The Nazis’ co-option of Christmas

Adolf Hitler, the newly-appointed Nazi Party leader, gave a Christmas address to a crowd of excited people in 1921.

Undercover police observers reported that 4,000 supporters cheered as Hitler called out “the cowardly Jews” for breaking the world liberator on the Cross and vowed “not to stop until the Jews…lay broken on the ground”. Later, around a large Christmas tree, the crowd sang nationalist hymns and holiday carols. The working-class participants received charity gifts.

In the 1920s-1930s, it was not unusual for Germans to combine their traditional holiday celebrations with anti-Semitism and nationalist propaganda. Propagandists were committed to “Nazifying” Christmas as the Nazi party expanded and grew and ultimately came to power in 1933. They redefined familiar traditions, designed new symbols and rituals, and hoped to channel National Socialism’s main tenets through the popular holiday.

It’s no surprise that Nazi officials, who controlled public life through radio broadcasts and newspaper articles, were successful at promoting their version of Christmas.

Under any totalitarian system, however, there is a large disparity between the public and the private, between the rituals on the street and the ones at home. In my research, I was particularly interested in the way Nazi symbols and traditions were incorporated into private family celebrations, away from the eyes of party leaders.

Some Germans refused to accept the politicized, heavy-handed appropriation of Germany’s favorite holiday. However, others embraced the Nazified holiday, which evoked their family’s position in the “race state,” devoid of Jews and outsiders.

Redefining Christmas

The Nazis redefined Christmas as a neopagan Nordic celebration. The Nazi version of Christmas did not focus on its religious origins but rather on the alleged heritage of Aryan people, the label Nazis used to describe “racially-acceptable” members of Germany’s racial system.

Nazi intellectuals claimed that the holiday rituals derived from winter solstice practices of “Germanic tribes” before Christianity. The lighting of candles on Christmas trees, for instance, was reminiscent of pagan wishes for “return of lights” after the shortest days of the year.

Scholars have drawn attention to the manipulational function of these and similar invented tradition. It’s not true that they weren’t popular. German historians, theologians, and popular writers have argued since the 1860s that German holiday celebrations are remnants of pre-Christian pagan rites and folk superstitions.

Because these ideas and traditions were well-established, Nazi propagandists could easily portray Christmas as a celebration pagan German nationalism. The Nazi Ministry for Propaganda and Enlightenment, a vast state apparatus, ensured that the Nazified Holiday dominated the Third Reich’s public space and celebration.

Two aspects of Nazi Christmas are relatively new.

The Christmas stamp highlights light. Author provided

propagandists wanted to minimize or even eliminate the Christian elements of the holiday because Nazis viewed organized religion as a threat to the totalitarian regime. The official celebrations may have mentioned a supreme god, but the focus was on solstice rituals and “lights” that were supposed to capture the holiday’s pagan roots.

As Hitler’s speech from 1921 suggests, Nazi celebrations evoked anti-Semitism and racial purity. Holiday propaganda was characterized by ugly and open attacks against German Jews before the Nazis came to power in 1933.

Anti-Semitism became less pronounced after 1933 as the Nazi regime tried to maintain control over a population weary of political conflict. However, Nazi celebrations continued to exclude those considered “unfit” for the regime. Media images of blue-eyed, blond-haired German families around the Christmas tree were a constant in media. They helped normalize racial-purity ideologies.

Despite the open anti-Semitism, it still occurs at Christmas. Some would boycott Jewish department stores. The front cover of the 1935 Christmas mail order catalog featured a mother with a fair haired child wrapping presents for Christmas. It also included a sticker reassuring customers that “the department store was taken over by Aryans!”

This is a very small example, and it’s almost banal. But it speaks volumes. Even buying a gift in Nazi Germany could reinforce and the “social deaths” of Jews during the Third Reich.

Only “Aryans”, it was made clear, could take part in the celebration.

Take the “Christ” out of Christmas

According to National Socialist theory, mothers were vital for strengthening the bond between private life and “new spirit” in the German racial State.

The everyday acts of celebration, such as wrapping presents, decorating homes, cooking holiday “German” foods, and organizing family gatherings, were all linked to the sentimental “Nordic nationalism.”

The swastika-adorned Christmas tree bulbs were just one way that Christmas was Nazified. Author provided

Nazi Christmas carols, women’s magazines and holiday issues of women’s magazines infused traditional family traditions with Nazi ideology.

This type of ideological manipulation was carried out in everyday life. Children and mothers were encouraged to bake holiday cookies in the shape of a loop, a fertility symbol. They also made homemade decorations shaped as “Odin’s Sun Wheel”. It was believed that the ritual of lighting the candles on the tree would create an atmosphere of ‘pagan demons magic’, which would subsume both the Star of Bethlehem as well as the birth of Jesus under the Germanness.

The porous boundary between official and private celebrations was exemplified by family singing.

Sheet music for the popular Christmas carol, Exalted Night of the Clear Stars. Author provided

The Nazi propaganda machine promoted a number of Nazified Christmas Songs, replacing Christian themes with racial ideology. The most famous Nazi carol was Exalted Night of the Clear Stars. It was printed in Nazi songbooks and broadcast on radio.

Exalted Night was so well-known that in the 1950s, it was still sung as part of a family holiday. (And, apparently, some public performances include today!).

The lyrics of this song deny that Christmas is Christian. The lyrics of stars, lights and an everlasting mother suggest that the world has been redeemed by faith in National Socialism rather than Jesus.

Germans: Conflict or consensus?

We will never know how many Germans sang Exalted Night, or made Christmas cookies in the shape of a Germanic Sun Wheel. We do, however, have some official records that show the response of the public to the Nazi holiday.

The “activity reports” (reports of activities) of the National Socialist Women’s League, for example, show that the redefinition Christmas caused some disagreements among the members. NSF documents note that tensions rose when propagandists tried to marginalize religious observances, leading to “much discontent and doubt.”

Religious practices often conflicted with ideologies: Was it acceptable for “convinced National Socialists”, to celebrate Christmas by singing Christian carols or watching nativity scenes? How could Nazis celebrate a Nazi holiday in a world where most stores sold traditional holiday items and few Nazi Christmas books were available?

German clergy members publicly resisted Nazi efforts to remove Christ from Christmas. In Dusseldorf, clergymen used the Christmas season to encourage women in their clubs to join. Catholic clergy have threatened women who join the NSF with excommunication. Women of faith in other places boycotted NSF charity drives and Christmas parties.

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