Christmas 1981 — Ronald Reagan on the Christ child and the media.
This time 31 years ago, December 23, 1981, President Ronald Reagan delivered a moving Oval Office address to the nation. The subject was Christmas and events in Poland.
As to Poland, martial law had been imposed by the communist government in coordination with Moscow. Poles were aghast, as was Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, in the words of NSC official Richard Pipes, was “livid.” He immediately sought to assist the Polish people in any way he could. At that very moment, Reagan committed to save and sustain Poland’s Solidarity movement as the wedge that could splinter the entire Soviet bloc. That effort included many actions inside and outside Poland, too numerous to detail here, but one of the earliest relates to Christmas 1981.
On December 23, 1981, Reagan held a private meeting at the White House with the Polish ambassador, Romuald Spasowski. That very day, Spasowski and his wife defected. “It is unbelievable to me that I am sitting in the office of the president of the United States,” said the ambassador, who Moscow immediately denounced as a vile traitor. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
As Spasowski’s wife wept, the ambassador said to Reagan: “May I ask you a favor, Mr. President? Would you light a candle and put in the window tonight for the people of Poland?”
Reagan did just that. He went to the second floor, lit a candle, and put it in the window of the White House dining room.
But Reagan wasn’t finished. He was readying for a nationally televised speech that evening, on the subjects of Christmas and Poland, to be watched by tens of millions. In the speech, he connected the spirit of the season with events in Poland: “For a thousand years,” he told his fellow Americans, “Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people. They have been betrayed by their own government.”
Reagan then made an extraordinary gesture: The president told Americans about Spasowski’s request earlier that day, about how he personally honored it at the White House, and then asked them to personally light their own candles in support of freedom.
“I urge you all to do the same tomorrow night, on Christmas Eve,” said Reagan. “Let the light of millions of candles in American homes give notice that the light of freedom is not going to be extinguished.”
The candles, said Reagan, would also shine as a Christmas reminder of our blessings and “solemn obligation” to “the God who guides us.”
It was a stirring moment, with the Poland drama the big story.
Yet, there was another story behind the speech that isn’t remembered, but is likewise revealing. Reagan had started the speech with a wonderful opening about the reason for the season: the Christ child.
Good evening. At Christmas time, every home takes on a special beauty, a special warmth, and that’s certainly true of the White House…. It’s been humbling and inspiring for Nancy and me to be spending our first Christmas in this place. We’ve lived here as your tenants for almost a year now, and what a year it’s been. As a people we’ve been through quite a lot — moments of joy, of tragedy, and of real achievement — moments that I believe have brought us all closer together. G. K. Chesterton once said that the world would never starve for wonders, but only for the want of wonder.
At this special time of year, we all renew our sense of wonder in recalling the story of the first Christmas in Bethlehem, nearly 2,000 year ago.
Some celebrate Christmas as the birthday of a great and good philosopher and teacher. Others of us believe in the divinity of the child born in Bethlehem, that he was and is the promised Prince of Peace. Yes, we’ve questioned why he who could perform miracles chose to come among us as a helpless babe, but maybe that was his first miracle, his first great lesson that we should learn to care for one another.