How Hitler Tried To Redesign Christmas

When the Nazis took power in 1933, Christmas was one of their first targets. Not even Santa was safe.

In December 1941, Adolf Hitler threw a Christmas Party for his fellow Nazis. It was a lavish affair, in which the Nazi Party's top officials, statesmen, and generals gathered before a massive Christmas tree to feast and exchange presents with hundreds of jackbooted S.S. cadets in attendance.

In surviving pictures taken by the Führer's own personal photographer, Hitler appears somewhat dour and maybe a little sad to be at this event, as if he feels out of place despite his importance, and no wonder: What holiday could be less suited to the sentiments of that genocidal, warmongering dictator than a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of a Jew?

Yet despite the expression on his face, Hitler sits in these pictures as a conqueror, not just of continental Europe, but also of Christmas—a holiday than in just six years, he managed to redesign into a potent propaganda tool.

Peace On Earth

It wasn't easy. Back during World War II, Germany's population was predominantly Christian. Then as now, Christmas was a popular holiday to celebrate among Germans; in fact, the modern-day Christmas tree actually traces its roots back to the Rhineland in the 16th century. Christmas was too important to Germans for the Nazis to get rid of, yet it represented everything that Hitler despised: the Christian ethic of peace on Earth. He couldn't get rid of it, but he could try to make it his own.

A propaganda article from 1937 entitled New Meanings For "Inherited Customs" shows the considerable mental aerobics that the Nazis had to go through to turn Christmas into a holiday they could broadly support. Christmas is traditionally viewed as a "holiday about a theoretical peace for all humanity,"—an interpretation should be rejected, the article said. (It is hard, after all, to wish peace to all men when you are simultaneously drafting up plans to shove millions of them into gas chambers.) Realizing this, the article's author said that Germans should instead present Christmas as a "holiday of actual domestic national peace," a peace which could presumably only be facilitated by getting rid of enemies of the state such as Jews, gypsies, communists, and homosexuals.

Killing Off Jesus & Santa

Hitler's propaganda war on Christmas by no means ended there. He also set out to get the "Christ" out of Christmas. Unlike in English, Christmas is called Weihnachten in German, so the actual name of the holiday did not require modification to suit the goals of an anti-clerical Führer. Even so, the Nazis preferred a different name for Christmas: Rauhnacht, the Rough Night, which had a tantalizing hint of violence to it.

But many of the trappings of Christmas are inherently religious, right down to the purported event being celebrated: the birth of Jesus Christ. Luckily for Hitler, Germans had celebrated the winter solstice long before Christianity came to the country. It was fairly easy for Nazi propagandists, therefore, to reclaim Weihnachten as a pagan holiday in which the longest days of winter were marked by gift-giving and a festival of lights.

Songs that mentioned Jesus, like Silent Night, were rewritten with new lyrics espousing the benefits of National Socialism by none other than chief Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler, one of the masterminds of the Holocaust. At the height of Nazi Christmas revisionism, any mentions of the Savior were replaced with mentions of the "Savior Führer."

Jesus had been taken care of, but Santa Claus was not so easily forgotten. Tracing his roots to St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century Greek Christian bishop from Turkey, Santa was both explicitly Christian and very definitely not Aryan. Even so, Santa was so beloved that not even the Nazis felt that they could wage a war against him. Instead, they changed his name. Nazis argued that the white-robed and gray-bearded figure who came to people's houses and gave them gifts on Christmas Day was really the pagan god Odin. Christians had merely stolen him, but now he had been reclaimed.

Christmas Tree Decorations

Other aspects of Christmas had to change, too. Although the modern Christmas tree is an explicitly German invention, the star that is traditionally placed on the top represented a problem for Nazis: either it is a six-pointed star, and becomes the Star of David, or it's a five-pointed star, and resembles the red star of Communism. Ideologically, neither would do. Instead, the Nazis encouraged revelers to place a swastika, a German sun wheel, or a sig rune (the lightning-shaped symbol used in the emblem of the SS) atop their trees instead.

Christmas tree decorations also changed. In general, ornaments became a lot more warlike, and it was not uncommon to hang replica grenades and machine guns on your Christmas tree during the Nazi years. But they also became increasingly jingoistic. Surviving ornaments from the Nazi era include silver balls emblazoned with mottos such as "Sieg heil!" red bulbs covered in swastikas, and tchotchkes shaped like Iron Crosses and eagles. There are even ornaments that are just tiny metal Hitler heads (complete with mustache). To his credit, though, even Hitler didn't like these, leading to laws to prevent Nazi symbols from being misused for Christmas kitsch.

The Ghost Of Christmas Future

By 1939, just six years after Hitler came to power, Christmas had been totally transformed into a tool of Nazi propaganda. A contemporary article asserts that "when we celebrate a German Christmas, we include in the circle of the family all those who are of German blood, and who affirm their German ethnicity, all those who came before us and who will come after us, all those whom fate did not allow to live within the borders of our Reich, or who are doing their duty in foreign lands amidst foreign peoples."

