Eleanor Roosevelt – My Day (Dec. 1939)

December 25, 1939

Washington, Sunday –
I hope that some of us have been moved this Christmas to do something a bit unusual in the line of Christmas giving. Let’s not limit ourselves just to the customary gifts to our families and friends, nor even to our customary charities, but let’s give something which will come to someone else as an unexpected pleasure, just as it is an unexpected gift on our part.

It may not be anything tangible, just a thought or a gesture, a word or a note, but I hope it will go to someone who does not expect it.

Because of Mr. Heywood Broun’s death, his Christmas Parable, written two years ago, was reprinted the other day. The ending of it is the part that I always like to remember:

“Drink ye all of it.” Good Will Toward Men means good will to every last son of God. Peace on Earth means peace to Pilate, peace to the thieves on the cross, and peace to poor Iscariot.

Judas Iscariot was perhaps the saddest of them all, for he betrayed his Friend, but even against him the Betrayed One had no bitterness. The Lord would have him drink of the wine of life. Perhaps He meant to emphasize that none of us can tell what goes on in the souls of other men. At Christmas time we should give indiscriminately, even lavishly, to the worthy and the unworthy alike. Who are we to judge if a man is worthy?

Someone wrote to me the other day denouncing the head of a school board in his neighborhood, who had announced most virtuously that for the sake of fostering independence and the true American spirit, there would be no more free lunches served to needy children in a certain school. The man who wrote me was bitter and one can hardly blame him. I grieve with him over the little hungry children, for I know that to many of them this one hot meal a day meant much, but I grieve far more for the head of the school board whose understanding of his fellow men is so narrow. Life for him must be poor indeed.

Are we fostering the American spirit by starving little children? Oh, yes, I know that some of them may not have needed that meal. Perhaps some families were “chiseling.” Would the Man who said: “Drink ye all of it,” have had one child go hungry because some ate who could have eaten at home?

This is the season for forgiveness and self-searching. Let us forgive all those who cannot understand, whether they are heads of school boards or beggars in the gutter. But beware lest we be ourselves numbered among those needing forgiveness. Let us remember that the Christmas spirit was meant to live through all the 365 days of the year, and that it gave without counting the cost, lavishly and from the heart.

December 26, 1939

Washington, Monday –
Saturday was really a hectic day for me, ending up with a few minutes broadcast right in the middle of dinner, but everyone else went gaily on eating and I was back before the next course was served. Since it was Jimmy’s birthday, we all drank his health and sent him a round-robin telegram. We tried very hard at dinner to make the President enter into a real old-fashioned, family argument, but he said the Christmas spirit was upon him and he was not going to argue with anyone!

Sunday was divided between church in the morning, where we were reminded that, though it might be Christmas Eve, still the fourth Sunday in Advent was what the Church was celebrating, and we could not expect to sing only Christmas carols. I have to own that the grandchildren and I felt much more like Christmas carols!

After lunch, we dressed the family Christmas tree. Anna and John had taken their ride in the morning, but Major Hooker and I managed to have a short ride in the afternoon. Then all the family attended the lighting of the municipal tree at 5:00 and listened to the President’s Christmas message.

I like very much the letters which the President has written to the heads of the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish Churches. It is, of course, but a gesture, still it keeps before us the fact that all churches continue together to wield a spiritual force in the world and that they have the power to exert an influence over the material forces about us.

The President did not have the time to read the whole of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, so he and Sistie decided which parts should be read this year. They chose first the trips made by the ghosts to the Christmas scene in the mine, on the sea and in the lighthouse. Then there was a difference of opinion whether the Fezziwig’s ball or the Christmas Party at Scrooge’s nephews should be read, but there was a unanimous demand for the last scene, for one and all wanted to hear Tiny Tim’s blessing.

Christmas morning began early today with the children racing around to tell everybody that it was time to wake their grandfather and to find out whether the stockings hanging on his mantelpiece had been filled during the night.

I had a rather late breakfast interspersed with telephone conversations, and then went to the Community Church service. After lunch, the tree and the opening of presents took place. It is most unusual for me to go out on Christmas afternoon, but former Secretary and Mrs. Daniel Roper celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and at 5:00, I dropped in there for a brief visit. Now I am back to prepare for the Christmas dinner, which this year is really a grand gathering of the family as well as friends.

