Jimmy Carter photo

Christmas Pageant of Peace Remarks on Lighting the National Community Christmas Tree.

December 18, 1980

THE PRESIDENT. Merry Christmas, everybody.

AUDIENCE. Merry Christmas.

THE PRESIDENT. Come on. Merry Christmas, everybody.

AUDIENCE. Merry Christmas!

THE PRESIDENT. Much better.

This is my fourth Christmas that, as President of our great country, I've been privileged to participate in the Pageant of Peace. Last year, we had a very sober Christmas, and we all were hoping that there would be an early release of the American hostages. And along with that, we prayed that their lives would be spared, that they would stay in touch with all Americans who love them, and that we would not be forced to give up either our hope or our faith in God.

Our American hostages have not yet come home. But most of our prayers have been answered. They have stayed in touch with their families. So far as we know, they are safe and their lives have been spared.

Last weekend the families of the American hostages met here in Washington again to have a briefing by the State Department officials, including the Secretary of State, about the status of the negotiations for their release and to receive the information that we have about how those hostages are getting along. I asked the families of the hostages whether or not they wanted all the lights on the Christmas tree to be lit tonight, or whether they wanted us to light just the Star of Hope on top of the tree and then all Americans to pray that the hostages would come home. At that time, we might light the other lights on the tree and celebrate their safe return. The hostage families asked me to do this year the same thing we did last year. And that is just to light the Star of Hope and to hold the other lights unlit until the hostages come home. And they also asked me to ask all Americans to continue to pray for the lives and safety of our hostages and for their early return to freedom.

And now I would like to ask us just for about half a minute to pray to God fervently for our hostages, their lives, their safety, and their early freedom. If everyone would join me just for a half minute. [Pause for silent prayer.]

Amen. And I want to ask all those who listen to my voice to continue to pray fervently that our prayers tonight for the hostages will be answered.

I am a Christian. I'm very proud of my faith. It's the most important element of my life. But I'm also President of a nation that has a wide range of kinds of religions, and also a President of a nation that believes very fervently in the separation of church and state, which means, to put it in simple terms, that the Government cannot tell any American how to worship. We know down through history that many people's lives have been lost, much blood has been shed, much hatred has been engendered because of religion. People have turned against one another, and even in recent years in the Middle East, the basis for the hatred and the misunderstanding, the bloodshed and the continued wars has been founded in a difference in religious belief.

Ours is a nation of immigrants, a nation of refugees, a nation of freedom, a nation of diversity. We don't understand exactly how God works. God doesn't always answer our prayers exactly the way we want Him to, and that's the reason why this year, the Pageant of Peace has as its theme, Faith, because it requires faith on someone who believes in God to trust God to answer our prayers as He sees fit.

In the first Christmas, the people who lived in the land of the Jews were hoping for a Messiah. They prayed God to send them that savior, and when the shepherds arrived at the place to see their prayers answered they didn't find a king, they found a little baby. And I'm sure they were very disappointed to see that God had not answered their prayers properly, but we Christians know that the prayers had been answered in a very wonderful way. God knew how to answer prayer. The people who offered prayers in a very narrow and human way didn't understand how their prayers should be answered.

There was also a particular characteristic of that first Christmas, and that is gentleness, simplicity, love, a relationship between people who didn't understand each other very well, but who came to have their lives changed because of a simple faith.

My background is as a farmer and farmers have to have a lot of faith in order to keep on every year, planting a crop, not having control over what's going to happen next. You might think that cold winter, frozen land, snow, sleet, rain would not be a part of a successful farming operation. But God knows that in the wintertime the land has to lie fallow; there has to be a period of cold in order for the crops to grow when the Sun shines. A simple act of faith has been built up in farmers because of experience, yes, but because of their trust in God and in the future.

I noticed that our lovely Girl Scout's name is Lillian Smith. Is that right? One of the very famous Georgia writers is named Lillian Smith, and she wrote a small book called, "Memory of a Large Christmas." And to close my talk, let me tell you about that book.

Lillian Smith—a very famous writer—when she was a young child had a rich father. The family lived not very far from Plains, Georgia, and in that early part of her life, every Christmas they had a lot of presents, a big house, a lot of kinfolks, a lot of neighbors that came, and the Christmas was very happy. When she became a little older, her father lost everything he had, was absolutely bankrupt—the only thing he had left was a little tiny cottage in the mountains of north Georgia that they used to use as a game, for a summer camping place. That's all they had.

So, they moved up to the north Georgia mountains in the wintertime, and they thought it was going to be the worst Christmas ever. They didn't have any money. Their kinfolks were in south Georgia, they didn't know their neighbors, and they approached the Christmas with a great deal of dread and trepidation. And as the Christmas day approached there was a chain gang working nearby. How many of you know what a chain gang is—or was? A chain gang used to be prisoners who had chains on their legs and on their arms and had to do hard labor, and the chain gang members were murderers, bank robbers, one of them had burned down a barn—they were despised people. And Lillian Smith's father said, "Let's have a great Christmas. Let's invite the chain gang members to come and have Christmas with us."

They didn't have much to eat, nothing fancy, but they had enough to feed those despised, outcast people. And those chain gang members came in, the prisoners came into their little, tiny hut, and they began to laugh and sing songs and tell stories and eat the food heartily. They cleaned up the cabin, they washed the dishes, and they went back to a little railroad car that they were living in. It was very cold. And when they got through, Lillian Smith and her brothers and sisters and her parents agreed it was the greatest Christmas they ever had. It was a Christmas of simplicity, gentleness, understanding, and love among people who were quite different one from the other.

So, as we approach this Christmas, in a time of concern, trepidation, not knowing what the future is going to bring, let's have faith that God will answer our prayers. And let's not just have a faith that sits down and doesn't move and waits for good things to happen, but a faith like the farmers have and like Lillian Smith's father had, to reach out and use the gentleness and the love that we know about to encompass others in our hearts. That will warm us inside. That will tell us again what the birth of the Christ Child meant to us and be an expression of Christmas. And that kind of Christmas, filled with love for one another, is a Christmas that we all want and the world really needs.

It's wonderful to be President of a great country like ours. And I wish you, and Rosalynn and Amy and all of us wish you a very, very merry Christmas.
Thank you very much.

[At this point, the Carter family moved from the stage to the lighting stand.]

Is anybody ready to light the tree?


THE PRESIDENT. IS anybody ready to light the tree?


THE PRESIDENT. Okay. I'm going to ask this Christmas not Amy, but my oldest grandson, Jason, to throw the switch and light the tree.

[The President's grandson threw the switch, lighting the Star of Hope and 59 smaller trees.]

And you probably noticed that in addition to the Star of Hope on top of the tree that there are 59 trees around the outside. Have they already explained what they are? Well, 50 for the States, 7 territories, 1 for senior citizens, and 1 for those who are missing in action, that we pray also will be alive and well if they still exist alive. And so, those are the 59 trees, and we all will continue to pray that we can turn the rest of the lights on when the hostages come home.

Goodby, thank you very much, and merry Christmas again.

Note: The President spoke at 5:47 p.m. on the Ellipse.

Jimmy Carter, Christmas Pageant of Peace Remarks on Lighting the National Community Christmas Tree. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/250664

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