A Very Weltkrieg Christmas

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, may your heart be light…”

As Michael Bublé began to croon, my daughter let out a heavy sigh.  Rolling on the floor she whined, “When is Jingle Bell Rock gonna be on?”

Being the history teacher, as well as having played one of the sisters in Meet Me in St. Louis, I felt the need to explain the importance of this song to my 7 year old.

My daughters Great Grandfather who died in a prisoner of war camp in the Gulag.

My daughter’s Great Grandfather Valdimar who died in a prisoner of war camp in Cherepovets.

“This song is from the Weltkrieg. (World War II) It was a song that gave people hope in such a dark time.”

“Did Grandpa die in the Weltkrieg?”

“No, but your Great Grandpa died in the Weltkrieg.  Your grandpa, Papa’s father, survived the war.  Your other grandpa was still a young boy, so he didn’t fight in the war.”

“Oh mommy, I’m so glad we don’t have Weltkriegs anymore.”

“Me too, sweety. Me too.”

The conversation got me thinking.  All of my favorite Christmas songs are born out of World War II: White Christmas, I’ll be home for Christmas, Have Your Self a Merry Little Christmas, What are you doing New Year’s Eve.  All of them are slightly melancholy; all of them are rife with wishings for things untainted by the horrors of war.

Not that I don’t enjoy a good Christian Christmas carol, there is just something about these popular tunes that I identify with.  Maybe it is because I am so far away from family during the holidays.

So what about Germany during the war years? Did they have popular tunes that reminisced about the Christmases of old?

Christmas time is sacred to Germans.  It is the most holy, most important, holiday of the year. They even celebrate Christmas for two days: December 25th and 26th.

Here in lies the dilemma, the Nazi party wasn’t really pro-Religion.  They wanted people to be self-reliant, rather than be reliant on a belief system.  And if the party was saying Jews are bad, it might be difficult for them to reconcile their political beliefs with their need to celebrate the birth of the King of the Jews.

The propaganda machine therefore had to churn out messages that focused more on Celtic or Norse winter rituals than typical Christian celebrations.   Fire and light in the dark of winter replaced the traditional motif of Mary and the Christ child.

From the 1942 edition of the BDM songbook.

From the 1942 edition of the BDM songbook.

By far, the most popular Christmas tune of 1942 was Hohe Nacht der klaren Sterne (High Night of the Clear Stars) by Hans Baumann.  It was dubbed by the Reichsrundfunk (The Reich’s Broadcasting Company) as “the most beautiful Christmas song of our time.”

The song describes the clear night stars, fire, mountains, as well as the familiar image of a Mother and Child.  But all in all, it was pretty secular.  This was why the song appealed to the Nazi Party.

Oh Tannenbaum was also a favorite with its focus on Nature rather than God.  But the Nazi party still felt the need to change a few words to make it more secular.  For example the word Weihnactzeit (Christmastime) was changed to Winterzeit (Wintertime).

In spite of the Nazi Party’s efforts to take the Christ out of Christmas, the Germans remained true to their traditions.

Christmas was still full of carols, candles, and gifts.  The diary entries and letters from soldiers on the front also spoke of their need for God and Christmas. The following were from 1942:

Men in bunker in 1939 from Bundesarchiv und Wikimedia Deutschland

“During the past weeks all of us have begun to think about the end of everything. The insignificance of everyday life pales against this, and we have never been more grateful for the Christmas Gospel than in these hours of hardship. Deep in one’s heart one lives with the idea of Christmas, the meaning of Christmas. It is a feast of love, salvation and pity on mankind. We have nothing else here but the thought of Christmas. It must and will tide us over grievous hours…”

Karl Binder, Deputy Chief Quartermaster, 305 Infanterie-Division

“I read my boys the Christmas story according to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 1-17; gave them hard black bread as the holy sacrifice and sacrament of the altar, the true body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and entreated the Lord to have pity on them and to them grace. I did not say anything about the fifth commandment (Thou shalt not kill). The men sat on footstools and looked up to me from large eyes in their starved faces. They were all young, except one, who was 51. I am very happy that I was permitted to console their hearts and give them courage. When it was over, we shook each other’s hands, took down addresses, and promised to look up relatives and tell them about our Christmas Eve celebration in 1942, in case one of should return home alive.”

-An unknown German Catholic Army Chaplain

Today most Germans still prefer the religious carols of Christmas over American sounding Christmas tunes.  Why sing songs loosely related to the holiday when you can sing of the holiday directly?

In spite of how secular Germany may be becoming, Christmas is still a religious observance for all.  This is much different from America where Christmas concerts have been replaced by Winter Solstice Concerts. Christmas parties in schools are now Holiday parties.

Eventually my trip through the Christmases of the Weltkrieg led me here:

Now watch it again, but this time disregard the German language, the high mountain scenes, and the uniforms.  Just look at the people.   I got a little choked up actually. I know, I know. This was a propaganda film made to uplift the German Volk in the face of the harsh winter at Stalingrad and the losses at El Alemain.  But still.  If you change the language and take away the uniforms, those people become us.  They are we, not them.  They are human.  Regardless of which side of the battle lines, mothers still wanted their boys home for Christmas.

Which Christmas songs are the most meaningful for you?  Do you prefer the popular tunes of the season, or do you prefer the sacred carols of Christmas?


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9 replies

  1. I always felt that the German Christmas is in general less…gaudy. It’s not as loud and into your face as the American tends to be – and I admit, it makes me sad every time I see one of the American style decorations on a home. I think the simple star in the window is much nicer. As are self-made decorations, and traditional cookies, and a general more quiet and in-family approach to the celebration.
    Not that I don’t enjoy anything which comes from America (I especially love “Mary’s boy Child” as Christmas song)…but to me Christmas is still very German, with songs by “Rolf und seinen Freunden”, the good old classics, baking, and more or less every year the same kind of celebration.

  2. You are absolutely right about the way Christmas is so central to our culture – the whole Advent period is steeped in rituals and traditions! For me Christmas is not Christmas without those old songs, and it doesn’t help that the American ones are being played in shops and supermarkets from September onwards (but that might be a British thing …)
    My own grandfather was involved in that first Christmas truce, the one with the football matches, and when they made a film about it that Christmas, too, is seeped in the same songs you have mentioned.
    As to ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, I am currently reading Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song. He hosted a comedy show in the 60s, full of black comedians and black humour, where they did a very funny take on ‘White Christmas’ 😉

    • I think the piped in Christmas music doesn’t really happen until late November in the states. But it has been awhile since I’ve been home at this time of year. Wow, cool to have the Christmas Truce as part of the family history.

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