Both the Nazis and East German Communist Party tried to use Christmas for their own ends, and distance it from its Christian meaning. Writer and historian Karl-Heinz Göttert looks at the attempts to hijack Christmas throughout German history, and why it matters today.
BERLIN — As far back as the Romantic era, there has been an abundance of theories about the Germanic precursor to Christmas, Yuletide. After the First World War, when Germany was searching for a new sense of identity, these ideas were hijacked by youth organizations and reform movements with nationalist leanings. They sought to replace Christmas with solstice celebrations or combine the Christian festival with the Germanic festival of light, sometimes as an attack on Christianity, sometimes as an attempt at symbiosis. They looked back to earlier national roots, to popular traditions, in a reaction against international modernity.
There was a lot of questionable research into folklore at the time, which the Nazis then exploited to further their racist agenda. They rewrote the lyrics to the best-known German Christmas carol "Silent Night," changing them to: “Silent night, solemn night” and referring to Yuletide rather than Christmas. In 1933, the German Faith Movement claimed, “Christmas belongs to us, not to Christians! Because it is older than churches and testaments.” They could hardly outlaw Christmas trees, so they renamed them “light trees” and crowned them with a “sun wheel” — in other words, a swastika.
Festival of the nation
The Nazis’ undermining of Christmas was slow and steady. In December 1922, Hitler gave a “yuletide speech” at the Nazi party’s “German Christmas Celebration” in a Munich tavern. In 1925, it was the more radical elements in the party who wrote in its official newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter: "At Christmas, Germans shouldn’t wish for peace on earth. We don’t want peace! It is a crime to tell our people to wish for peace. It means wishing for them to accept shame and humiliation.”
It was clear who they saw as the new savior – Hitler. The yuletide festival never really caught on and it was only celebrated by the SS and SA, always a few days before December 24th. But there were subtler changes. Instead of using the traditional name, the Nazis spoke about the “festival of the nation” or the “festival of the German family.”
The Nazis’ attacks on Christmas were part of a wider attempt to undermine the Church’s authority
They encouraged parents to give their children SA and SS action figures to play with or pastry cutters so they could bake tree decorations in the shape of swastikas. This was more popular than the “yule lights” that Heinrich Himmler suggested as an alternative to Christmas trees.
After war broke out in 1939, Christmas became less of a target and was instead used for propaganda purposes. Family celebrations were encouraged, because large public gatherings to mark the solstice were no longer possible, and the intimacy of the scene was helpful given windows had to be blacked out.
The Nazis’ undermining of Christmas was slow and steady
Reviving German folk traditions
Special Christmas books aimed at families set out “appropriate” ways to celebrate, replacing the festival’s Christian elements as much as possible. Instead of "Silent Night," they were encouraged to sing "Exalted Night of the Clear Stars" by prominent Nazi writer Hans Baumann – another tradition that didn’t catch on.
As early as 1924, folklorist Wolfgang Schultz recommended decorating Christmas trees with four dragons, taken from the Norse epic the Edda, and wrote that 27 candles symbolized the moonlit nights until yuletide, when people should feel close to the ancient Germanic traditions. Schultz was rewarded by being named professor of philosophy at Munich University in 1934.
From 1933 onwards, there was a giant Christmas tree in front of the propaganda ministry in Berlin, sourced from a different region of the Reich every year. Placed underneath it were presents for the needy, intended to show the party’s social conscience.
Another strategy was to revive a journalistic form that had previously been used during the First Word War: a book called Wartime Christmas. From 1915 to 1917, evangelical theologian and member of the German Reichstag Otto Everling published this as a “gift for Germany’s soldiers” (as its subtitle declared). It called for perseverance (“a Christmas marked by determination”) and laid all responsibility for death and destruction at the feet of the “enemy” – quoting the “most German man who ever lived”: Martin Luther, resurrected 400 years later to help the German war effort.
From 1940 to 1944, the book was reissued again and again for families and soldiers at the front. It aimed to establish a clear link between the war and Christmas, claiming soldiers were fighting so that Germans could celebrate in peace: “As we look at our Christmas tree, let us remember that Bolshevism has outlawed all Christmas celebrations and America has turned it into a circus of jazz and drinking.”
