Nazi Germany was not the first radical regime to revolutionise its holidays. Russian Bolsheviks believed church bells represented the “old way of life” and actively sought to destroy them in from the late 1920s (and many didn’t ring again until the collapse of communism in the 1990s!). Even French Revolutionaries changed the entire calendar to reflect its commitment to the separation of church and state; 7 day weeks were replaced with 9 day weeks; saint-days were replaced with names of animals, plants, and farm implements; months were renamed by their seasonal activity (germination, flowering, meadow). It is astonishing that such a calendar lasted a full 12 years.
As in any dictatorship, Nazi Germany’s control and influence filtered down into all aspects of social and cultural life. But Christmas was a bit tricky. How does an anti-Semitic political party celebrate the birth of a Jew? How does that same violent political party celebrate Christian values of charity, love and forgiveness? And, how does a despot like Hitler share his power with baby Jesus?
But the Nazis were cunning, resourceful and, above all, ambitious. Their Christmas celebrations morphed good ole Christian traditions into a mystifying quagmire of cultish obsession with “Nordic” nationalism. German women became “priestesses” of the home, while rituals like lighting the candles on a Christmas tree came to symbolise the birth of “Germanness.” It must have been effective though, as some Nazi-written carols were still sung until the 1950s (yes, really).
Of course, in the post-war period, Christmas became sanitised and distanced from whatever it had become under Hitler’s reign. But as one Westfalen resident commented in the 1950s, “family celebration has been degraded into the simple giving of presents, and the mother has been dethroned” (see a fabulous article on this complex topic by Joe Perry, “Nazifying Christmas: Political Culture and Popular Celebration in the Third Reich,” Central European History, Vol. 38, No. 4 (2005), pp. 572-605).
But let us not assume that every resident of post-war Germany was longing for the days of “All I Want for Christmas is Hitler.” Because that’s simply not true. But instead of writing a superficial blog about Christmas trees adorned with swastikas, I shall attempt to delve deeper and do justice to the confusing and desperate Christmastimes that average Germans experienced under Nazi rule.
“Have a Holly, Golly, Invented Norse/Pagan/Viking/German Christmas”
Before the Nazis came to power, Christmas could be considered a rather unique “German” holiday. This attitude pervades even today’s Germany. In the mid 1800s, German scholars (Paulus Cassel, Johannes Marbach, W. Mannhardt) wrote at length that German-speaking territories celebrated Christmas not only as a Christian holiday, but also a pre-Christian tribal ritual incorporating popular folk superstitions. What the hell does that mean? Well, think Norse. Think Pagan. Think Viking. While they are not interchangeable words (or cultures, or histories), Germany by the 1900s had embraced a mish-mash of holiday traditions and fused them under the term of “Weihnachten” or “Christfest”.
For example, the Advent Wreath, which is adorned with four candles and lit each Sunday before Christmas, derives from the “ring of light” that existed among Germanic tribes before the celebration of Advent. Apparently, these tribes lit lights to represent the shortening of the days until the solstice, at which time the Julfest celebrated the return of light. (Incidentally, the English word yule is derives from the Germanic Jul). Other traditions, such as Santa Claus (Weihnachtsmann), Christmas markets (Weihnachstmärkte) and Christmas trees (Tannenbaum) share their roots from these pre-Christian and “Germanic” traditions.
As Germany itself was still trying to find its national identity in the wake of its unity in 1871, Christmas traditions – whether invented or repurposed – became essential to the national celebrations the Nazis would manipulate when they came to power.
Pre-1933: “It’s the Most Anti-Semitic Time of the Year”
Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Christmas was an opportunity to launch attacks against those they perceived to be internal enemies (communists, socialists, Jews, liberals, etc.). Rather predictably, they blamed the erosion of so-called “real” Christmas on these groups. They even justified attacks on Jewish stores as a way to promote Christian harmony and a “good will to all.”
