Holiday Catalog Roundup: The 1941 Christmas Tree Lighting, an Electric Menorah, and More!

After such a tumultuous year, all the staff at the National Archives Special Media Division would like to extend our best holiday wishes to those of you reading this as well as our hopes for a bright new year in 2022.  It’s hard to believe that another year has already come and gone and to celebrate, we would like to share some of our holiday themed records with you. We begin with The lighting of the National Christmas tree, which was begun by First Lady Grace Coolidge in 1923 when she gave permission to the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree on the Ellipse South of the White House. The organizers quickly decided to dub it the National Christmas tree and on that Christmas Eve President Coolidge pushed the button lighting the 48-foot fir tree decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white and green, as a local choir and a quartet from the U.S. Marine Band performed. The tradition has continued for almost the last century through good times and bad as a chance for Americans to come together in the holiday spirit.

The first National Christmas tree set up on the Ellipse south of the White House
Photograph 95-GP-247-183692; “Historical Trees – District of Columbia,” Photographs Relating to National Forests, Resource Management Practices, Personnel, and Cultural and Economic History, ca. 1897 – ca. 1980; Records of the Forest Service, 1870-2008, Record Group 95; National Archives at College Park, MD.
Program for Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony; Franklin D. Roosevelt Master Speech Files; Collection FDR-FDRMSF (NAID: 6728528)

We wish to present the Christmas Eve broadcast by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, which was added to the Library of Congress’ National Registry of Sound Recordings in 2020. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, many questioned if the tradition should be continued. FDR was emphatic that it needed to happen.  The Roosevelts had already been planning a change to the ceremony for a year, moving two live, 25-foot Oriental spruces to be used in alternate years from another location within the White House grounds and planted south of the fountain 100 feet from the south fence and about 1,000 feet from the South Portico where they would be more visible. It’s estimated that over 20,000 people gathered on the White House grounds on Christmas Eve 1941 to hear the president speak. Although the ceremony took place as scheduled in 1941, throughout the rest of the war it was modified to account for wartime restrictions , with the tree being lit symbolically with chimes.  The National Community Christmas Tree ceremony remained at this location until the move to the Ellipse in 1954 with the creation of the Christmas Pageant of Peace. In commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, we felt it would be fitting to share the digitized audio recording of the 1941 lighting of the National Christmas tree as well as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Christmas message to the nation following the attack.

Sound Recording RLxA-92; “Washington, DC – Christmas Eve message,” December 24, 1941; Franklin D. Roosevelt Audio Recordings, 1920 – 4/13/1945, Sound Recordings Collection, 1920 – 1987; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

The National Archives even keeps records of its own activities. You can read more about National Archives Christmas parties past by heading over to the blog post written by Still Photograph’s very own Alexis Hill here:

Although it is a bit belated, we also wish to highlight our holdings pertaining to the celebration of Hanukkah, which was observed this year from November 28 to December 6. President Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. President to recognize and celebrate the holiday with a Menorah lighting on the White House lawn in 1979.  The secretary of the interior under Carter initially refused to issue a permit for a menorah on the White House lawn, citing the First Amendment, according to the Washington Post. But Stu Eizenstat, one of Carter’s advisers, argued that the National Christmas Tree’s permit should also be denied on the same grounds, and the event was allowed to proceed. President George W. Bush established the tradition of holding an official Hanukkah event at the White House in 2001.

While Hanukkah is considered a rather modest holiday within the Jewish religion and there are no early records of Hanukah celebrations in the United States, the holiday took on it’s current significance in the U.S. during the latter half of the 19th century when Rabbis in Cincinnati, Ohio, noticed that many Jewish children lacked a connection to the Synagogue. These rabbis developed a new celebration at the synagogue that revolved around giving presents during Hanukkah, which took place roughly at the same time as Christmas. National newspapers publicized the new celebration, and soon it became common throughout the country. It was a way for many Jewish families to partake in something that they saw as both American and Jewish, especially between the decades of 1880 to 1920, when over two million Jewish immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe. America afforded them the opportunity to publicly celebrate with concerts in public halls and restaurants that had Hanukah specials and served kosher foods, including the American holiday staple, turkey dinners. Please enjoy these digitized records regarding the observance of Hanukkah from our online catalog.  

We hope you enjoyed some of our holiday themed records that have been made available on our online catalog. Finally, We would like to wish everyone a happy new year and wish nothing but the best for you and yours from us and ours.

Photograph 30-N-40-3435, “The New Year,” Bicycles, Historical Photograph Files, 1896 – 1963; Records of the Bureau of Public Roads, 1892 – 1972, Record Group 30, National Archives at College Park, MD.