secret Service detail: “I was not fooling and I think the
proper place for the tree is right next to the fence at the south end of
the White House grounds.”

The 1941 Christmas Tree would be the first ever inside the White
House grounds. By November, two oriental spruce trees (to be used in
alternate years) had been transplanted from the White house tennis
courts to either side of the South Lawn Fountain. All was in place for a
“homey celebration.”

And then Pearl Harbor was attacked.

In the aftermath of December 7, 1941, the President sided with
custom, tradition, and his promise. An estimated 20,000 people passed
through the military inspection on Christmas Eve afternoon, with many
checking their last-minute holiday purchases outside the East Gate.

The Secret Service scrutinized the assembled crowd—perhaps grateful
that in 1939, because of the “war clouds” over Europe, they had replaced
the 3-foot-high fence surrounding the White House with a 6-foot-high

As twilight settled into evening, the warm lights of the White House
silhouetted two leaders—President Roosevelt and an added attraction,
Prime Minister Winston Churchill—standing on the South Portico.

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