December 27, 1939

Washington, Tuesday –
First of all, I want to thank the many friends throughout the country, both known and unknown, who sent us telegrams and Christmas cards at this season. It will be impossible to thank all of them individually, so I want to tell them through this column how deeply both the President and I appreciate their kind thoughts and good wishes and how much they have added to the joy of the season.

In addition, I want to make a little explanation of our own custom so far as Christmas cards are concerned. On coming to Washington, we realized that it would be impossible to begin to send Christmas cards to all our friends and acquaintances. We decided, therefore, to send them only to members of the family and close personal friends.

When individuals are kind enough to write to say how deeply they would appreciate one of our Christmas cards, it seems ungracious not to send one, but, when you cannot do it for everybody, you have to make a rule. If you break it for one person, there is no reason why you should not break it for other people. Therefore, we send out no Christmas cards.

Now that Christmas is over, I agree with Miss Thompson, who remarked, as we were surveying the final preparation for the East Room Christmas party on Saturday afternoon:

How long it takes to prepare and how quickly everything comes to an end!

Christmas Day is over and now we can look forward only to birthdays until another year rolls around.

We had a movie last night taken from James Hilton’s book We Are Not Alone. Paul Muni is very good in it, but I am afraid it left us all rather sad. I kept wishing that the little boy could tell someone what he had done so that he would not have to go through life without his father and Lennie.

The routine of life has started again. After a very short ride this morning, because I did not like the horse which I was trying out, Anna and I went to lunch with Mrs. Ickes, the wife of the Secretary of the Interior. I am always envious when I get out in the country, so I was glad today that it had not snowed, for I remember last year how beautiful it was with the snow on the ground and how difficult it was to tear myself away.

I particularly enjoyed the party today, but I had to come home soon after lunch was over, for the first of the children’s parties takes place at 4 o’clock this afternoon and I wanted to be on hand to greet these youngest guests when they arrive. They will be shown a variety of movies, which I hope will appeal to them as much as they do to my husband. He loves the Mickey Mouse variety and always insists that they are particularly entertaining movies.

December 28, 1939

Washington, Wednesday –
Franklin Jr. and Ethel had a party for their young friends here last night, and I was interested to meet the children of some of our friends whom I had not seen in a long time. I find all these young people so interesting and so much better informed than I was at the same age.

After dinner, we were shown Gone With The Wind. It is an extraordinary movie beautifully acted. Though I could not believe beforehand that one would sit for 3 hours and 45 minutes, and be interested, I discovered that it was entirely possible. There is an intermission in the middle and I had to tear myself away for a time to do some very necessary work, but I saw most of it and my mother-in-law sat through the whole performance, which began at 10:00 and did not end until 2:00 a.m.!

I went to bed fully intending to ride this morning, but in the early hours of the morning I woke to the realization that something was pattering in my face. On looking out of the window, I discovered that it was snowing. I closed the window and went to sleep again and slept a half hour later than I would otherwise have done. Some of the young people had expected to hunt today but the weather discouraged them, so I had quite an audience when I finished undoing my Christmas packages. I am always surprised at the great kindness of one’s friends at this time. It seems to me that they must put careful thought in sending things to the President and me to give us the greatest pleasure.

A group of people were called together today at luncheon under the leadership of Mr. Charles Taussig, Chairman of the advisory committee of the National Youth Administration, to discuss certain problems of youth. Later two gentleman who are organizing an Atlantic Coast States Institute of Human Relations, sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, in Washington on January 16 and 17, came to talk to me about their plans. In the meantime, a children’s party had begun and was in full swing with the boys and girls enjoying a movie program, slightly more elaborate than the one we had yesterday for the young group. Later they will have supper and I hope I shall have a chance to see their parents at tea for a few minutes and get a glimpse of the children also.

Our family is gradually growing smaller. Anna and John left today for a few days in New York City. Mrs. J. R. Roosevelt leaves us tomorrow morning, and so, little by little, the house will become quiet again, though as long as we keep the children we will feel the spirit of young life in the house, which I think always creates a happy atmosphere.

I have been very much amused the last few days to hear that I have been offered one or two positions which I would consider full-time jobs. I am beginning to wonder whether I have earned for myself the reputation of being willing to accept work which I cannot possibly do, and letting other people do it for me. This is something which I am particularly opposed to doing and I would grieve if I have given the impression that it was a standard to which I am at present willing to subscribe.

