History is often ugly, and physical pieces of history are sometimes very creepy. To demonstrate this, I offer this article regarding Christmas in Hitler’s Third Reich. In a small antique store, I recently came across a little collection of some of the creepiest pieces of history I’ve ever seen. Hidden away in a dimly-lit cabinet and packed in a musty old box were a tree topper and six glass ornaments. Unlike ornaments that evoke joy and happiness, these ornaments bore–of all things–a swastika. While I had seen a few photos of relics like these, I had never seen any of the actual pieces. My immediate reaction was strong and emotional. A feeling of sadness and bewilderment hit me. Seeing these creepy Christmas ornaments took me back to graduate school and memories of conversations I had with Dr. John Haag about how the Nazi government monitored public support for its initiatives, and how it cultivated support for programs and positions that, today, we find to be completely antithetical to human decency. Those discussions touched on how Nazi Leadership consciously sought to transform German society and how it indoctrinated the population to accept the State as the preeminent moral authority, with citizens as subordinate pieces. Dr. Haag talked about how religions posed a problem for the Nazi authorities since they taught that God was the ultimate authority and that the State and everything else was subordinate to Him. Christmas, the preeminent Christian holiday, posed a number of challenges for the Reich. Beyond the inconvenience of Jesus’s Jewish origins, a population that maintained an allegiance to God and Christ could not wholly give itself over to the Nazi State-first ideology. For the Nazis, this was unacceptable.
While many in the Nazi leadership circle wished to destroy Christianity quickly and outright, pragmatists knew that a direct assault on organized religion would cost the regime dearly in public support. Early actions to eliminate Christmas proved the pragmatists right, as many wives and sweethearts resisted efforts to change their traditional Christmas practices. A nation that had embraced Christianity for centuries would not abandon faith in God and Christ on orders from the State. The population would need to be indoctrinated to accept the Fuhrer as the ultimate authority, and old Christian practices would need to be erased. While attempts to transform a celebration of Jesus’s birth into a celebration of the Winter Solstice (Julfest) gained some traction–especially among the most committed Nazis–most Germans continued to celebrate Christmas and churches were allowed to perform traditional Christmas services. Unable to kill Christmas, the Nazis then sought to appropriate it for their own use. With careful and conscious efforts, the Nazis attempted to change everything about the celebration of Christmas. Discussions of the true meaning of Christmas disappeared from official German media. Lyrics to traditional Christmas songs were amended to remove references to God, Jesus, or familiar Christian themes. In their place, references to pagan figures and mystical themes appeared. In later years, the Nazis introduced new songs that emphasized their despicable racial ideology, the military, and the importance of service to the State. Traditional Christmas ornaments featuring bells, stars, birds, and angels gave way to the Nazi golden eagle, sun-burst symbols and other runes, toy cannon and tanks, and–of course–the swastika. Christmas trees were rebranded as “Light Trees” or “Yule Trees.” All of these moves were deliberately designed to move the German population away from Christ and ever closer to the State and its Führer.
Despite all of these efforts, Christmas endured. Indeed, once the war started, the focus on military and economic demands put the attack on Christianity on the back burner and active Nazi hostility towards Christmas faded away–there simply wasn’t time to devote to killing Christmas. Indeed, during the war, many Germans who had drifted away from traditional Christmas celebrations before the war came to appreciate them again. There is much evidence of troops in the field celebrating Christmas in a spirit of love, family, and a hope for peace. Letters and diaries of soldiers in foxholes and civilians on the home front continued to reflect an understanding of the meaning of Christmas, expressions of hope for peace, and wishes for joy, love, and happiness. Wartime photos of civilian Christmas celebrations and small services in the military include traditional trees with familiar symbols. In the end, for all of the things the Nazis destroyed, they could not kill Christmas. I hope that this post will remind everyone–regardless of your faith–that we should be mindful of and thankful for the gifts that God has given us, and we should all be thankful for those of the Greatest Generation who defended the world from those who would have us replace symbols of peace, love, and joy with this hideous monstrosity.
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