Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History

Article excerpt

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This fine book has a somewhat misleading title. It does not deal with Christmas in Germany ab initio , which would have dated to the eighth century, but rather with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perry has provided a thorough and well-balanced account that moves chronologically rather than topically.

The book's central theme is that the Germans have always seen Christmas as particularly theirs, and Perry agrees, repeatedly demonstrating how Christmas interacted with so many areas of German life, including politics, but, as the subtitle suggests, he focuses on culture. "Christmas, supposedly a private family celebration, was and is Germany's national holiday" (7).

As was typical for the nineteenth century in several countries, the upper middle class set the tone for the Christmas celebration (landed aristocrats had their own traditions). This group solidly emphasized family values that could, but did not always, transcend the confessional gaps; in general the nineteenth-century Christmas reflected Protestant customs and ideals. No less than Friedrich Schleiermacher pointed the way. His 1806 The Christmas Celebration recounts a fictional "dialogue in which the characters--enlightened bourgeois intellectuals in a comfortable salon-style atmosphere--debate the meaning of the birth of Jesus"(19). Three women talk about how Christmas reinforces the spiritual bond between mother and child, while their husbands debate moral and intellectual issues, including the lack of historicity in the gospel of John! Soon after this came E. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker which also had a family setting but, reflecting the values of the German Romantics, focused on children's capacity for the magical and mystical.

Yet the future belonged to neither of these men but to the bourgeoisie who would enshrine middle-class standards of sacrifice and reward (Christmas presents for good children). Confessional differences impacted the celebrations. Protestants observed the holy day as a family day, in contrast to the Catholic emphasis upon grandiose liturgical celebrations. Protestants adopted the Christmas tree and its legendary association with Luther while Catholics stuck to "the church-approved crèche"(31). But the middle-class character of the feast transcended the two religious observances.

For example, holiday stories did not deal with the consequences of industrialization. Instead, many stories focused on impoverished children and their widowed mother who struggled to give the family any kind of Christmas. Often, however, help appeared in the form of a generous Christian or even a supernatural visitor. Naturally these women wished to get ahead, thus sharing bourgeois values and making them deserving of a better state in life. The Socialists did produce stories which addressed the economic system that produced poverty and which tried to get people to look at Christmas through the eyes of the suffering, but such tales had limited popularity during a joyous season.

The Franco-Prussian War produced the first "War Christmas," a central theme of the book and of the German Christmas. …