Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ein deutschsprachiges Weihnachten

DH and I, with "the gang" (our Bible study group), after
decorating the house and Christmas tree
"A German-language Christmas," reads the title of this blog post. Now that I am back in the United States, it's easy to see that Christmas here is a lot like Christmas over there. You are probably aware that many of our cherished traditions have their roots in that Teutonic nation: decorated fir trees, braided Christmas bread, "Silent Night." For my Christmas Eve entry this year, here is a medley of Christmas celebrations from various places in Europe, ending in Deutschland:

The best of European Christmas:

This blog carries lovely photographs of Vienna, accompanied by nostalgic or quirky verse. (My favorite references US Poet Laureate Billy Collins.) Although I have spent only three days there, it makes me impatient to go back this summer!

The worst: In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) arrives on 5 December on a large ship, then transfers to a white horse. He is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), "a Moor," an actor in blackface.
Once a slave to Saint Nicholas, the many Peters (yes, he's been cloned) now each have a particular job to do: while one wraps presents, another bakes cookies; while one navigates, another still plays the fool to rouse the crowd while they wait for the Big Man. The Netherlands used be a great sea-faring nation, which included trade not just in spices but in people, too.

Fun fact to know and tell: when DH and I were in Chicago recently to attend the Lyric Opera and visit a few museums, we saw the 50 national Christmas trees in the Museum of Science and Industry. Each was decorated by members of a local heritage group to represent Christmas in Kenya, Egypt, Belize, Russia, Japan, and Scotland. Although the trees were spread out, it was easy to see that neighboring countries share some traditions, like the parades of children re-creating Mary and Joseph's search for room at an inn in Central and Latin America, or the emphasis on Epiphany in Eastern Orthodox countries like Greece and Ukraine. One fun fact we learned is that in Hungary, finding a spider web in the house on Christmas Day brings good luck. DH has been teasing me about (not) cleaning the house, just in case!

It's Academic: Joe Perry, UIUC History PhD, Christmas in Germany: a cultural history
Finally, I share with you a brief summary of a first book, just published by someone who graduated from my department a few years ago. In Christmas in Germany: a cultural history, Joe Perry reconstructs two hundred years' worth of holiday rituals and celebrations, from the Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum) to Father Christmas (der Weihnachtsmann) to "the Christmas spirit" (die Weihnachtsstimmung), in order to explore how these seemingly timeless and universal traditions were constructed in the early 1800s as a reaction to the tumultuous Napoleonic Era. Like many Europeans whose lives and countries had been rearranged by the ambitious Emperor of France, Germans turned inward toward the private sphere and created the modern Western ideal of (bourgeois) family life. Perry shows how Germans developed a national emotional culture around the combination of Western Christianity and pagan festivals; however, this common culture still allowed for differences in class, confession (Catholic vs. Protestant, Jews), and politics. Ancient faith in the birth of God's son combined with modern consumerism (Kauflust--the desire to buy) and medieval pagan emphasis on light during the darkest time of the year--strands we still find in our American Christmases. Moreover, Perry argues that "This book moves beyond public/private dichotomies to argue that Christmas, supposedly a private family celebration, was and is Germany's national holiday" (7). It is the private, "feminine" side of national belonging, which historians have tended to ascribe to the more obvious, masculine militarism of public German nationalism. For the last 200 years, it has been one thing most Germans had in common, as whomever claimed to speak for "the nation" (Social Democrats, National Socialists, Cold War liberals, Communists) tried to shape how private individuals did or did not celebrate it. Perry also tries to write the history of German Christmas "from below," showing how some Germans pushed back against the contemporary narrative of what Christmas was supposed to be. In other words, the "war on Christmas" began as soon as it was invented as we know it.

However you do (or do not) celebrate Christmas, I wish you Happy Holidays and a Joyous New Year!

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