In 1921, Hitler gave a “German Christmas Celebration” speech at his favourite beer hall in Munich. Four thousand guests applauded when Hitler criticized the materialism that degraded the holiday. He also condemned the Jews who nailed the world’s liberator to the cross (and did not mention the Romans…). By focusing on ideas of “authentic” German community and old pagan traditions (like lighting Christmas tree candles), Hitler and his Nazis pitched Christmas as a German rather than Christian holiday. While it might seem extraordinary that such hateful language could tarnish such a holiday, historian Joe Perry argues that it was “relatively easy for the National Socialists to cast the holiday as an exclusionary celebration of pagan, Volk nationalism, since these ideas had a lengthy popular and scholarly pedigree.” (p. 579).
Post-1933: “Have Yourself a Merry People’s Christmas”
After the Nazis came to power, their approach to Christmas totally changed. While this was strategically beneficial to propaganda efforts and gained mass appeal, it also signified a new wariness towards the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany.
Religious belief in Nazi Germany was not encouraged. The Nazis would not tolerate being subordinate or accountable to any religious institution, despite the fact that over 95% of Germans in 1939 identified as Protestant or Catholic (Evans, Third Reich at War, p. 546). For the academic studies and longer discussion, check out Guenter Lewy’s The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, Hubert G. Locke and Marcia Sachs Littell’s Holocaust and Church Struggle, Donald J. Dietrich’s Catholic Citizens in the Third Reich, Leo Stein’s Hitler Came for Niemoeller: The Nazi War against Religion, and Franz G. M. Feige’s The Varieties of Protestantism in Nazi Germany.
Instead of outright condemning Christmas’ religious connotations, the Nazis simply redefined the holidays as annual events of “national rebirth.” Christmas was thus viewed as a superlative opportunity to ritualize and revive the German community in a way that benefitted Nazi politics. This rather clever strategy became another method to politically indoctrinate the masses.
In 1934, the first “People’s Christmas” was celebrated throughout Germany. In Cologne, Hitler Youth brigades held night rallies modelled after solstice pagan rituals. In Hamburg, storm troopers gathered around bonfires on Christmas Eve and sang Nazi marching songs. In Berlin, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels radio broadcast his speech after a torch-lit parade that “the socialism of the deed as become reality. Peace on Earth to mankind.” And, of course, nothing says Christmas in Nazi Germany without “People’s Christmas Trees” set up in various town squares and public parks.
Other initiatives also reinforced the Nazis’ politicization of Christmas. Official Nazi holiday greeting cards pictured blue-eyed, blond-haired families to signify racial purity. Christmas entertainment was also revamped and kicked up a notch. On the radio, broadcasts began in late November and seamlessly blended classical carols, radio plays and children’s shows with party propaganda. On Christmas Eve, a special “Christmas Message” from Rudolph Hess was broadcast at 8pm, while carols sung by children’s choirs were followed by Christmas shows about the army, navy and air force.
Even the cinema did not escape the Nazis Christmas propaganda. Annual Christmas newreels featured reports from Christmas markets, state-sponsored events, speeches from political leaders – literally anything that would “colonise and exalt traditional sacred practices” (Perry, p. 582). As with any mass media campaigns, these Christmas campaigns aimed to create a cohesion among the nation-wide audiences who consumed their messages.
Christmas markets, which had been operating in Germany since the 14th century, were also invaded by pro-Nazi booths and and “brown” trade fairs. School teachers were given a specific nazified Christmas curricula with texts that emphasised the Germanic culture as the epitome of Christmas traditions. Children and Hitler Youth members were recruited to help with the Winterhilfswerk campaigns for those “less fortunate.” No German, whether pro-Nazi or vehemently opposed, could escape the Nazis’ reinvention of Christmas.
“I saw Mommy kissing Nazi Claus….”
