Sunday, November 21, 2010

Joe Perry's "Christmas in Germany"

Joe Perry is associate professor of modern German and European history at Georgia State University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History, and reported the following:
My book German Christmas: A Cultural History explores Germany's favorite holiday from about 1800 to the 1970s, so any single page will tell part but not all of the story. The material on page 99 does not spell out my main arguments—they are set out in the introduction. But if readers have made it that far, they know that I see German Christmas as a holiday of family affection and the birth of Jesus, but also as a time for celebrating ideas about civic belonging and German national identity. Competing political groups, including Nazis and Communists, Liberals and Social Democrats, all shaped their own versions of the holiday. Each tried to manipulate the intimate emotions evoked by family celebration to support their political agendas.

Chapters One and Two show that symbols like the Christmas tree and Father Christmas, and rituals such as opening gifts on Christmas Eve, were not timeless traditions with roots in an ancient past. Rather, they were inventions of the nineteenth-century cultured middle classes, and so at its core the Christmas we know today is a celebration of bourgeois love and domesticity. Across the nineteenth century, the family holiday was "nationalized." Christmas became a sign of a proud German identity rooted in domestic life, but these apparently natural values were contested. Protestants and Catholics clashed over the correct forms of religious observance. A "proper German Christmas" was too expensive for working-class Germans and too Christian for German Jews, and both groups remade Christmas in ways that both challenged and appropriated the mainstream holiday.

This brings us to Chapter Three, on what Germans called "War Christmas," and page 99. This chapter again underscores the political malleability of the German holiday. When Germans went to war—as they did in 1870, 1914, and 1939—Christmas became a sentimental celebration of German patriotism. Even as ordinary soldiers longed for absent loved ones, civic leaders and government propagandists used the holiday to remind soldiers at the front that they fought for Germany and their families at home. On page 99, I try to show the ways ordinary soldiers experienced frontline celebrations during the Franco-Prussia War—the war that led to German unification in 1871. As this passage suggests, in much of the book I use personal diaries and letters to try to recover personal responses to the holiday:
The burdens of war made recollections of childhood celebrations particularly poignant. "Never did our thoughts, never did our wishes fly more warmly to the beloved Heimat," remembered infantryman Florian Kühnhauser, a Bavarian soldier active in his local veterans group after the war. "Memories of past years, yes of childhood were awoken [by this] painful suffering and deprivation." Religious services, according to court chaplain Bernhard Rogge, made soldiers "whole" by reminding them of home. Such feelings were supposedly universal. As a Catholic chaplain noted in a typical comment, attempts to celebrate this "holy family celebration" led to common desires: "Who among our soldiers, whether sick or healthy, married or single, does not think of Heimat [the Homeland] on this night?" In numerous accounts, the sight of a tree in occupied France elicited feelings of Germanness and memories of home and childhood. General Hans von Kretschmann described the effects of the tree in a letter to his wife in December 1870, in an account of a religious service: "to the right and left of the altar stood candle-lit Christmas trees, surrounded by our good chaps, with long beards and serious faces; here one felt something akin to: the homeland." When he saw the decorated trees set up by soldiers quartered in a French town, Chaplain Rogge noted, "One could think one walked through a German village." […]

Rowdy barracks parties compensated to some degree for the lack of a conventional holiday. Soldiers repeatedly described wartime celebration as an unforgettable experience, when the intensified desire for wholeness and comfort inspired feelings of close comradeship and national fraternity. Such stories were idealized and often had propagandistic overtones: the jocular soldier's Christmas "in enemy territory" is one of the most enduring aspects of the War Christmas myth. First-hand accounts nonetheless reveal the existence of a rich celebratory culture within the lower ranks of the German army.
Chapter Three goes on to discuss Christmas on the frontlines during the First World War, and then the rest of the book examines the commercialization of the holiday, "People's Christmas" in the Nazi Third Reich, and the Cold War Christmases celebrated in East and West Germany before the Berlin Wall came down. The rich history of the holiday itself, with its cherished family traditions, is central to this story. Yet the book is about more than folklore or family customs. When Germans observed Christmas they celebrated family, faith and love to be sure, but they also grappled with the values and ideals that made them German.
Read more about Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue