War and Christmas are the antithesis of each other. In December 1941, Americans had to endure one while trying to enjoy the other. Since the beginning of the first peacetime draft, in September 1940, a faint veil of wartime had hung over the American scene. Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1940 found a small number of young men away from home at military camps; Thanksgiving of 1941 found almost one million draftees, all of the nation’s National Guardsmen, and most of the reserves on active duty ready to defend the Western Hemisphere. The smell of war was in the air, but the way war came, with “dramatic suddenness” at Pearl Harbor, shocked the nation. Real war had arrived. Yet the calendar page in most American homes reflected pictures of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and winter wonderlands — Christmas would not be denied.
Because they lived on the shores of the Pacific Ocean where the Japanese fleet had struck the infamous blow, the people of the West Coast felt the fear of war more acutely than the rest of the country. The San Francisco Chronicle warned readers to turn off their Christmas tree lights when away from home: “There is no Christmas truce in the war and orders to blackout come without warning…. Air raid wardens are empowered to break into houses in a blackout if lights are on and owners not home.”
Most owners must have been home, because Christmas shoppers had been scarce that season until just before the big day. Lack of shoppers was no fault of the advertisers. Ads for Zenith’s portable radios asked “What to do in air raids?” and reminded readers to turn on their radios in an emergency “to hear any commands that might be given by defense authorities. The Office of Civilian Defense wants you to do this.” In New York, a Macy’s ad for globes($2.79), pocket maps of the world($.47), and world atlases($.69 to $3.98) informed readers that “No one knows better than Macys how wide awake America has suddenly become! In the past ten days, we’ve sold over a thousand globes, about eight hundred maps and hundreds more atlases!…all items are limited, the stock uncertain ….Keep up with…your soldiers, your sailors, your marines!”
Telephone companies asked consumers to refrain from all but the most urgent calls. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph company ads said the days just before Christmas were the “busiest in Pacific Coast history.” PT&T; asked the public “to lend us a hand over the Holiday Season by not sending greetings by Long Distance.” New York Telephone Company ads led with a headline “BECAUSE OF THE WAR” and explained that long distance lines must be kept open for defense use on Christmas Eve and Day. “We are sorry to ask you to restrict a custom that is so much a part of the spirit of Christmas; but since there will be no truce over the holidays, we feel sure you will understand and be glad to cooperate.”
Many servicemen in the United States would have no need to make long distance calls; they would be home thanks to the kindness of their Jewish comrades in arms. Frank L. Weil, president of the National Jewish Welfare Board announced on December 21 that Jewish “Soldiers, sailors, marines, and nurses on duty in more than thirty camps, navy yards, hospitals and elsewhere have volunteered to remain on duty Christmas, so the greater part of their Christian comrades might spend Christmas Day with their families.”
In the nation’s capital, the Roosevelts announced the curtailment of White House Christmas festivities, because none of the Roosevelt children would be present at the mansion. Neverthless, there would be a new tradition: The President would light the community tree on the south lawn on Christmas Eve. Unmentioned was the surprise guest who would help FDR light the tree. That guest appeared before shocked newsmen the next day at the President’s press conference. As reporters trooped into the oval office they saw the familiar upturned cigarette holder and beaming smile of the President complemented by the large cigar and cherubic face of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill. The indomitable champion of the fight against Hitler had quietly slipped into the United States to confer with his new full time ally, Franklin Roosevelt.
The following night, Christmas Eve 1941, President and Prime Minister lit the tree and spoke to the crowd and to the world. FDR warned Americans to arm their hearts “for the labor and the suffering and the ultimate victory which lie ahead.” The President then introduced the Prime Minister: “We have joined with many other nations and peoples in a very great cause….One of their great leaders stands beside me….He and his people have pointed the way in courage and in sacrafice for the sake of little children everywhere.” Churchill asked each home in the English speaking world to become for the children “a brightly-lighted island of happiness in a world of storm.” But he warned adults that they must turn to “the stern tasks and formidable years that lie before us,” so the children will not be “denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”
As Christmas Day 1941 dawned Americans tried to celebrate, but the war intervened with news that the gallant marines holding Wake Island had sent their last message: ENEMY ON ISLAND — ISSUE IN DOUBT. Yet, from the marine garrison on Midway came this message to the New York Times: “We are still here. Merry Christmas.” They would still be there six months later when the tide turned against the Japanese.
On a drizzly Christmas morning in San Francisco the first of the wounded Pearl Harbor survivors and evacuees arrived at the Embarcadero. At a Christmas dinner in Malden Massachusetts, the mother and family of Private Joseph M. Maloney, reported killed in action at Pearl Harbor, sat in sorrow; then the doorbell rang and they received an unforgetable Christmas present — a telegram from the War Department saying their son was alive and well. Mr. F. H. Baxter in Davenport, Iowa showed local newsmen an airmail letter from his son Eldon. The Baxters had been told their son died on December 7. In Leominster, Massachusetts, Mrs. Eileen Peterson had dreamed of her brother Seaman First Class Curtis Farnsworth: He had a bandage on his head but was very much alive, contrary to what the Navy Department had reported. She too received a Christmas gift of a telegram of life. Obviously, the War and Navy Departments had to improve their methods for identifying the dead.
Elsewhere on Christmas Day 1941: San Francisco’s Civic Center Hospitality House hosted “Santa for Soldiers and Sailors”; New York’s night clubs, hotels, and restaurants offered free Christmas dinners to anyone wearing the uniform of Uncle Sam; at Mitchel Field, Long Island, people drove up to the gates in limousines and jalopies and left gifts for the servicemen; all along the East Coast volunteers gave up two to four hours of their Christmas Day to scan the skies for enemy planes. And so it went on the first Christmas of World War II. The New York Times noted that the little ones went to bed with the usual anticipation and woke up to the joy of Christmas morning, but adults knew there was “the unshakable, ever-present realizaton of the job that must be done before the world can laugh again.”