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  • Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History
  • Penne Restad
Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History. By Joe Perry (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2010) 399 pp. $49.95

Perry's Christmas in Germany recounts and interprets the evolution of Christmas and its self-consciously central place in the German calendar. German popular culture recalls it as centered on timeless folk traditions rooted deeply in pagan forest rituals of an ancient Teutonic past and Christianity's story of Jesus' birth. As Perry demonstrates, however, the Christmas that Germans know now did not begin to take shape until the early nineteenth century in the parlors of the upper classes. For the next two centuries, it evolved to meet the changing and competing needs and anxieties wrought by an emergent nationalism, a market economy, and the strain of religious division, while remaining anchored to an essential set of rituals, images, sounds, and scents. In this sense, Perry's account follows other recent scholarship on British and American versions of the holiday, finding that Christmases crafted in the nineteenth century could inspire feelings of "traditional" unity and private sentimental joy, enfolding localized cultures into a national entity and modern economy. In short, the modern Christmas, a uniquely "fluid and permeable sign system," created powerful feelings of community and tradition from the very stuff of a rationalizing modernity (1).

Although Perry points to the hollowness of any claims to Christmas' unique roots in the German volk, he demonstrates the usefulness of tracing national variants of the holiday. The German Christmas was special and even especially intense, he argues, because of Germany's tortured road to national unity and modernity. Employing an array of archives—church records, political tracts, diaries, newspapers, and the like—Perry has written a solidly researched history of cultural transition. But he also has produced something more—a reconstruction of the "systems of practice and representation" that created the so-called Weihnachtsstimmung, an emotional environment of a German Christmas that acted powerfully "to define and reproduce social norms and identities" (4). As an example, Perry gives us Ernst T. A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" (1816), a product of fin de siècle Berlin salon culture, as one of the first significant cultural works to bind hearth and home to nationalist ideas of morality and military sacrifice. He notes that the story "encapsulates the essential elements of the German family Christmas" (23)—with its toy soldiers, dolls, and candle-lit fir tree—but also "gives a frightful if fanciful reading of the Napoleonic Wars, in which the forces of good triumph in the end, but only after great trials" (24).

By the twentieth century, the sentimental domestic Christmas had evolved into an "archetypal symbol of a German nation united above class, religion, region or ideology," yet moldable by the passions of the day (7). A burgeoning gift economy stirred Kauflust among consumers and broadened the holiday's popularity despite protests that argued for its shallow commercialism. The Nazis exploited this tension by high-lighting [End Page 466] a racially imagined German Christmas at war with Jewish shopkeepers and department store owners and touting the superiority of local German Christmas crafts over new, mass-produced goods. The Nazi version of the holiday celebrated its organic and seamless Germany identity, threatened by un-Christian and un-German influences in commerce, culture, politics or religion.

Perry's probing assessment of the Nazis' exploitation of Christmas sentiment (along with the multiple ways in which they could not fully manage it) confirms the inordinate force and malleability of the holiday. By underlining the subtle layering of Christian and German identities, Perry allows us to grasp why the birth of Jesus became equivalent for some to the birth of the Aryan child and a new Germany. However, the fundamental German perception of Christmas as German also helped to wrest German identity from its associations with the Third Reich. During the Cold War, for instance, the holiday was a "central vehicle for the reconstruction of private and public identities in East and West Germany" (11). It remains even now a viable tool to bolster a reunified Germany against an ever-corrosive consumerism...


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pp. 466-467
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