Oh, those evil Nazis. I mean, to the one, it’s hardly surprising. To the other, The Independent‘s tale of a very Reich Christmas is still fascinating.
Sixty-five years after Germans celebrated the last Christmas of the Third Reich, a new exhibition at Cologne’s National Socialism Documentation Centre offers, for the first time, an insight into the elaborate propaganda methods devised by the Nazis in their campaign to take the Christ out of Christmas.
The exhibition contains selected items from a vast private collection of Nazi Christmas memorabilia, including swastika and Nazi SS tree decorations, Aryan department store catalogues featuring presents for boys – toy Nazi tanks, fighter planes and machine guns – and music for carols that have been stripped of their Christian content.
“The baby Jesus was Jewish. This was both a problem and a provocation for the Nazis,” explained Judith Breuer, who organised the exhibition using the items she and her mother collected at flea markets over 30 years. “The most popular Christian festival of the year did not fit in with their racist ideology. They had to react and they did so by trying to make it less Christian.”
The regime’s exploitation of Christmas began almost as soon as the Nazis took power in 1933. Party ideologists wrote scores of papers claiming that the festival’s Christian element was a manipulative attempt by the church to capitalise on what were really old Germanic traditions. Christmas Eve, they argued, had nothing to do with Christ but was the date of the winter solstice – the Nordic Yuletide that was “the holy night in which the sun was reborn”.
The swastika, they claimed, was an ancient symbol of the sun that represented the struggle of the Great German Reich. Father Christmas had nothing to do with the bearded figure in a red robe who looked like a bishop: the Nazis reinvented him as the Germanic Norse god Odin, who, according to legend, rode about the earth on a white horse to announce the coming of the winter solstice. Propaganda posters in the exhibition show the “Christmas or Solstice man” as a hippie-like individual on a white charger sporting a thick grey beard, slouch hat and a sack full of gifts.
But the star that traditionally crowns the Christmas tree presented an almost insurmountable problem. “Either it was the six-pointed star of David, which was Jewish, or it was the five-pointed star of the Bolshevik Soviet Union,” said Mrs Breuer. “And both of them were anathema to the regime.” So the Nazis replaced the star with swastikas, Germanic “sun wheels” and the Nordic “sig runes” used by the regime’s fanatical Waffen SS as their insignia.
And it even gets all cultural, what with Nazi mama’s boys— “Every boy will want to bake a sig rune”, advised a women’s magazine—rewritten Christmas carols, a brand new nativity, and all that. Why do I feel like Tim Burton should direct the cinematic interpretation?
It’s too easy to pick on the Nazis, though. Mama’s boys and all. And, of course, they’re not alone:
The hijacking of Christmas did not end with the Nazis. There were also attempts to de-Christianise the event in the former communist East Germany. Prominent communist authors tried to substitute the birth of Jesus with that of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who just happened to have been born in a humble Russian hut on December 21. “It may seem peculiar now, but in some cases the transition was almost seamless,” Mrs Breuer said.
I do wonder what history will say about Christmas in America. It’s hardly comparable insofar as what we’ve done with it is neither so deliberate nor sinister, but still. Retail is at least as important as Jesus through the holiday season. Historically, it’s a curious transformation.