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How the Nazis took advantage of Christmas

In 1921, in the Munich beer hall, newly appointed Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler gave a Christmas speech to an excited crowd. According to undercover police observers, 4,000 Hitler supporters chanted when Hitler condemned “the cowardly Jews for breaking the world liberator on the cross” and swore, “They will not rest until the Jews fall asleep … broken on the ground.” Later, the crowd sang holiday carols and national carols around the Christmas tree. Working class attendees received charitable gifts. For Germans in the 1920s and 1930s, this combination of familiar holiday celebrations, nationalist propaganda and anti-Semitism was not unusual. As the Nazi Party grew in size and scope – and finally took power in 1933 – the devout advocates promoted a “Nazi” Christmas. Redefining familiar traditions and designing new symbols and rituals, they hoped to guide the main principles of National Socialism through the popular holiday, and given the state’s control over public life, it is not surprising that Nazi officials successfully promoted and spread their own version of Christmas by replicating it. Radio broadcasts and news articles, but under any totalitarian regime there can be a great disparity between public and private life, between city square rituals and home rituals. In my research, I was interested in how Nazi symbols and rituals permeate private and family celebrations – out of the eyes of party leaders. While some Germans resisted the heavy and politicized takeover of Germany’s favorite holiday, many actually embraced a Nazi holiday, invoking the family’s place in a “racial state” devoid of Jews and other outsiders. Redefining Christmas One of the most striking features of the special celebration of the Nazi period was the redefinition of Christmas as a new pagan celebration in the North. Rather than focusing on the holiday’s religious origins, the Nazi version celebrated the supposed heritage of the Aryan race, the name the Nazis gave to “racially accepted” members of the German ethnic state. According to Nazi intellectuals, cherished holiday traditions were derived from the winter solstice rituals practiced by “Germanic” tribes before the arrival of Christianity. Lighting candles on a Christmas tree, for example, reminds pagan desires to “return the light” after the shortest day of the year. Scholars have drawn attention to the manipulative function of these and other invented traditions. But that’s no reason to assume they were unpopular. Since the 1860s, famous German historians, theologians, and writers have argued that German holiday celebrations were pre-Christian pagan rituals and popular folk superstitions. So because these ideas and traditions had a long history, Nazi propagandists were easily able to portray Christmas as a celebration of pagan German nationalism. The vast state apparatus (centered in the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment) ensured that the Nazi holiday dominated the public space and celebration in the Third Reich, but two aspects of the Nazi version of Christmas were relatively new. First, because Nazi ideologists saw organized religion as an enemy of the totalitarian state, promoters sought to reduce – or completely eliminate – the Christian aspects of the holiday. Formal ceremonies may refer to a Supreme Being, but they prominently featured the solstice and the “light” rituals that supposedly captured the feast’s pagan origins. Second, as Hitler’s speech in 1921 indicates, the Nazi celebration sparked racial purity and anti-Semitism. Before the Nazis took power in 1933, the ugly and open attacks on German Jews were holiday propaganda. Blatant anti-Semitism vanished somewhat after 1933, as the regime sought to stabilize its control over a population tired of political strife, although Nazi ceremonies still excluded those deemed “inappropriate” by the regime. Countless media photos of German families with blonde hair and blue eyes clustered around the Christmas tree helped normalize ideologies of ethnic purity. Nevertheless, open anti-Semitism appeared at Christmas. Many will boycott the Jewish-owned supermarkets. The front cover of the Mail-Ordered Christmas Catalog of 1935, which depicted a light-haired mother wrapping Christmas gifts, included a poster assuring customers that “the store has been taken over by Ari!” It’s a small, almost normal example. But she talks a lot. In Nazi Germany, even shopping for a gift could naturalize anti-Semitism and promote the “social death” of Jews in the Third Reich. The message was clear: Only “Aryans” could participate in the celebration. According to the National Socialist theorists, women – especially mothers – were crucial to strengthening the links between private life and the “new spirit” of the German ethnic state. The daily acts of celebration – wrapping gifts, decorating the house, cooking “German” food for the holidays and organizing family celebrations – were linked to the passionate “Scandinavian” nationalism. Advocates declared that as a “priestess” and “keeper of the home and hearth,” the German mother could use Christmas “to bring the spirit of the German homeland back to life.” The numbers of women’s magazines, Nazi Christmas books, and Nazi carols tainted traditional family customs with the regime’s ideology, and this kind of ideological manipulation took on everyday forms. Mothers and children were encouraged to make home-made decorations in the shape of the “sun wheel Odin” and bake holiday cakes in the shape of a ring (a symbol of fertility). The ritual lighting of candles on the Christmas tree was said to create an atmosphere of “devil-pagan magic” that would merge the Star of Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus with the “Germanic” feelings. Family singing summed up the porous boundaries between formal and private forms of celebration. Promoters relentlessly promoted many Nazi Christmas songs, which replaced Christian themes with the regime’s racist ideologies. Clear Starry Night, the most famous Nazi carol, was reprinted in Nazi songbooks, broadcast on radio programs, and performed at countless public celebrations – and sung at home. In fact, Exalted Night has become so familiar that it can still be sung in the 1950s as part of a regular family vacation (and apparently, as part of some public performances today!). While the song’s melody echoes traditional hymns, the lyrics negate the holiday’s Christian origins. The signs of the stars, light and eternal mother refer to a world redeemed through faith in National Socialism – not Jesus. Conflict or consensus among the German public We will never know how many German families have sung The Night of the Most High or baked Christmas cookies in the shape of a Germanic sun wheel. But we do have some records of the popular response to the Nazi holiday, most of them from official sources. For example, the National Socialist Women’s League (NSF) “Activity Reports” show that the redefinition of Christmas has caused some discord among members. The NSF files indicate that tensions erupted when promoters pressed hard to marginalize religious observance, resulting in “a lot of suspicion and resentment”. Religious traditions often collide with ideological goals: Was it acceptable for “masked National Socialists” to celebrate Christmas with Christian carols and birth plays? How can Nazi believers celebrate a Nazi holiday when stores often sell traditional holiday goods and rarely stock Nazi Christmas books? In Dusseldorf, clergy used Christmas to encourage women to join their women’s clubs. Catholic clergy threatened to expel women who had joined the National Salvation Front. Elsewhere, religious women boycott birthday parties and charity campaigns. However, such opposition never challenged the basic tenets of the Nazi holiday. Reports of public opinion compiled by the Nazi Secret Police often commented on the popularity of Nazi Christmas celebrations. Late in World War II, as defeat loomed in the horizon and the feast was increasingly discredited, the secret police reported that complaints about official policies were resolved in a general “Christmas mood”. Despite disputes over Christianity, many Germans accepted Nazism on Christmas. A return to colorful and fun pagan “Germanic” traditions promised to invigorate family celebration. Not the least of which is that the celebration of Nazi Day symbolizes ethnic purity and national belonging. The “Aryans” could celebrate a German Christmas. The Jews could not, and thus the Nazism of Family Celebration revealed the contradictory and contested terrain of private life in the Third Reich. The seemingly ordinary daily decision to sing Christmas carols or bake a birthday cake has become either an act of political opposition or an expression of support for National Socialism, and this article has been republished from The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. . Read more: * Hitler at home: How the Nazi public relations machine reshaped the local image of the Führer and deceived the world * How did Charles Dickens replace the Christmas spirit * Can astronomy explain the biblical star of Bethlehem? Joe Berry received funding from the German academic exchange service and Georgia State University.

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