In 1921, in a Munich beer hall, newly appointed Nazi party leader Adolf Hitler gave a Christmas speech to an excited crowd.
According to undercover police observers, 4,000 supporters cheered when Hitler condemned “the cowardly Jews for breaking the world-liberator on the cross” and swore “not to rest until the Jews…lay shattered on the ground.” Later, the crowd sang holiday carols and nationalist hymns around a Christmas tree. Working-class attendees received charitable gifts.
For Germans in the 1920s and 1930s, this combination of familiar holiday observance, nationalist propaganda and anti-Semitism was hardly unusual. As the Nazi party grew in size and scope – and eventually took power in 1933 – committed propagandists worked to further “Nazify” Christmas. Redefining familiar traditions and designing new symbols and rituals, they hoped to channel the main tenets of National Socialism through the popular holiday.
Given state control of public life, it’s not surprising that Nazi officials were successful in promoting and propagating their version of Christmas through repeated radio broadcasts and news articles.
But under any totalitarian regime, there can be a wide disparity between public and private life, between the rituals of the city square and those of the home. In my research, I was interested in how Nazi symbols and rituals penetrated private, family festivities – away from the gaze of party leaders.
While some Germans did resist the heavy-handed, politicized appropriation of Germany’s favorite holiday, many actually embraced a Nazified holiday that evoked the family’s place in the “racial state,” free of Jews and other outsiders.
One of the most striking features of private celebration in the Nazi period was the redefinition of Christmas as a neo-pagan, Nordic celebration. Rather on focus on the holiday’s religious origins, the Nazi version celebrated the supposed heritage of the Aryan race, the label Nazis gave to “racially acceptable” members of the German racial state.
According to Nazi intellectuals, cherished holiday traditions drew on winter solstice rituals practiced by “Germanic” tribes before the arrival of Christianity. Lighting candles on the Christmas tree, for example, recalled pagan desires for the “return of light” after the shortest day of the year.
Scholars have called attention to the manipulative function of these and other invented traditions. But that’s no reason to assume they were unpopular. Since the 1860s, German historians, theologians and popular writers had argued that German holiday observances were holdovers from pre-Christian pagan rituals and popular folk superstitions.
So because these ideas and traditions had a lengthy history, Nazi propagandists were able to easily cast Christmas as a celebration of pagan German nationalism. A vast state apparatus (centered in the Nazi Ministry for Propaganda and Enlightenment) ensured that a Nazified holiday dominated public space and celebration in the Third Reich.
But two aspects of the Nazi version of Christmas were relatively new.
First, because Nazi ideologues saw organized religion as an enemy of the totalitarian state, propagandists sought to deemphasize – or eliminate altogether – the Christian aspects of the holiday. Official celebrations might mention a supreme being, but they more prominently featured solstice and “light” rituals that supposedly captured the holiday’s pagan origins.
Second, as Hitler’s 1921 speech suggests, Nazi celebration evoked racial purity and anti-Semitism. Before the Nazis took power in 1933, ugly and open attacks on German Jews typified holiday propaganda.
Blatant anti-Semitism more or less disappeared after 1933, as the regime sought to stabilize its control over a population tired of political strife, though Nazi celebrations still excluded those deemed “unfit” by the regime. Countless media images of invariably blond-haired, blue-eyed German families gathered around the Christmas tree helped normalize ideologies of racial purity.
Open anti-Semitism nonetheless cropped up at Christmastime. Many would boycott Jewish-owned department stores. And the front cover of a 1935 mail order Christmas catalog, which pictured a fair-haired mother wrapping Christmas presents, included a sticker assuring customers that “the department store has been taken over by an Aryan!”
It’s a small, almost banal example. But it speaks volumes. In Nazi Germany, even shopping for a gift could naturalize anti-Semitism and reinforce the “social death” of Jews in the Third Reich.
The message was clear: only “Aryans” could participate in the celebration.