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1941 - 1953 Tree Lightings

Photo by Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Despite the United States' entrance into World War II in early December 1941, the east Oriental spruce tree on the White House South Lawn was lit on Christmas Eve by President Roosevelt from the South Portico.  British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in on the President's right.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

White House South Lawn

In May of 1941, President Roosevelt's memo reminded his staff of his desire to have the ceremony brought to the White House grounds. That Fall, two living Oriental spruce trees were transplanted from the nearby presidential tennis court to positions east and west of the South Lawn fountain. Despite the country's grim wartime reality the South Lawn was opened to the general public who were required to check their packages at the gate before entering. As twilight approached both President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appeared between the central columns of the South Portico porch.

Both world leaders spoke to the crowd. Their messages, transmitted throughout the world by radio, focused on the war and the meaning of Christmas Day. President Roosevelt encouraged listeners "to arm their hearts" "for the labor and suffering and the ultimate victory which lie ahead." Prime Minister Churchill appealed to listeners to "Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let gifts of Father Christmas delight their hearts; let us share in the full in their unstinted pleasure before we turn again to the stern tasks in the year that lies before us. Now, 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."

In 1942, city organizers ruled out having a tree ceremony. Opposition from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reversed the decision. As a compromise, and in order to conserve electricity, lights were not used. Undeterred, the District Recreation Department, in conjunction with the White House, organized a drive to collect tree ornaments . Washington school children took up the 'decorating' cause collecting both old and new ornaments from citizens throughout the Capital region. Their efforts brought new meaning to the tree's title of "Community." At the official ceremony, chimes were substituted for the "lighting" of the tree. Observers commented that the 1942 tree was the most beautiful of all the previous "National" trees. War-time restrictions remained in force from 1943 to 1944. School children continued to collect Christmas ornaments which eventually were received from citizens throughout the country. In 1943, tags, attached to each decoration, dedicated each ornament to members of the armed services - from every rank from Private to Rear Admiral and General - many of whom who had died in battle. When President Roosevelt lit the 1944 tree, via his home in Hyde Park, New York, his 1940 invitation to open the South Lawn to the public was still in effect. Citizens listened to the President's Yule message broadcast by radio and to hear a concert of seasonal music by the "President's Own" Marine Band. Little could one imagine this would be the last Roosevelt tree ceremony.

With 1945 came the end of the war and a lifting of many of the restrictions. Lights for the tree were donated by the Electrical Institute of Washington and President Harry S. Truman performed the lighting honors. In 1946 the colorful event was televised for the first time. While the reception of the television was not widespread, because of limitations on both transmissions and reception, President Truman's remarks continued to be broadcast coast to coast by radio.

During President Truman's tenure a newspaper article revealed why he - like President Roosevelt before him - indirectly lit the tree. Seems that U.S. Secret Service would not allow the President to light anything over 6 volts. From 1948 to 1951 President Truman lit the tree symbolically from his residence in Independence, Missouri. Although the grounds near the White House were filled with construction equipment and materials for the ongoing renovation, citizens continued to celebrate the Christmas Eve ceremony inside the secured area. President Truman returned for his last lighting ceremony in 1952.

The South Lawn lighting tradition continued through 1953 as President Dwight D. Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower on hand to enjoy the festivities.

by C. L. Arbelbide
January 6, 2001

Did You Know?

Ronald W. Reagan, 40th President: 1981-1989

In 1926, at age 15, Reagan took a summer job as a lifeguard in Lowell Park, Illinois, two miles away from Dixon on the nearby Rock River. He continued to work as a lifeguard on the Rock for the next seven years, reportedly saving 77 people from drowning.