Before the “war on Christmas,” or the “war on religious liberty” in America, or the hasty dismantling of nativity scenes at military bases and city halls (while scenes of city workers carrying off plastic Mary, Joseph, Jesus, wise-men, and the sheep, cattle, and donkeys reflect in the moist eyes of tiny tots) and before the “culture wars” in our day there was a world war that threatened to darken the lights of Christmas.

We often pause for Pearl Harbor Day, on December 7, to recall the suffering and consequent courage of the “Greatest Generation” after the surprise attack of Imperial Japan upon our naval forces in Hawaii. Yet, we don’t place this difficult time into its context on the Christian calendar. Christmas came just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. The nation had to deal with the emotional complexity of a war it did not prepare for and did not want, as well as a national festivity of the soul that it had to celebrate.

The children of our nation and the hearts of all men, regardless of age and regardless of faith, needed the message of Christmas. This is the same yesterday, today, and forever and was what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew and believed. So, the President and the American people faced an emotional conflict which many families have had to face — acknowledge the beauty of Christmas without denying the reality of suffering. Families face this each year. We deal with illness, death, family breakdown, or separation and the welcome, but awkward, appearance of jubilant Christmas and its invariable pull at the heart to join in the deeper meaning of a God who came to us from heaven in the form of a child.

The options of dealing with the internal emotional discord may seem to be cruel Stoicism, on the one hand, and unhappy denial of joy on the other. Yet President Roosevelt wisely chose a third way—a right way—for the nation that Christmas. The question of the national Christmas tree at the White House—to light it or not or even have it—was posed by White House aids and answered in the heart of America’s wheelchair-bound president. There would be a Christmas tree lighting service at the White House. There would be a clergyman praying. There would be a hymn-sing. There would be a broadcast to the nation on radio. The president was determined. Yet, there would, also, be issues: attention to security, delicacy about the national mood, and a certain guest to deal with. Winston Churchill was to be there.

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