"We cannot accept that a German Christmas tree has anything to do with a crib in a manger in Bethlehem," wrote the Nazi propagandist Friedrich Rehm in 1937. He added, "It is inconceivable for us that Christmas and all its deep soulful content is the product of an oriental religion."

Yet Hitler's redesign of Christmas didn't last long. As the Allies advanced, by 1944, worrying about the Christian influences on Christmas was the least of the Nazis' problems, and the holiday was rebranded as a day of remembrance for those who had been lost in the war.

1944 was also the year of last Nazi Christmas. Just four months later, the Führer was dead, and while a few of Himmler's hymns were briefly sung in post-war Germany, the survivors of the war did with Hitler's Christmas what they did with every other idea the Nazis had come up with: denounced it and buried it.

Perhaps that's what explains the strange, sad expression on Hitler's face, sitting there at a table with all his thugs on Christmas, 1941. Maybe he has seen the ghost of Christmas future.

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  • Bart

    This isn't from 1941. Hitler is wearing his pre-war party uniform. This would be from the early to mid-1930s.

  • jon

    who wrote this crap excuse for an article, and, more important, who taught him history?
    Because either the teacher didn't know better, or the author of this nonsense was encouraged to invent his own version of events and sell them off as truthful.

  • Rick

    No, Faraday Defcon, the Nazi eugenics policy towards those born with defects changed as a result of pressure from the CATHOLIC church, and even then, the "change" was only PR window dressing; the euthanasia simply continued but with more discretion.

  • Simon

    I doubt you can translate "rau" in "Raunacht" directly as rough in this case. I think it more connotates a frosty/cold night, from "Raureif" - hoar frost.

  • puffrooster

    What Faraday Defcon said. This article is wholly fabricated. I demand to see the references and evidences of these absolutely ridiculous claims! Why do I even sub to this site!? Oh yes, I remember now. I read one very good article, that I saved and assumed that all the material from this site would be similar in content. Turns out I was wrong. (You) just post, to post! John Brownlee is a writer who lives in Boston and gets his material from two irate parakeets; the rest he just makes up because he can't find a real job, has no ambition and apparently, no integrity.

  • MarcoS

    Hitler TRIED to do to Christmas what americans SUCCEEDED to do: to wipe Jesus Christ off of it

  • Erik Schmitt

    Just to be clear, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday (Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, that was celebrated between December 17-25). Then, after the fall of Rome, christians layered christmas on top of saturnalia in an effort to eradicate all things pagan. So in reality, christians did exactly what you claim americans have done.

  • Faraday Defcon

    What a bullcrap article. Did he just read nine made-up stories on Hitler and write a tenth?

    No wonder nobody knows a thing about history. Idiots like this doofus pick and choose what they want and know NOTHING about the SUCCESSFUL Luthern influence on Hitler. NEVER did he try to get Jesus out of Christmas or God out of peoples lives. GOTT MIT UNS were on most of the infantry's belt buckles, SS, and even Einsatzgruppen for crying out loud. He changed his stance on euthanasia for severe birth defects because of the Lutherans. Get a clue, man, stop trying to beat your deadlines for your $75 freelance articles.

  • Mike McGrail

    Wow, full of Christmas cheer this article. Not sure I see the need for this to be published.

  • jongnagy

    Read Curzio Malaparte's post-war best seller "Kaput" where he quotes a German priest who said, "We will need to do 1,000 years of penance for the evil our nation has done."

    It's probably not enough to keep most Germans of those times from eternally serving their time in hell.

  • Matt

    Is it possible that Hitler looked "somewhat dour, a little sad to be at the event" because it was Christmas 1941 and the US had just entered the war following Pearl Harbor three weeks earlier?

  • franc182

    Yes.....he was a little dour, given that " Operation Barbarossa " have to be
    delayed because that pesky Yugoslavia required heavy bombing, invasion
    and occupation. After this ( Operation Punishment ) the move against Russia put off until summer, 1941. WInter 1941 would find the wehrmacht
    halted before Moscow and ill-prepared for winter warfare. Hence, the
    fuehrer looks a little downcast. Before him a warm room with friends, compatriots and family all around the tree festooned with hackenkreutzes and silver runes. His visions of sugarplums gave way to an empty gaze filled with german graves and perhaps his own as well.

  • OrionAdvertising

    As it is with so many things...just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. There is nothing remotely interesting, edifying or meaningful about this subject matter. I understand that art should provoke as well as enlighten. But covering this man at this time is simply provocative. And offensive.

  • franc182

    I we enter our thirteenth year of war on terror. Sugar plum
    are becoming a little pricey, are they not ?