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1939: King George VI’s Christmas message

The Story

Christmas is a time of light and celebration. But darkness is all around on Dec. 25, 1939, as citizens of the British Empire face another world war. Amid the gloom, King George VI resurrects a tradition his father launched: an annual Christmas message to all inhabitants of the Empire. In this excerpt from his speech, broadcast in Canada by the CBC, the King says the Empire shall remain undaunted in the face of war. The speech would go on to be famous. King George VI, not usually a compelling speaker, inspires and reassures his people by quoting a poem: "I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.'"

Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: Dec. 25, 1939
Speaker: King George VI
Duration: 4:04

Did You know?

• The tradition of a royal Christmas Day broadcast began in 1932 with King George V, who spoke from a studio at the royal residence Sandringham. The message reached about 20 million people by radio.

• The message began: "I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all; to men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them."

• King George V continued the speech annually until 1935; he died in February 1936. His son, King George VI, opted not to carry on the Christmas message because he felt it was too closely linked with his father in the minds of his subjects.

• In 1939, with the Second World War underway, King George VI decided a Christmas message was appropriate. He, too, spoke from a studio at Sandringham.

• In making this broadcast and others, King George VI had to conquer a stammer that had plagued him since childhood.

• The words the King quoted (but did not credit) in his message, as heard in this clip, were written by Minnie Louise Haskins in an introduction to her 1908 war poem The Desert. It's not known how the King, or one of his staff, obtained the poem.

• King George VI continued to broadcast an annual Christmas message every year until his death in February 1952.

• His daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, decided to continue the tradition, and has sent out her message every year since 1952. (The one exception was 1969. That year, the BBC broadcast a television special about the Royal Family on Christmas Day, so the Queen decided against doing a Christmas message.)

• The Queen's message was first broadcast on television in 1957, the 25th anniversary of her grandfather's first Christmas message.

• The message was broadcast live until 1959. In 1960, the Queen pre-recorded it so that tapes could be sent to Commonwealth nations for broadcast at more convenient times.

• The BBC held a monopoly on producing the Queen's Christmas message until 1997, when its competitor ITV produced it. The two broadcasters now alternate each year.

• In 1999 the Queen's Christmas message was first carried live on the World Wide Web.

• Every Christmas Day, CBC-TV carries the broadcast of the Queen's annual message. The broadcast, seen around the world, reached an estimated audience of 6.5 million in 2003.

Also on December 25:
1535: The first Christmas in Canada is celebrated in Stadacona in what would become Quebec, by French explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew.
1914: A Christmas truce between British and German troops takes place during the First World War. Bogged down in the trenches on the Western Front, the troops swapped presents in no man's land until the war resumed the following morning.


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