Sunday, December 24, 2017

Where does Christmas come from?

Why do we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter, and where does the tradition come from? Christmas, as we know it — with an evergreen tree, decorations, cookies, chocolate, mulled wine, and presents — was invented in Germany, in the late Middle Ages, Of course, people then would put up red apples and not glass ornaments on said tree, and chocolate was way too expensive for ordinary folks. That has changed today; all German stores are filled with Christmas chocolates and gingerbread since, I kid you not, the end of August.

The reason for Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ, but the holiday has also roots in older celebrations; the winter solstice and the rebirth of spring, the Saturnalia in ancient Rome for the God Saturn, and some similar feast existed in ancient Greece; this is why it takes place on December 24.

However, Germany turned this into a festivity of its own. In England, Christmas was much more rowdy and secular, which is why in America Christmas was outlawed by the Puritans for a long time. Only when more and more German immigrants came until they outnumbered the English, Christmas became popular in the USA. It was, for instance, a German immigrant named Thomas Nast who drew the first Santa Claus with the red coat (the image who was later picked up by Coca-Cola). Even many German Jews in America celebrated Christmas (and also many in Germany).

So, Santa Claus as we know him is more of an American invention; in Germany, he took hold only after World War II. Santa Claus goes back to a Greek bishop named St. Nicholas from the year 270 A.D. (yes, he was Greek, not Turkish, not only did Turkey not exist in these times, it is also a Muslim country). However, Nikolaus shows up in Germany on December 6 and brings some extra chocolate (and toys). In Austria, he is accompanied by Krampus, who gives coal to bad kids.

German culture had a setback in America in and after World War I, when many Germans were forced to give up their language, their books, their culture, and their music.It would be interesting to learn whether that led to an early war on Christmas, but this is not much talked about nowadays. It is one of these forgotten chapters of American history, but if you know, by all means, tell me!

In Germany, meanwhile, Christmas was endangered when the Nazis took over. The Nazi Party put some pressure on families to "nazify" Christmas, like, to use swastika cookie cutters or tree ornaments, or to not go to church. There was even a fringe element in the SS that wanted to go back to the old Norse, "Aryan" Gods. They celebrated the winter solstice with torches in the forest, pledging alliance to the superiority of the Nordic race. Today, this is pretty much frowned upon.

The Communists in Eastern Germany tried something similar. It is said that they renamed the Christmas Angel into "Jahresendflügelfigur," end-of-the-year flying figurine, but I assume this was only told as a parody. Anyway, after the Wall came down all of this disappeared into thin air.

An American friend who lived in Berlin-Kreuzberg at the height of the squatter movement, surrounded by Hipsters and hard-core political streetfighters was very surprised when everybody packed his or her bags and went home for Christmas. Nowadays, Germans complain about the feast being too commercial. Some even try to ban Coca-Cola-Santa-Claus, but this has not caught on either.

So what do Americans do who want to have an old-fashioned Christmas? Travel to Germany, of course! All the Christmas markets are full with strolling tourists, and the lights keep shining.

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