German Christmas traditions
By Neil Armstrong
One of the largest markets outside of the German-speaking world now takes place in Birmingham. In 2006 the Daily Telegraph reported on this, commenting: “The late Queen (Victoria) would have almost certainly have been thinking of her beloved Albert, who is credited with introducing a number of German Christmas traditions to Britain, and who was famously pictured with his then young bride and children beside a decorated tree — a custom which has since become an established norm the length and breadth of the country.” The link between Christmas and Germany automatically conjures the image of Prince Albert and the persistence of the myth of his role in the making of the modern English Christmas. Even before the death of the Prince Consort, children’s books such as Peter Parley’s Annual were making unproblematic claims that the Christmas tree was “introduced” to Britain by Prince Albert. The royal Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was not the first to appear in England, though the appearance of the lithograph representation in the Illustrated London News in 1848 undoubtedly did much to promote the custom.
In recent years German Christmas markets have been promoted to the English as the epitome of a traditional and authentic Christmas. As germany-christmas-market.org.uk suggests, “if you’re tired of commercialism taking over this holiday period and would like to get right away for a real traditional and romantic Christmas market you might want to consider heading to Germany.” If a trip to Germany is impossible, a visit to a German Christmas market nearer to home is more feasible. Beginning with Lincoln in 1982, German Christmas markets have appeared in a number of British towns and cities.
Pinpointing the precise moment when a ritual practice appears in a new culture for the first time is often difficult. One way of examining the cultural transfer of customs is to look at the activities of artistic and literary elites. The first reference to German Christmas customs to appear in England was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s account of the Christmas he spent in the German town of Ratzeburg in 1798. He described a Christmas Eve custom according to which children decorated the parlour with a yew bough, secured to a table, fastened little tapers to it, and then laid out presents for their parents (the children received their presents on Christmas Day). This account was published in the periodical The Friend in 1809, and was regularly reprinted during the first half of the nineteenth century. Reaction to it varied. Whilst Thomas de Quincey dismissed the “stage sentimentality” of a description which emphasized the potential of Christmas to promote much “weeping aloud for joy” on the part of parents touched by their children’s conduct, the poet Felicia Hemans took a great interest in German customs and attempted to imitate the tree ritual.
From 1840 a number of German Christmas stories for children were translated and published in England. These books emphasized the Christmas tree as being at the heart of a family-centred celebration, though by this time children were now the main recipients of seasonal gifts. The stories served as a reminder of the German origins of the Christmas tree, a fact which was often repeated when the tree was discussed in the popular press. For example, in his periodical Household Words, Charles Dickens described the tree as “that pretty German toy.” The majority of references to the German Christmas customs were not followed by any commentary of the significance of these origins. More occasionally, writers would eulogise the Germans as a simple, domestic and sentimental people, precisely the characteristics which were increasingly ascribed the festive English hearth. Consequently, the English were able to quickly adopt and naturalize the Christmas tree by making it palatable to the national story.
Despite growing Anglo-German rivalry in the years leading up to the First World War, the English view of the German Christmas persisted at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was played out in the press coverage of the famous Christmas truce of 1914, when British and German troops exchanged cigarettes and food, showed one another pictures of their families, and organised football matches. The best known image of the ceasefire appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1915, featuring a German soldier holding aloft a miniature tree as he approached two British soldiers; this was not only a symbol of peace but also of the values of domesticity and indulgence of childhood.
Whilst the Christmas truce has claimed a prominent place in the mythology of the Great War, it was followed by an abrupt change in Anglo-German relations, which were subsequently defined by anti-German propaganda, the legacy of Nazism, and post-war football rivalry. It is perhaps surprising then, that Germany should re-emerge as a spiritual home of the authentic and traditional Christmas in the English imagination. However, this is testimony to the inherent dynamic of nostalgia embedded in the festival. As I argue in Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England, laments for the loss of Christmases past have been present in festive discourse since the early seventeenth century.
German customs play an important role in the development of the English Christmas, but this argument can only be taken so far. After all, in the nineteenth century the English were no strangers to domesticity and the romanticization of childhood. Furthermore, Christmas is a transnational festival, and all modern Christmases are the product of a multiplicity of cultural transfers.
Neil Armstrong is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Gloucestershire. He is the author of “England and German Christmas Festlichkeit, c.1800–1914″ in German History, which is available to read for free for a limited time.
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