How the Führer Stole Christmas
While the Third Reich had many of the trappings of a religious sect – it was led by a cult figure with Messianic visions, had its own dogma and rituals, and earned, by merit or by force, the faith of a congregation – Hitler did not wish to turn Nazism from a political movement to a religious one.
The Nazis had a messy relationship with religion and the party’s own members had a grab bag of religious views: practicing Protestants and Catholics; atheists; some who believed Jesus was Aryan instead of Jewish; others who sought to bring down the Catholic Church from within by sending SS spies into seminaries.
Hitler was raised Catholic but came to prefer the ideas of German Protestantism as an adult. He once complained of the Nazis who wished to mythologize the party, “To think that I may some day be turned into an SS saint! Can you imagine it? I would turn over in my grave…”
What Hitler wanted, instead, was a secular Pan-Germanism based on the “blood and soil,” the race and the nation that rose above and united the Christian sects. Religious holidays would provide both difficulty and opportunity on the road to this goal.
While some Christian teachings were at odds with Nazi ideology, especially the idea that a Jewish man was the Son of God, holy days could also, as Party propagandist Hannes Kremer put it, be used to “mobilize the spiritual or emotional strengths of the community for National Socialism.” Using them as such would involve two tasks: “On the one hand, we must create new ideas and new customs, and on the other hand it is necessary to adjust those customs that have grown out of the people to the ‘new community of the Germans,’ which means giving these inherited customs a new content consistent with the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft)… These new customs develop directly from the ideas, experiences, and traditions of the party itself.”
Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and his daughter in 1935. Getty Images.
Christmas, one of the most important dates on the calendar for German Christians, offered the perfect target for this sort of co-opting. And so, no matter what any one Party member thought of Christmas or Christianity, the holiday was recast in the Nazis’ own image shortly after their rise to power: A holiday of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryans celebrating ‘Nordic’ traditions that pre-dated Christianity and were anchored in their native land. (The Nordic race was a racial subcategory created by anthropologists in the early 20th century. It was a branch of the Aryan race, which belonged, in turn, to the larger Caucasian race. Nordic Germanic peoples were, in the eyes of the Nazis, the master race.)
The Reason for the Season
Some of the Nazis’ work was already done for them. Völkisch movements (“populist, nationalistic-patriotic” groups and individuals who typically wanted to cultivate a uniquely German identity and eliminate material and spiritual influences from other peoples and cultures) had made efforts to redefine the German identity with help from invented traditions and suspect historical research, most going back to a supposed prehistoric Aryan master race that was wiped out by an invading Christianity. Christmas’ proximity to the winter solstice, a celebration of the beginning of the end of winter, made it easy for the Nazis to point to the holiday as a pre-Christian Nordic solstice celebration, a particularly German holiday on which National Socialist families could connect to the past of the Fatherland and their Aryan roots with decorated evergreens and Yule logs.
Germans had traditionally referred to Christmas as Weihnachten (Holy Night), but the Nazis preferred and promoted two other names, Julfest (Yuletide) and Rauhnacht (Rough Night), which severed the holiday’s ties to Christianity, emphasized its pagan, Germanic roots, and reminded people of the harsh, dark and cold nights of winter and eventual return of the sun. The subtext is clear enough: Germany’s post-World War I dark years were over, and salvation came not in the form of Christ and the Kingdom of God, but the Nazi Party and a renewed German Empire.
I’m Dreaming of a White, Aryan, National Socialist Christmas
Wherever possible, in both public and private spheres, Christmas’ religious aspects were de-emphasized and replaced with nationalistic and pagan symbolism. “People’s Christmas trees” were erected in many towns and cities with the traditional star topper replaced by swastikas, Germanic “sun wheels,” or the Nordic “sig runes” used by the SS as their insignia.
These trees became the subject of numerous Christmas carols rewritten with no reference to Christ or religion, as well as the focal point of Christmas celebrations, events and activities organized by groups like the Hitler Youth, the League of German Women and the German Workers Front and the state. The Nazi Party organized massive celebrations across the country where the Hitler Youth reenacted solstice rituals and soldiers swore “oaths of fire” before huge bonfires. Joseph Goebbels often appeared at celebrations like this at the tree in Berlin, handing out presents to children like a jackbooted Santa Claus.
Santa, of course, still existed in Nazified form, as someone had to bring gifts to good National Socialist children. Instead of St. Nick in the red robe of a bishop, though, he came in the form of the Norse god Odin, riding around the planet on a white horse to announce the coming of the winter solstice. Presents were still exchanged among families, friends and co-workers, sometimes with a depraved twist: the special Yule lanterns that SS leader Heinrich Himmler handed out as gifts to his officers were made by the inmates at the Dachau concentration camp.
While forced labor didn’t make the Nazis bat an eye, the commercialization of their Aryan Christmas seems to have bothered them as much as it bugs some people today. Savvy entrepreneurs blended Christmas kitsch with Nazi symbolism and began churning out swastika-shaped Christmas tree lights and cookie cutters, chocolate SS men, and sig rune-patterned wrapping paper. This ruffled the Party’s feathers and led to a law banning the “misuse” of Nazi and national symbols. The state encouraged families to instead buy hand-crafted decorations and other items that had a more völkisch nature and invoked the nation’s Nordic past.
During World War II, Julfest spread to the frontlines, and the Party’s central propaganda department, or Reichspropagandaleitung, produced an annual Christmas book for soldiers and civilians featuring more than 100 pages of stories, letters, songs, and illustrations, many focusing on the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers and their families. By 1944 and 1945, with defeat close at hand, the Nazis tried to reinvent Christmas once more as a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers. By then, though, there wasn’t much Christmas spirit left in Germany.
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For more on Christmas in Nazi Germany, see the Reichspropagandaleitung’s 1944 Christmas book, a 1943 Nazi Advent pamphlet, Hannes Kremer’s essay “New Meanings for “Inherited” Customs?” and Von wegen Heilige Nacht: Das Weihnachtsfest in der politischen Propaganda.
This article originally appeared in 2010.