How the Nazis co-opted Christmas
One postcard shows Adolf Hitler with a child and a Christmas tree. Author provided
In 1921, the newly appointed NSDAP leader Adolf Hitler gave a Christmas speech in a Munich beer hall in front of an excited crowd.
According to undercover police officers, 4,000 supporters cheered when Hitler "condemned the cowardly Jews for breaking the world liberator on the cross" and swore "not to rest until the Jews ... lay shaken on the ground". Later on, the crowd sang carols and nationalist hymns around a Christmas tree. Working class participants received charitable gifts.
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For Germans in the 1920s and 1930s, this combination of familiar holiday observance, nationalist propaganda, and anti-Semitism was hardly unusual. As the NSDAP grew in size and scope - and finally took power in 1933 - committed propagandists worked to further “National Socialize” Christmas. They redefined familiar traditions and designed new symbols and rituals. They hoped to steer the main tenets of National Socialism through the popular holidays.
With government scrutiny of public life, it is not surprising that Nazi officials managed to promote and distribute their Christmas version through repeated radio broadcasts and news articles.
However, under any totalitarian regime, there can be great differences between public and private life, between the rituals of the town square and those of the house. During my research, I was interested in how Nazi symbols and rituals penetrated private family celebrations - away from the gaze of party leaders.
While some Germans opposed the stubborn, politicized appropriation of Germany's favorite holiday, many actually advocated a National Socialist holiday that created the place of the family in the "racial state" free from Jews and other outsiders.
One of the most striking features of private celebrations during the Nazi era was the redefinition of Christmas as a neo-pagan Nordic festival. The Nazi version focused more on the religious origins of the holiday and celebrated the supposed legacy of the Aryan race. The Nazis label gave "racially acceptable" members of the German racial state.
According to Nazi intellectuals, cherished holiday traditions were based on winter solstice rituals practiced by "Germanic" tribes prior to the arrival of Christianity. Lighting candles on the Christmas tree, for example, was reminiscent of pagan wishes for the “return of light” after the shortest day of the year.
Scientists have drawn attention to the manipulative function of these and other made-up traditions. However, this is no reason to assume that they were unpopular. Since the 1860s, German historians, theologians, and popular writers had argued that German holiday observations were remnants of pre-Christian pagan rituals and popular superstitions.
Since these ideas and traditions had a long history, the Nazi propagandists could easily cast Christmas as a celebration of pagan German nationalism. A huge state apparatus (in the center of the Nazi Ministry for Propaganda and Enlightenment) ensured that a National Socialist holiday dominated the public space and the celebration in the Third Reich.
However, two aspects of the Nazi version of Christmas were relatively new.
A Christmas stamp emphasizes the light. Author provided
First, because the Nazi ideologues viewed organized religion as the enemy of the totalitarian state, the propagandists tried to emphasize or eliminate the Christian aspects of the holiday altogether. Official celebrations may mention a pre-eminent being, but they featured prominent solstices and "light" rituals that supposedly captured the pagan origins of the holiday.
Second, as Hitler's 1921 speech suggests, the Nazi celebration evoked racial purity and anti-Semitism. Before the Nazis took power in 1933, ugly and open attacks on German Jews were typical of vacation propaganda.
The apparent anti-Semitism more or less disappeared after 1933 when the regime tried to stabilize its control over a population tired of political strife, although the Nazi celebrations still excluded those who were deemed "incompetent" by the regime. Countless media images of all blonde, blue-eyed German families who had gathered around the Christmas tree contributed to the normalization of the ideologies of racial purity.
However, open anti-Semitism surfaced around Christmas time. Many would boycott Jewish department stores. On the front page of a Christmas catalog for mail order from 1935, in which a blond-haired mother packed Christmas presents, was a sticker that assured customers that "the department store was taken over by an Aryan!"
It is a small, almost banal example. But it speaks volumes. In Nazi Germany, even buying a gift could make anti-Semitism natural and intensify the “social death” of Jews in the Third Reich.
