Popular historian David McCullough has penned a delightful new, little holiday season book about Winston Churchill’s surprise Christmas 1941 visit to Washington, D.C. In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story focuses particularly on the British premier’s first hearing of the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” sung at a Christmas service to which FDR took him. The carol partly echoed some words in Churchill’s first radio broadcast to the American people, referring to the “English-speaking world” at Christmas as a “brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.”
Churchill had steamed the Nazi submarine–infested Atlantic to appear in Washington, D.C. on December 22, just two weeks after Pearl Harbor had made Britain and America war-time allies. FDR and Churchill had previously met on naval ships off Newfoundland to draft the Atlantic Charter earlier that year and had regularly talked on the phone during Britain’s lonely resistance to Nazi Germany, plus extensively corresponding. Though Churchill was politically right of center and FDR left of center, they were kindred spirits as champions of Anglo-Saxon democracy against the totalitarian Axis powers. They were also both Anglicans from genteel backgrounds and families of political note, both had served in administrative governance of their respective navies, and both were master communicators, with special appreciation for the literature of Anglo-American civilization.
In what was surely a record for a visiting head of government, Churchill stayed at the White House for much of three weeks, strategizing, smoking, and drinking late with FDR, bending the President to his own night owl habits. Churchill was a demanding house guest and predictably annoyed a prim Eleanor Roosevelt, who thought the loquacious British imperialist a sometimes less than ideal influence on her husband, both in politics and personal habits. Beyond Eleanor, Churchill’s visit was a public relations smash. FDR had him stand on a chair in his crowded office so all the White House press could see the premier. Churchill joined FDR on the White House balcony on Christmas Eve to help light the National Christmas Tree. He later magisterially addressed a joint session of Congress, which thrilled to his recitation of Britain’s defiance of Hitler during the Blitz. Churchill accompanied FDR to a wreath laying at Mt. Vernon, honoring the American Founding Father who had defeated the British monarchy in a war for independence. And Churchill accompanied FDR twice to church, once on Christmas, and once on New Year’s Day.
FDR was more of a faithful churchman than Churchill, who reputedly had likened himself to a “flying buttress” who supported the church from the “outside.” But both were reared in a similar Anglican faith, accustomed to the Book of Common Prayer, and to the great old Anglo and American hymns. Both appreciated the majesty and symbolism of public worship, especially in war time, in vivid contrast to the pagan Fascism of their enemies. At their August 1941 meeting in the North Atlantic, Churchill had organized worship aboard HMS Prince of Wales and had selected “grand hymns” for the “church parade”: “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” Churchill wept and later remembered it as a “great hour to live.” FDR recalled to his son that singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” had “cemented us.” Whatever the level of his personal faith, Churchill portrayed the world struggle as “Christian civilization” against Nazi darkness.
Now the host four months later and himself a sublime practitioner of civil religion, FDR carefully chose where he and his British visitor would worship. During the Christmas Eve tree lighting on the White House south lawn, the Marine Band had performed “Joy to the World” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “The Messiah.” On Christmas Day, FDR took Churchill to Foundry Methodist Church, about a mile north of the White House. “I like to sing hymns with the Methodys,” FDR has once chirpily explained of his sometime attendance at Foundry, despite his being Episcopalian. Various dignitaries joined them, including Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall and Vice President Henry Wallace. The minister prayed for “those who are dying on land and sea this Christmas morning.” Churchill later remembered of the service: “Certainly there was much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe.” Surprisingly, it was the first time Churchill ever heard “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” written 75 years earlier by a Philadelphia pastor while visiting the Holy Land during Christmas. Memorably, the hymn declares: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” According to McCullough’s book, both FDR and Churchill typically “sang lustily, if not exactly in tune.”
A week later, on New Year’s Day, FDR took Churchill to Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, where George Washington and Robert E. Lee regularly worshiped. There Churchill again shed tears when he heard for the first time another song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which he later instructed be played at his funeral, in 1965. Strangely, McCullough’s book, though named after “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” never mentions it was sung at Foundry Methodist. Instead, the book includes a photo of Churchill and FDR departing Christ Episcopal Church, without explaining they were there a week after Christmas.
Compensating for that oversight, McCullough’s book includes a DVD of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Christmas music, with McCullough narrating. Fewer than 40 pages, In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story offers a pleasing remembrance of a very dark moment in the world, when the light of Christmas was especially needed.