In his Christmas speech of 1942, Joseph Goebbels referred to the ongoing struggle of the sixth army at Stalingrad, calling on people to “remember and mourn every departed hero at home with pride.” In a particularly blasphemous statement, he dedicated Christmas Eve to the fallen: “They sacrificed themselves so that we may stand in the light.”
The Nazis’ attacks on Christmas were part of a wider attempt to undermine the Church’s authority. That was the reason for their fight against the “foreign religion” and support for “Odinist religion” as the “most beautiful, moral and true religion.”
A book called "Wartime Christmas" book was reissued again and again from 1940 to 1944 for families and soldiers at the front
Worker's silent night
The social democrats’ approach was quite different. They didn’t attack the festival itself, but the hypocrisy around it, claiming it hid the fact that working families were living in poverty. Boleslaw Strzelewicz also rewrote "Silent Night" as the "Workers’ Silent Night," with lyrics highlighting poverty and need.
At the start of the First World War in 1914, as both the Protestant and Catholic Churches were caught up in a wave of nationalism, the party attacked priests for their hypocrisy. However, instead of trying to replace Christmas with Yuletide (“a ridiculous alternative”), they sought to redefine it: Christmas as a symbol of hope for a better future – as in the "Silent Night" parody: “In poverty they are quietly starving / When will the savior come?” Vorwärts, the social democrats’ newspaper, highlighted the “sparkling poverty” of Thuringian glassblowers.
The Communist Party also made use of Christmas, organizing festivities in prisons, children’s homes and homeless shelters. Their newspaper, the Rote Fahne, dismissed the SPD’s parody of "Silent Night" as “pathetic, sniveling whining.” However, they joined in criticizing the festival’s hypocrisy and chose a similar example to highlight unstable working conditions: those in the Thuringian toymaking villages.
Christmas actually helped to protect the domestic sphere from the state
But their most effective tactic was organizing “hunger marches” in various cities from 1929 and 1932, where people marched through the business district holding placards that said, “Spoil the rich’s Christmas cheer.” Like the Nazis, they promoted the yuletide festival, calling the Christmas story a “fairy tale.”
They denounced Christianity as a relic of bourgeois thinking and rejected the festival of “the priesthood.” Instead of doing away with Christmas trees, they sought to change their symbolism: replacing the star of Bethlehem with the five-sided red star of the Russian revolution. In 1929, they celebrated a “Christmas for the Godless” in Berlin-Neukölln.
Stalin’s Jolka Festival in East Germany
Even after the Second World War, political leaders saw Christmas as a cause for concern, as we can see from events in East Germany. In 1945, the first “peacetime Christmas” was celebrated “after the dark night of Nazism” and the festival’s Christian roots were either downplayed or changed so that instead of celebrating “blessed promises,” the focus was on work and socialism.
The German communists were following the example of Soviet Russia, which had done away with Christmas trees in 1919 when Stalin replaced them with Jolka trees for the New Year’s festival. They even found a precedent for it: St. Nicholas as “(Grand)Father Frost” with “snowflakes” instead of traditional angels, as in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera.
Christmas markets in service of socialism.
Seeking a non-religious symbolism, the first culture minister in East Germany, Johannes R. Becher, wrote the following lines: “Greetings at Christmas! … A time of boundless peace …” Father Christmas was rehabilitated as a “symbol of friendship between nations and a messenger of peace.”
The government handed out hefty sums to support Christmas markets “in service of socialism and peace,” with a Father Christmas figure standing by the mayor’s side for the grand opening. Regional traditions also played an important role, for example the wooden pyramids, figures, candleholders and nutcrackers in the Ore Mountains, a folk art that had been passed down from generation to generation and was said to have non-Christian roots. The social critique was conveyed through the “vicious” nutcracker shaped like a king or forest ranger as a symbol of oppression.
Almost every toy made in Seiffen throughout the year was exported to bring in foreign currency, so it was difficult for East Germans to get their hands on them. Instead of Christmas, they had the official New Year’s celebrations with their work team, although many also had a traditional celebration around the Christmas tree with family. Christmas actually helped to protect the domestic sphere from the state. “Germanic traditions” were valued as little as the Jolka festival, which was only celebrated by the party.
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