The hostess of many early White House New Year's receptions was First Lady Dolley Madison. Her portrait hangs above the northwest door, brightened by the Red Room's holiday decorations: gold-etched ornaments; silvered containers filled with poinsettia; and the cranberry tree, a White House tradition dating back to 1975.
Given the Red Room's cheer today, it is difficult to imagine the gravity of Christmas Eve 1941. Just a few weeks earlier, Imperial Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the Second World War. The White House — and the president's traditional lighting of the National Community Christmas Tree — were possible air-raid targets. The Secret Service asked Franklin Roosevelt to cancel the ceremony altogether.
President Roosevelt compromised by moving the tree-lighting to the south grounds of the White House. From inside this room you can see the south balcony, where President Roosevelt and a visiting Winston Churchill addressed 15,000 people who had gathered in the darkness.
President Roosevelt delivered holiday remarks to the nation — but the most stirring words came from Prime Minister Churchill. Great Britain had already been at war for two years, enduring the Blitz of London. Yet the prime minister was determined that Christmas should be a time for rejoicing.
"Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play," he said. "Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world."
"And so," he concluded in an address broadcast around the world, "in God's mercy, a happy Christmas to you all." The Marine Band played Christmas music, and finished the ceremonies with the "Star Spangled Banner" and "God Save the King."