Hitler and the War on Christmas

I just disembarked from my first cruise and I’m in lovely Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. After a week in gently (or not-so-gently) rolling waters, I’m pretty happy to be on dry land. It was great to be out of communication for a week, but I missed my newspapers. So while I sit here waiting for my flight, I’m devouringtThis weekend’s Wall Street Journal, which included some fantastic articles. But one article, while terribly fascinating, had some holes.

At the end of the Review section, there was a piece about the history of Advent calendars. I couldn’t be happier to see this topic taken up. I wish newspapers covered the liturgical calendar even just a tiny bit more, but covering how the Christian calendar is celebrated at home is even better (one of my favorite blogs does just that here).

Just before Advent started, my girls and I trekked on foot to a local liturgical supply store where we stocked up on Advent wreaths, candles, calendars, and the like. One of our babysitters even made Advent garlands with the girls. Each day they can tear off an additional ring so they can see how close they’re getting to Christmas. We also put out some purple decorations at home. We’ll decorate for Christmas here now that we’ve hit Gaudete Sunday.

The story begins in a promising enough fashion:

Americans can thank Germans for a holiday tradition besides the modern Christmas tree: the Advent calendar, a card counting down to Christmas in which children open one “window” a day, finding a picture, a poem or story, a sweet or a small gift.

Through the description of a new exhibition in Germany, we get an interesting history of the calendar and how it mirrors the nation’s past. Gerhard Lang is the father of the Advent calendar and he got the idea from his late 19th-century childhood. His publishing company invented the perforated doors used on Advent calendars — but they neglected to procure a patent. Whoopsie! We’re told, by the by, that “Advent begins around the end of November or the beginning of December.”

But what we’re never told is what the heck Advent is. It would be nice to have a discussion of the general part of the church year and its importance to Christians. The season marks Jesus’ humble first coming to Bethlehem, the continual coming of Christ in Word and Sacrament, and the look forward to Christ’s return. It’s pretty deep. But even if we don’t get into a heady discussion, how about just a mention that Advent is the season that begins the Christian year, consists of four Sundays, and refers to the arrival of a person of dignity and great power. Just something about how for Christians, Advent is the time when the church patiently prepares for the coming of Jesus Christ.

It’s not that there’s no religion. Take this portion:

After the First World War, Advent calendars were “demilitarized,” and docile animals replaced drawings of cannons and toy solders. But “Hitler quickly co-opted the calendars,” says Ms. Peschel. Nazi symbols were substituted for Christian ones: swastika-clad children building snowmen and Nazi soldiers enshrined within Advent wreaths.

Knowing that Hitler was a general in the War on Christmas — replacing the religious symbols — is fascinating.

After the War, the Christian symbols returned and in 1953, Newsweek published a photo of those cute Eisenhower grandchildren playing with their Advent calendar. The War on Christmas continued in Germany, though, where East Germans were informed that Christmas was to be an atheist holiday and punishing publishing houses that tried to retain the Christian element to Advent calendars.

It’s a great, if brief, article. But the failure to explain Advent in any way is a notable hole.

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  • Mike O.

    Three quick points:

    1) I completely agree that if an article is centered around a word that some people might not be familiar with (like Advent) that it’s worth a sentence or two to explain what that word means.

    2) Was anyone else thrown off briefly by the sentence in the original article stating that “Nazi symbols were substituted for Christian ones”? Maybe I’m just having preposition trouble, but it seemed at first read like it was trying to say Nazi symbols were taken out and replaced with Christian ones, when obviously that’s not the case.

    3) While it can be debated whether inserting Nazi propaganda into Advent calanders was part of a War on Christmas, this should not lead one to believe Hitler was a general in the War on Christianity.

  • Jerry

    It’s pretty deep. But even if we don’t get into a heady discussion, how about just a mention that Advent is the season that begins the Christian year, consists of four Sundays, and refers to the arrival of a person of dignity and great power. Just something about how for Christians, Advent is the time when the church patiently prepares for the coming of Jesus Christ.

    There are some topics that I would almost rather see ignored than treated superficially. I know this flies against the grain of what you want the media to do which is to at least get religion superficially correct.

    But personally I’d look to thoughtful expositions of the deep meaning. For example, let’s say for the sake of argument that the media had treated Advent as you requested. But compare that very pale mention to something like Gerry Straub’s blog entry. For those that don’t know, Gerry Straub wrote a wonderful book on St. Francis and St. Claire, The Sun and Moon Over Assisi which is sadly out of print.

    Jesus understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich, the thirst that can lead people to drink from muddy waters. He penetrated the outward shell of things and understood that whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and whatever happens to oneself happens to another.” -Oscar Wilde

    Advent is a much-needed time for me to take a serious look at my inner life and address whatever is amiss that needs to be corrected. Four weeks may not be enough time. This week, I was drawn to the Gospel of Mark and the story of Jesus healing the leper…


  • Dave

    Thanks for overviewing a real example of a War on Christmas. It exposes the foolishness of making an issue of shopgirls telling customers, “Happy Holidays.”

    And a merry Christmas season to you & yours. :)

  • g

    Fascinating story, but, seriously, I think the author at the WSJ is looking at it with a bit of 20/20 hindsight.

    When the regime “co-opted” the calendar, adding their symbols, I would imagine that in their minds they were simply making the calendars appropriately patriotic. The fact that the regime’s national symbols appeared both in the Nazi era and the Soviet era is really due more to nationalism than sinister intent. It’s not much different than showing Santa waving an American flag – secular and patriotic.

    The quote is confusing. Were calendars “militarized” during the First World War, thus requiring them to be “demilitarized” after Armistice? so if the Nazi regime added soldiers and other symbols, the period of “demilitarization” must not have lasted very long. Were they “demilitarized” again in W. Germany after 1945, or just “de-Nazi’ed?” Were FRG flags used to replace the Nazi stuff?

    Most advent calendars I’ve seen are still pretty secular, even with Christian images like cherub angels or baby Jesus manger scenes, there are still Christmas trees and gingerbread and reindeer.

  • Will

    The “around the end of November or the beginning of December” obscures what Advent is, and leaves the impression that Somebody (probably that mean old oppressive TheVatican) throws a dart at a calendar to decide when “Advent” starts.

    Omitting the real rule — “the Sunday nearest St. Andrew’s Day — could be taken as a …. war on Scottishness.