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How the Nazis tried to take Christ out of Christmas

For the perfect Nazi Christmas you had to hang glittering swastikas and toy grenades from the pine tree in the living room and, in your freshly pressed uniform, belt out carols urging German women to make babies for the Führer rather than worship the Jewish Baby Jesus. Then came the moment to light the pagan candle-holders — hand-made by labourers at Dachau.

Hitler’s dream of a 1,000-year Reich came to an end long before the world was subjected to 1,000 of his Christmases but an exhibition in Cologne is highlighting how the Nazis, in particular Heinrich Himmler, tried to take Christ out of Christmas.

What is alarming German visitors is the realisation that, in many cases, they have been brought up with a variation of the Third Reich Christmas. Not the swastika baking trays or baubles shaped like Iron Crosses, but the revised lyrics of carols and the traditions that had been altered subtly.

“I always thought that Unto Us a Time Has Come was a song about wandering through winter snow,” said Heidi Bertelson, 42, a lawyer, after studying the exhibits at the National Socialism Documentation Centre in Cologne. “I didn’t realise that Christ had been excised.”

The Nazi version — removing lines about Christ and inserting a paean to snowy fields — remained in some songbooks and, outside churchgoing families, is the version sung by many Germans today. The same goes for carols referring to Virgin Birth and lullabies that invoke the Baby Jesus. The rewriting was supervised by the chief Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, who had the brief of changing the German calendar. Christmas was to be merged into a Julfest, a celebration of the winter solstice of light and of oneness with nature. It drew on pagan traditions and tried to squeeze religion out.

The plan was to break the emotional power of the Church. The star from the Christmas tree was replaced with a sun in case it could be interpreted as a Star of David, or if red, as a Bolshevik symbol. The name for the Christmas tree, Christbaum, was usurped in the press by fir tree, light tree or Jultree. The point of the Julfest was to remember Germanic ancestors and soldiers, although most Germans did their best, discreetly, to keep Christmas religious.

“The most important celebration in the calendar did not match their racist credo so they had to push out the Christian elements,” said Judith Breuer, who helped her mother, Rita, with the exhibition.

Rita started trawling flea markets in the 1970s in search of her childhood Christmas. She turned up boxes of Nazi-era Christmas decorations, even though it is against the law to display or deal in swastika symbols.

“After the Nazis had gone you could still find textbooks on Christmas that use exactly the same phrasing,”she said.

From November 17, 2009