On December 24, 1941, 15,000 Americans crowded onto the White House grounds. Pearl Harbor, the surprise attack by the Empire of Japan upon the American fleet in Hawaii, had occurred three weeks before, killing nearly 2,400 people and crippling the Pacific fleet.
Winston Churchill, the son of an American mother, had come to the capital to meet Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who would become his closest ally and partner. Washington, DC was already a city at war, and blacked out to protect it from enemy planes. President Roosevelt, however, insisted that the lights on the “National Christmas Tree” would be turned on. The act of lighting the tree, a Washington Post writer asserted, “affirms faith and offers hope for a world threatened with the darkness of Axis conquest.” In addition to those watching in person, millions more tuned in to a radio broadcast of the event.
FDR and the “buoyant and confident” Winston Churchill stood on the south portico overlooking the living 30-foot Oriental Spruce decorated with red, white, and blue lights. “The President touched a button, which sounded a signal in the dugout on the lawn below the great tree, where an electrician made the tree blaze with light, reflecting colors on the White House and on the faces of thousands of spectators, who burst into singing.”The National tree lighting was not held from 1942 to 1944 due to the war. President Truman lit the tree in 1945:
On December 24, 1945, President Harry Truman, who had become president upon the death of FDR in 1944, stood on a bandstand on the south lawn and announced: “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years. With peace come joy and gladness. The gloom of the war years fades as once more we light the National Community Christmas Tree.”