Beginning in the early 1930s in Germany, Hanukkah was observed less and less publicly and became a private observance in Jewish homes. When Kristallnacht occurred in 1938, hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, and Hanukkah, instead of being the joyous festival it once had been, became instead a secret act, an act of defiance. It soon became clear, of course, that the Nazis wanted not only the destruction of Jewish culture, but the elimination of Jews themselves.
This presented a glaring problem in regard to the German people, who deeply loved their Christmas traditions. There was no getting around the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and Christmas centered around His birth in Bethlehem. In fact, many familiar Christmas traditions today such as Christmas trees and the singing of Silent Night and O Tannenbaum began in Germany. Hitler dreamed of a Nazi church, but was never quite able to pull it off, so instead he ordered the Nazification of Christmas.
Public Christmas trees were adorned with Swastika ornaments, and images of Nazi leaders were actually inserted into manger scenes. Instead of three Wise Men, there might be the wise Goebels, and Eichmann, and Himmler. Need we even ask who the Messiah might be? The Nazis went so far as to change the lyrics of Silent Night to remove all references to religion and even attempted a rewrite of Handel’s Messiah.
Private Christmas traditions were radically changed as well. Mothers were encouraged to bake cookies in the shape of the Sig-rune, the infamous SS symbol and incredibly, little boys and girls received not a chocolate St. Nicholas, but chocolate SS men! The wondrous tiny doors of Advent calendars revealed not reindeer and elves, but military insignia and equipment.
All of these changes were sharply criticized by Christian clergy, but were widely embraced as signs of national unity. As the war progressed, however, and daily life in Germany became increasingly difficult, concerns over the shape of cookies and whether or not to top one’s tree with a star faded into insignificance.
Following the end of the war in 1945, all signs and symbols of Nazification were banned in Germany, and the old traditions were resurrected. Interestingly, the Nazi Christmas carol, Exalted Night, was sung regularly through the 1950s and can be heard even today at Neo-Nazi rallies.
Perhaps at this time of year we should whisper a thank you to those unknown men freezing in the Ardennes Forest that long ago Christmas. Perhaps we should even tell a young person. You see those men gave us all a priceless gift- the gift of freedom. If the Battle of the Bulge had gone differently, our holidays might look quite different indeed…
(FB doesn’t allow me to post a picture of Swastika ornaments, but if you google those words and select images at the top of the page, you’ll be able to see them.)