The message was clear: only “Aryans” could take part in the celebration.
Take the "Christ" out of Christmas
According to National Socialist theorists, women - especially mothers - were crucial in strengthening the bonds between private life and the “new spirit” of the German racial state.
Daily celebrations - wrapping gifts, decorating the house, cooking "German" holiday dishes and organizing family celebrations - were associated with a cult of sentimental "Nordic" nationalism.
Christmas tree bulbs with the swastika were just one of the many ways that Christmas was nationalized. Author provided
Propagandists proclaimed that the German mother, as a “priestess” and “protector of home and hearth”, could use Christmas to “bring the spirit of the German homeland back to life”. The holiday editions of women's magazines, Nazified Christmas Books, and Nazi Christmas carols shaped conventional family customs with the regime's ideology.
This kind of ideological manipulation took on everyday forms. Mothers and children were encouraged to make homemade decorations in the form of “Odin's sun wheel” and to bake Christmas cookies in the form of a ribbon (a symbol of fertility). The ritual of lighting candles on the Christmas tree is intended to create an atmosphere of “pagan demon magic” that sums up the star of Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus in the feelings of the “Germans”.
Family singing embodied the permeable boundaries between private and official forms of celebration.
Propagandists tirelessly promoted numerous National Socialized Christmas carols that replaced Christian themes with the regime's racial ideologies. The Sublime Night of the Clear Stars, the most famous Nazi song, was reprinted in Nazi songbooks, broadcast on radio programs, performed at countless public celebrations - and sung at home.
In fact, Exalted Night became so familiar that it could still be sung as part of an ordinary family vacation (and apparently as part of some public performances today!) As late as the 1950s.
While the tune of the song mimics a traditional Christmas carol, the lyrics deny the holiday's Christian origins. Verses of stars, light and an eternal mother point to a world that was redeemed through belief in National Socialism - not Jesus.
Conflict or consensus in the German public?
We will never know exactly how many German families sang Exalted Night or baked Christmas cookies in the shape of a Germanic sun wheel. However, we have some records of the population's reaction to the Nazi holiday, mostly from official sources.
For example, the “Activity Reports” of the National Socialist Women's League (NSF) show that the redefinition of Christmas caused some differences of opinion among members. NSF files note that tensions increased when propagandists pushed too hard to override religious observance, resulting in "much doubt and dissatisfaction."
Religious traditions often collided with ideological goals: Was it acceptable for "staunch National Socialists" to celebrate Christmas with Christian Christmas carols and nativity plays? How could Nazi believers watch a Nazi holiday when stores mostly sold conventional holiday merchandise and rarely had Nazi Christmas books in stock?
Meanwhile, German clergy openly opposed attempts by the Nazis to take Christ out of Christmas. In Düsseldorf, clergy used Christmas to encourage women to join their respective women's clubs. Catholic clergy threatened to excommunicate women who had joined the NSF. Elsewhere, Women of Faith boycotted NSF Christmas parties and charity drives.
However, such a contradiction never really challenged the main tenets of the Nazi holiday.
Public opinion reports compiled by the Nazi secret police frequently commented on the popularity of the Nazi Christmas celebrations. Until well into World War II, when the impending defeat increasingly discredited the Nazi holiday, the secret police reported that complaints about official guidelines were resolved in a general “Christmas spirit”.
Despite the conflicts over Christianity, many Germans accepted the Nazification of Christmas. The return to colorful and enjoyable pagan "Germanic" traditions promised to revive the family celebration. Last but not least, the observation of a National Socialist holiday symbolized racial purity and national affiliation. "Aryans" could celebrate German Christmas. Jews couldn't.
The Nazification of the family celebration thus revealed the paradoxical and controversial terrain of private life in the Third Reich. The seemingly banal, everyday decision to sing a particular Christmas carol or to bake a Christmas cookie became either an act of political rejection or an expression of support for National Socialism.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
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Joe Perry was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service and Georgia State University.
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