Women’s Christmastime roles were also reconstructed by the Nazis as absolutely crucial to holiday celebrations. According to the director of the women’s division of the National Socialist Teacher’s Union, Auguste Reber-Grüber, the German mother was the “protector of house and hearth.” As a “priestess” of the home, the traditional family holidays benefitted from her moral and physical direction. Broadcasts and Nazi pamphlets provided mothers with directions on how to create home-made decorations shaped like “Odin’s Sun Wheel” or bake cookies in the shape of a loop to imitate fertility symbols. As historian Joe Perry states, “Traditional women’s tasks… like wrapping presents, decorating the home, baking foods…. now had ‘eternally German’ meanings that linked special, everyday acts of holiday preparation and celebration to a cult of sentimentalised ‘Nordic’ nationalism” (p. 597).
“I Won’t Be Home For Christmas”
Once the Second World War began, Christmas changed once again. It even received a name made popular during the First World War: Kriegsweihnachten (literally, “war Christmas”). With millions of men fighting away from home, new initiatives created Christmas books, magazine article and holiday newsreels that celebrated the “spirit” of German war Christmas. Public drives for food, clothes and necessities also helped in December 1941, when the German army began its retreat from Moscow.
Radio broadcasts from the front lines reported to families at home how their fathers, sons and brothers were celebrating Christmas in the field.
Christmas cards once again were revamped to show the Christmas unity of the home front with the battlefront. This card to the left shows a woman and child (notice the Madonna-child symbolism) above three soldiers trudging through snow in the East. The images faces a poem by Herbert Menzel entitled “Soldier’s Christmas.” Circulated in 1944, cards like these were meant to reinforce the need for ultimate personal sacrifice to ensure the national victory. For more examples, see Randall L. Bytwerk’s excellent online German Propaganda Archive (Calvin College).
But Christmas gift-giving became increasingly more desperate as the war continued and necessities became scarce. Books, interestingly, were not rationed. They became a popular present in the last years of the war. People scrambled to buy books by weight or attractive covers, rather than by title or content. But as historians point out, reports from Christmas in 1944 were riddled with tales of German housewives fighting over meagre portions of eggs (she got five and I only got two!), and emergency holiday distributions of food and coal were critical to survival. As war dragged on, Christmas celebrations became ever more irrelevant to the overwhelming crisis of total war. Instead, most used the occasion to remember fallen soldiers. As one survivor states, “By then, nobody felt like celebrating.”
When I think of the average German Protestant or Catholic family in 1930s Hamburg or Berlin, going to the Christmas markets or singing carols with friends while sipping delicious Glühwein, I can only imagine that many must have felt bombarded by Nazi stalls, Nazi lyrics, Nazi Christmas trees. In some ways, this reminds me of how many Christmases I’ve personally felt overwhelmed by the commercialisation and, frankly, the tacky ways society today celebrates Christmas. Advertisements on the radio and TV harass you by mid-November, and it’s nearly impossible to escape any form of Christmas music once 1st December passes.
While today’s robust commercialisation of Christmas is obviously not equivalent to the violent and highly politicised nature of Nazi Germany, these two periods do share the similarity that the original Christian connotations of Christmas have been diluted and sometimes even entirely replaced by other political messages. Today, it’s about consuming the materialism of the season, which reinforces capitalist ideologies. But in Hitler’s Germany, the Nazis’ ability to smoothly refocus Christmas on its Germanic rather than religious derivations forced average Germans into unavoidable celebrations of “national community.” By doing so, this allowed the Nazis a remarkable and intimate route into the private and familial traditions of millions of Germans on an annual basis. By extracting the Christian meaning from the holidays, the Nazis could then supplant it with a cultish definition of national identity that was exclusionary, racist and violent.
While many Germans believed in Hitler’s doctrine and supported Nazi initiatives, and although “People’s Christmas” drew large crowds, I do not believe that this necessarily means that those Germans were outright Nazis. Instead, they were engaging in a tradition they already wished to celebrate, and would continue to celebrate, regardless of the politics that surrounded or infused the occasion. The Nazis saturated every fabric of German life, and Christmas was no exception.
Of course, I write this as peel a mandarin “Christmas” orange and search on Amazon for a Christmas gift for my one-year old nephew (who is neither Christian nor old enough to understand the holidays).
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!