According to Time Magazine, “There was a hand-scrawled sign on the fence post of a cross-roads farm: come in for coffee and cake.” It was a Yuletide invitation. Doesn’t seem all that strange, until one learns that the Yule in question was seventy years ago this month and that the place was the Pacific coast of the United States, whose citizens feared they were about to be invaded.
The United States Pacific Fleet had been surprised and decimated at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. The forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy had damaged all eight of the U.S.’s battleships; four had been sunk. 188 aircraft were destroyed, and 2, 402 Americans were dead. And, as December continued, the news only grew worse. Within a matter of days, Japanese forces had invaded Hong Kong; they were racing down Britain’s Malayan peninsula toward the soon to be ignobly surrendered Singapore. The Phillippines had been invaded; Manilla was about to fall. Americans had followed, with pride, the resistance of Marines to the eventual capture of Wake Island. Guam had already been occupied. There seemed to be no place in the Pacific rim where the Japanese might not strike next.
The cover of Time Magazine for the week of December 22nd had borne the image of a yellow-faced, snarling Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl. What was next? Was Hawaii to be invaded? Perhaps Australia? Or, incredible as it now sounds, would it be San Francisco? San Diego? Time noted that “Reporter Ernie Pyle, veteran of many a London raid, climbed the hills of San Francisco, said it was blacker than London...On the West Coast no lights inside or outside were permitted, cars were halted.”
The threat was real. As Stanley Weintraub records in his Pearl Harbor Christmas: The World at War, December 1941, Americans weren’t told at the time — lest panic break out — but, in the days following Pearl Harbor, the American Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other foundational documents of the Republic were transferred, for safe keeping, from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. to Fort Knox, Kentucky.
That’s what is so curious about that West Coast sign. “Come in for Coffee and Cake.” Time reported, “There were any number of signs like it in the Far West. Soldiers stationed near by, passing along the gravel roads, miles from nowhere in the middle of winter, saw them even when they could not stop.” And the magazine offered an explanation for this strange expression of Yuletide warmth. “Over the U.S. last week people saw their soldiers in a new light. But the change was the greatest in the West, where the war seemed nearer, where the whole region was a military area and where, outside of the cities, the line between the soldiers and the people dissolved and all but disappeared in the countryside of scattered farms, small towns, big trees and rain.”
Was the Christmas warmth entirely due to a new appreciation of soldiers as protectors? Surely that was part of it, but perhaps that “Come in for Coffee and Cake” also had much in common with the parties that took place in the London Underground during the Blitz, or with General Douglas MacArthur’s insistence that his wife Jean open her Christmas presents — purchased by an aide earlier in the day with Philippine currency that would soon be worthless — in their Manilla Penthouse apartment, before they decamped for the Fortress of Corregidor. When faced with terror, sorrow, or pain, human beings have a desperate need to find joy.
The Gospel would insist there’s a reason for that. It’s what the Church wants us to remember this Gaudete Sunday, repeating the command of St. Paul, “Rejoice always” (1 Thes 5:16). We were created for joy. Indeed, joy is as good a definition of God as any other. The Medievals called God the summum bonum, the summa veritas, even the summa pulchritudo — the highest good, the highest truth, the highest beauty — but what sums up all those summa’s better than to call God the highest joy? Or, as Isaiah put it, “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul” (61:10).
We’re not in danger of being invaded this Yuletide. But there’s good reason for the Church to remind us, this Third Sunday of Advent, before she turns towards Christmas, that we were created for joy. The family having a cup of coffee in a hospital cafeteria, with a loved one upstairs in ICU, needs to hear that. So do the folk gathering to bury a loved one, or the soul about to celebrate a first Christmas as someone divorced. Someone adding bills, one more time, hoping that another round of addition will improve prospects, needs to be reminded that we were created for joy.
Some would even argue that our very recognition that things aren’t as they should be suggests our true provenance and our clear destiny. We came from God who is joy, and our hearts can’t be satisfied without God.
He wasn’t a Church-goer, but Winston Churchill, who had come to Washington that December to lay war plans with FDR, perfectly preached the message of the Gospel when he told the crowd that had gathered for the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree:
Here, in the midst of war, raging and soaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and our homes, here, amid the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in each generous heart. There, we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for our children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly lighted island of happiness and peace (80-81).
Of course the message of Gaudete Sunday is broader than that: there’s never a time, never a trouble, when the human heart shouldn’t remember that it was created for joy.
Terrance W. Klein