Special Report

Candles in Solidarity

Christmas 1981 — Ronald Reagan on the Christ child and the media.

By 12.24.12

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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.

Tonight, in millions of American homes, the glow of the Christmas tree is a reflection of the love Jesus taught us. Like the shepherds and wise men of that first Christmas, we Americans have always tried to follow a higher light, a star, if you will. At lonely campfire vigils along the frontier, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, through war and peace, the twin beacons of faith and freedom have brightened the American sky. At times our footsteps may have faltered, but trusting in God’s help, we’ve never lost our way.

Isn’t that beautiful? It’s also so deliciously politically incorrect and anachronistic to modern eyes and ears. Reagan had invoked “the divinity of the Child born in Bethlehem,” the “helpless child” yet “promised Prince of Peace” who performed miracles -- “a higher light, a star, if you will.” Americans needed to trust in God’s help and follow the “twin beacons of faith and freedom” that brighten our sky.

But, alas, that sentiment must have been dismissed as maudlin hogwash over at the Washington Post, where, the next day, those opening lines to Reagan’s speech were removed from the transcript printed in the newspaper. The Post opened with the fifth paragraph in the speech, a line about the Menorah and Hanukkah and the National Christmas Tree.

Yes, already, three decades ago, the elite media was carefully excising Christ from Christmas. Reagan had shared such a rich statement about the “child born in Bethlehem,” and the Washington Post expunged it.

Among those who noticed was the Rev. John Boyles, one of Reagan’s pastors at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington. Boyles sent a letter to the Post, protesting what he called an “anti-Christian bias.” In the letter, Boyles nicely underscored the odd similarity to the communist press in Poland, which had excised certain unwelcome lines from Pope John Paul II’s Christmas remarks on Poland.

Boyles wasn’t alone. In fact, the Post caught so much grief -- or, as ombudsman Robert McCloskey put it, “caught hell” -- that it eventually (a month later) publicly responded. The response, titled, “The Tyranny of Space,” lamely argued that the Post just simply didn’t have enough room for Reagan’s remarks about the Christ child at Christmas -- which were about 100 words, among the probably 100,000 printed in the paper that day.

What did Ronald Reagan think of this?

Well, none of us knew -- except for his pastor, John Boyles. And I’ve learned only recently, thanks to a Reagan letter shared with me by Boyles. (Boyles, for the record, will do our annual Ronald Reagan Lecture at Grove City College in February.) As usual, Reagan wasn’t mean or nasty or even slightly angry, and he also wasn’t surprised. He responded with his typical hope and optimism. The president wrote to Boyles: 

The true spirit of Christmas is too often passed over in favor of materialism. Although the Washington Post chose not to reprint that portion of my speech in which I spoke of the Christ Child, the message was brought to millions via television. This is not the first time the editorial staff of The Post has marched to a different ideological drum!

I have a deep and abiding faith in this nation and its people. Whatever does or does not appear in the media will never be able to smother the love of God which burns so brightly in the hearts of most Americans.

Pure Reagan. Note the confidence in the American people, and in his ability to reach them regardless of the liberal media. And note, too, Reagan’s belief in the power of truth and our inherent yearning for God. The secular media cannot snuff out those forces.

That media is even worse today, far more antagonistic to religion, to Christianity, to Christmas, and to the Christ child at Christmas. Yet, regardless of what the media says or doesn’t say, prints or doesn’t print, it can never smother the love of God that burns in our hearts, especially at Christmas time.

A timely message from Ronald Reagan. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.