December 29, 1939

Washington, Thursday –
The snow is still making it possible for the children to coast on the south lawn at the White House, and they are taking full advantage of it. They have to take a good deal of trouble to keep the slide in coasting order. I was amused when my young grandson dashed in and demanded as big a tin tray as we had in the pantry. When I inquired if a sled would not be more useful, he looked at me pityingly and retorted:

But, grandmere, the tray will be better for improving the slide.

At 12:00, Major Walker of the Farm Security Administration, and Mr. Harry Slattery of the Rural Electrification Administration, came to discuss a group of young people’s country neighborhood problems with them. I think they found each other mutually interesting, for they were still talking when I left at 12:45 with Mr. Frederick Delano and Mr. Cammerer of the National Park Service. We lunched with Colonel Patton and the other guests were Mr. Cline, the engineer in charge of building the new airport, Colonel Sumpter Smith, of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, and his assistant, Mr. Early.

It always interests me to have a chance to listen to gentlemen who are planning the use and development of land areas. In Washington which has such great possibilities for beauty, it is important that every new development be considered from every possible angle. I had seen no model of the proposed airport buildings and roads and it fascinated me to have a chance to see all the details which have been considered in these new plans. I was interested in the possible development of bridle paths, for the loss of the one which we used to ride so constantly from Memorial Bridge to Alexandria is a real deprivation this year.

I am back now from this very pleasant luncheon party and at 4:00, the American Political Science Association group will come in for tea. At 5:00, Sistie is having a party and they are going to be shown Gulliver’s Travels, which I am told is a most interesting movie. I only wish that I could watch it, but I shall be seeing various guests at tea and later a few people will dine with us.

I finished a book the other day by Constancia de la Mora, called In Place of Splendor. The first half of it is extraordinarily interesting, because in showing her own development, she pictures a period of change which was particularly accentuated in a country like Spain, where the old nobility had lived with so little change in customs and habits over a great number of years. Whether one is sympathetic with the Loyalist cause or not, one cannot help but marvel at the devotion which the author and her associates gave to this cause. The sacrifices they made seem almost superhuman. One can easily understand that, having made such sacrifices, the country and the cause are enshrined in their hearts. It is an interesting book, regardless of your own sympathies, and I think will be a contribution to the historical knowledge of the future.

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December 30, 1939

Washington, Friday –
While it seems to have been a very long day, it has all been spent travelling to Winchester, Va., and back again. At 5:30 a.m., my telephone rang and Franklin Jr.'s voice said:

I have some bad news for you. Ethel and I cracked up.

Cracking up means an aeroplane accident to me, but I knew they had gone to stay with friends in Virginia to go to a dance, and so they must have been in their car. I elicited the information that they were not badly hurt and then decided that I had better refrain from further questions and get up and go to the hospital in Winchester, Virginia. I arrived there at 8:00, apparently to the surprise of everyone in the hospital. No one was more surprised that Franklin Jr., who announced:

I didn’t mean to have you come.

After x-rays had been taken and nothing serious was found to be the matter, we put blankets around them and bundled them into two White House cars and drove back to the White House, arriving at 4:00 p.m. Now they are resting and I hope a few days will see them on their feet again. The Lord was good and we should all be very grateful.

Everyone at the hospital was so very kind, even the people in the waiting rooms were solicitous. One couple was waiting while their little boy had his tonsils out. The man came over to me to say how sorry they were about the accident and then he added:

We had some bad luck too, last week. Our little 5-year-old girl stepped in front of a car and was killed. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I guess these things just happen to all of us.

Whereupon his wife broke in and said:

But, Mrs. Roosevelt, we are poor people and when I found I was going to have another baby, I just wondered how we could take care of it. It was just a month old when my little girl was killed and I think God just knew I would need something to take care of to take up my mind.

Such is the faith which makes life bearable for many people whose sorrows otherwise would be overwhelming.

It was fortunate for me that I had planned to go to New York City this afternoon and only had a debutante luncheon here before leaving. My mother-in-law was able to be hostess for this luncheon given for her great-niece, Peggy Houghteling, and I have put off my engagements in New York City tomorrow for some later day when I can fly up for a few hours.

It is wonderful how easy it is to change one’s plans when one has someone at the other end of the telephone to do the work. All I did was to telephone Miss Thompson and ask her to do all the arranging. As usual, all I can do in return is to be thankful for the things which everybody from Miss Thompson right through the household has done to make things easier for us. Perhaps I owe my chief thanks to the chauffeur, whom I got out of bed at 5:30 and who came with as cheerful a smile as usual, to meet me at the door at 6:00 a.m.

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