ORLANDO — This holiday season, amidst the brightly lit decorations, the majestic Christmas trees in public places, and all the talk about Santa and his sleigh, the smartest among us probably did our best to tune out the non-holiday noise — particularly the political chatter.
In a time when we get daily reminders of how polarized the nation is, anyone checking their social media accounts were likely to get plenty of examples of that — angry tweets about President Trump, or about the Democrats taking over the House, even a surprisingly unending amount of talk about the 2020 presidential race, despite the fact that the nation just came off a long midterm campaign and the next one is two years away.
And, of course, we get the longer-running seasonal disputes. Some complain about the so-called “War on Christmas” by those who prefer to say “Happy Holidays” instead. We sometimes get the complaints about Starbucks’ Christmas coffee cups. It doesn’t seem like we declare a holiday truce anymore.
Sigh. Glad we can simply ignore it if we want to.
But even though the nation may seem like one continuously raging stewpot of anger and vitriol, chances are there are a lot more Americans devoting their attention to the holidays rather than all that talk show buzz. On this Christmas day, there seems to be lot more to celebrate than to be angry about: record-low unemployment, a vibrant and healthy economy, and a nation at peace.
And certainly, as a way of putting things into perspective, it helps to look back at other times in our nation’s history when Christmas day arrived during much darker times.
Take, as an example, Christmas day in 1941. On Dec, 7 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service had just attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan. In response, Japan’s ally, Adolf Hitler, declared war on the U.S.
On that Christmas day, the country was preparing to go to war for the first time since the end of World War I in 1918. As the nation readied for war, families sat around the dinner table wondering how soon their sons would head off to battle, and what role women would play in the war effort. And it was a world war we were being plunged into.
What Was Christmas Like in Nazi Germany?
An even darker time came in Germany in the 1930s, as Hitler’s Nazi Party attempted to remake the concept of Christmas, a holiday widely celebrated by the German people, into something that conformed to the Nazi ideology.
There was even a ‘holiday’ song, ‘Exalted Night,’ created as a replacement for the more traditional ‘Silent Night.’ Written by a Nazi songwriter, it was designed to use the holidays to build public support for Hitler.
The Nazis, after all, viewed Christmas with a great deal of negativity and suspicion, since Jesus was a Jew and hatred of Jews was at the core of Nazi ideology. In a devoutly Christian nation where Christmas traditions like Christmas trees and Christmas markets were celebrated, the Nazis began putting their own party leaders and imagery into nativity scenes — as horrific a distortion of what Christmas is all about.
Stomach-turning examples abound. They created Advent calendars for children filled with Nazi propaganda, and mothers were encouraged to bake Christmas cookies shaped like swastikas. The Christmas tree was changed, with the star on top replaced with a swastika. Store catalogues sold children’s toys that included chocolate SS soldiers and toy machine guns.
Every effort was made to take the ‘Christ’ out of Christmas. Instead, the people were celebrating and honoring Hitler, not Jesus. Far from being a warm and fuzzy holiday, the Nazi Christmas reinforced the concept of Nazi dominance as a propaganda opportunity, a time of year when a nationalist agenda got vigorously promoted.
The Christmas After Kristallnacht
And in 1938, just a month before Christmas on Nov. 9–10, there was the Kristallnacht pogrom against German Jews, when Nazi leaders encouraged non-Jews to attack Jewish homes and businesses and to destroy and burn synagogues. The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland, and Hitler Youth members across the country shattered the shop windows of 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, which is how it came to be known as the Night of the Broken Glass. Jewish cemeteries were also desecrated.
Times have changed. Eighty years after Kristallnacht, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke on Dec. 8 with Berlin community Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal at Europe’s largest Hanukkah menorah, located at the Brandenburg Gate, as hundreds gathered for the 15th annual candle-lighting ceremony of Berlin’s giant Christmas tree.
And on that night, the event marked a ceremony for 300 Holocaust survivors, sponsored by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
It’s worth noting that “Exalted Night” was banned as Nazi propaganda in 1945. Times change.
Today we seem far from the horrors of Nazi-dominated Germany and Kristallnacht, though violence is still with us, like the appalling Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a lone gunman killed 11 people and injured seven others, or the equally horrifying attack by a gunman shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ as he started shooting at people enjoying the Christmas market in the city of Strasbourg. That attack has sadly forced Europe’s Christmas markets to now have the presence of army vehicles and police and military standing around.
But at least on this day in 2018, Christmas is still a religious holiday, or a commercial one that boosts the economy and helps retailers, or is a happy time for families to get together and celebrate. It’s still a community celebration. And we don’t have the government dictating to us how we need to celebrate Christmas.
And we’re blessedly free to ignore all the politics, the anger, the name calling, the online diatribes and the nasty tweets all we want. We just have to tune it out, and find the things that mean a whole lot more to us.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.