FDR addresses the crowd at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony from the White House South Portico on Dec. 24, 1941. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill can be seen on the right./FDR PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY PHOTOS

A Christmas story for Hanukkah

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A Christmas story for Hanukkah

FDR addresses the crowd at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony from the White House South Portico on Dec. 24, 1941. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill can be seen on the right./FDR PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY PHOTOS

This Hanukkah, let us do something completely unorthodox. Let’s talk about a Christmas tree. Let’s contemplate Christmas 1941.

It was the first Noel of World War II. Smoke still emanated from the upturned hulls of battleships destroyed in Pearl Harbor, which had been attacked 18 days earlier. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was visiting the White House for extended consultations with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Catholic Diocese of Boston, worried that worshippers out at night be endangered if an emergency occurred, canceled all Christmas midnight masses. In Chicago, the only storefront decorated for the holidays was at the flagship Marshall Fields department store. Maybe it was the weather – a cold rain – and maybe it was the prevailing damp sentiment, but hardly anyone showed up for the annual Carol Sing in Central Square in Keene, New Hampshire.

But hark! The herald angels sing a theme for our time – for Hanukkah in our time.

For the answer to the question that is unavoidable at this season – How can we celebrate the Festival of Lights at a time of such darkness, with upheaval in Israel and antisemitism galloping across the United States? – let us look back to Christmas 1941, an occasion that one newspaper called a “strange, dark time.” The past, as always, has lessons for the current age. So listen, for a cold December moment, to Winston Churchill.

“This is a strange Christmas Eve,” he said at Christmastime 1941. “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.”

And yet the British prime minister and the American president proceeded to light the White House Christmas tree – the physical manifestation of the notion, often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. In our case, the light can come from a Hanukkah candle. Indeed, now more than in 1982, when folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary released their “Light One Candle” ballad, it is time to

Light one candle for the Maccabee children
With thanks that their light didn’t die.
Light one candle for the pain they endured
When their right to exist was denied.

Let’s leave our time, when arguably Jews feel their right to exist is being denied, and travel back to 1941.

“Our strongest weapon against this war is the conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies – more than any other day or any other symbol,” President Roosevelt said in the tree-lighting ceremony, which proceeded despite wartime security worries. “Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt give a joint press conference in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 23, 1941.

That Christmas tree, planted on the White House grounds in 1941, remains there, and has been lit every year except for 1980, when President Jimmy Carter cancelled the ceremony in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But, more important, it remains as a directional landmark for Marine One, the presidential helicopter.

In today’s context we might conclude that it stands as well as a directional landmark for Jews at Hanukkah this year – an odd, maybe ironic, function for a Christmas tree and an odd, maybe illuminating, example for Jews.

Let’s listen once more to Mr. Churchill, who argued 82 years ago, less than three weeks into a war that Americans would fight for three and a half years, that it was entirely appropriate to pause to celebrate Christmas.

“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,” the British prime minister said. “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 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.”

There is a lesson, an example, there for Jews in 2023.

At that 1941 ceremony, Mr. Churchill provided some guidelines for us all during this difficult period, for his were words we might appropriate for our holiday this year, especially these:

“Resolve that by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied the right to live in a free and decent world.”

At this time that very resolution might be uttered in Jewish homes in Israel and around the world.

Mr. Churchill was steadfast in his conviction that Christmas celebrations should proceed that season, despite the grim news: Singapore bombed, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse sunk by Japanese aircraft, American cities declaring and enforcing evening blackouts, German Jews forbidden to use telephones, and German submarines plying Atlantic waters.

As the two English-speaking leaders stood before the White House Christmas tree, Mr. Churchill spoke to the world. “For one night only, each home … should be a brightly lighted island of happiness and peace.”

With the Middle East in flames, with antisemitism on the rise, with the comfort of Jews in their adopted homes disrupted, this may be the rare time when all of us can actually improve on the rhetoric of Winston Churchill. That is because we can vow to let the children have eight nights of fun and laughter and to make brightly lighted islands of happiness and peace last not one day – but, at Hanukkah, to last eight days. Θ

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

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