We Germans Take Christmas Far Too Seriously

In Italy and Spain, there's more time to casually socialize. Americans unapologetically dive into the consumerist crush of gifts. But in Germany, Christmas is a solemn pseudo-Christian ritual with much too much pressure on everyone.

Christmas tree by Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Christmas tree by Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Dirk Schumer


BERLIN â€" Every year in December, the same ritual. T'is the season, unmistakably so. And yet, one can't help feeling that something isn't as it should be.

Not that Germany's many towns and cities aren't doing all they can to provide just the right atmosphere. Romantic Christmas markets abound. In shopping centers, Christmas songs waft through the not-so-holy (nor silent) nights. Hundreds of Norway spruces and Delavays firs give their lives in order to slowly die away in over-heated living rooms.

Living room windows glow with rainbow arrays of fairy lights. Santa does the rounds on television, popping up in commercials, cartoons and favorite fillms: Hohoho! And, despite all the second-hand clothes bazaars and tea for refugees, there’s no church community that would dare to miss out on the mandatory Christmas oratorio â€" or at least a reflective recital with little angels and the traditional nativity play.

Still, it seems that fewer and fewer people actually feel involved in this mass ritual of our consumer culture. Something is missing. The magic, perhaps. Somehow, the crowds and tootling don't release the Christmas hormones the way they used to.

It has become a common ritual to complain about how today’s high-speed Christmas isn't what it once was. Gone are the silent godliness and familiar harmony. Today it’s all too hectic, too greedy, too superficial.

It might have something to do with the weather, which, quite frankly, isn't very Christmas-sy anymore. Instead of drifting snow and sleigh rides we celebrate the holiday surrounded by blooming trees and singing birds â€" almost like on the Canary Islands, where Santa wears sandals instead of boots. These days, the only way to guarantee a white Christmas is to go at least as far north as Lapland.

Or maybe the roots of the missing Christmas spirit can be found, like many other things, in this country of high-class lamenting, in German thoroughness, which nips any nascent contentedness in the bud. Things need to be perfect: the tree has to be decorated just so; one must strike just the right balance of gift-giving (and receiving); loving family members, as much as they drive each other crazy, need to get along. Peace unto us!

In order to make Christmas a true success, grumpy Germans might draw inspiration from their European neighbors. In Greece, where Christmas has a much longer history than it does here, people celebrate twice: once on the Catholic date and again on the Orthodox date. Double the joy. Multiple banquets and toasts. Twice as many presents. And in Italy, where the bars are crowded on Christmas Eve and children are noisy, people take the festivities less seriously â€" perhaps as a way to lessen the inevitable stress of difficult mothers-in-law and complicated sibling dynamics.

In Germany, church bells sweep the empty streets in the late afternoon of Dec. 24, while in Italy, people are still filling public spaces with "hellos" and "cheers." Why head home to the confines of one's clan when there's still celebrating to be done among friends. Family time will come soon enough, and will probably benefit from those extra few drinks squeezed in beforehand. Isn't being out-and-about more fun than the forced coziness with candle light we impose on ourselves in Germany, even when we know that most of the the time things end up in a quarrel.

Pretending to remember

In Britain, Christmas, like all holidays there, is built around its football passions. And in Spain, Christmas is overshadowed by the national lottery. “El Gordo” â€" the biggest cash prize â€" is given out live on television, accompanied by a children’s choir. And of course it's all for a good cause.

Across the pond, in the United States, Christmas is capitalistic and pragmatic. That's the American way. In terms of importance, they place Christmas shopping way above the actual festivities, boosting business without any false ethical concerns.

Aren’t those merry deformations of the Christmas tradition much more human than Germany's fixation on religious and family festivities, which automatically exclude everyone who is alone or follows another religion?

The de-Christianized Christmas is not only more social, it’s also less false than the pseudo-Christianized. Nobody should be forced to sit under a Christmas tree, pretending to recall all of one’s childhood Christmas carols by heart, or to mumble half-hearted prayers during the midnight mass.

Even the minority of religious Christians don’t want Christmas to be a social duty. Anyone who so desires is free to celebrate Christ’s birth with their fellow Christians, listen to only religious music and avoid overly-commerical activities.

For everyone else, the joyful message should be to take it easy, to not take Christams so seriously. In that case, Christmas might actually become the joly, merry, festive season it is meant to be.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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