The horror of a perpetual Christmas
Christmas is the time of the classic Christmas stories. And after seeing the 1000th adaptation of A Christmas Carol, I thought it time to bring another classic to your attention. It was written in 1952 by the German author Heinrich Böll and it is able to change your perspective on the feast, so please be warned.
The title of the story “Not Only at Christmas Time” was borrowed from a classic Christmas saying that states that love and peace should not only be at work during Christmas. It has found its way into loads of sermons, preaches and songs. Here is an example of a song that contains the sentence. The song is called “100.000 Friedenslichter” (100.000 lights of peace), and this YouTube clip shows a recent rendering by the French singer Mireille Mathieu, who is somehow very popular in Germany.
It is the height of German Christmas kitsch (and Germans are experts at producing Christmas kitsch). Crudely translated, the first lines run like this:
Children’s souls, so fragile
Need love and protection
Present them with love and time
Not only at Christmas time
The question that I want to ask here: how would you feel if you would have to endure this every day of the year? That’s what Böll’s story is all about.
Mould is forming
Heinrich Böll was born in the year 1917 in the very catholic city of Cologne. Catholicism and its rituals had a prominent place in his entire literary production. Another constant element in his works was provided by the Second World War. Böll had to take service in the army of Nazi Germany, and served in France, Romania, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. He was wounded four times while doing service, and returned to Germany as a convinced pacifist.1 Pacifism and the fate of individuals in times of war therefore became another recurring topic in his books. His Christmas story dates from the year 1952 and starts in a haunting way:
In our family, signs of decay are showing. For a time we tried hard to be silent about it, but now we are forced to face its dangers. Still I do not have the courage to use the word collapse, but the worrying facts are accumulating in such a way that they mean danger (…) mould is forming underneath a thick and hard layer of civility.2
The cause of these sinister developments: Aunt Milla, and the pride she took in her Christmas tree.
The main attraction were dwarves made of glass, that in their raised arms held a cork hammer and to their feet held little anvils in the shape of clocks. Underneath their foot soles a candle was burning, and when a certain amount of heat had been created by them, a hidden mechanism caused hectic movement in the arms of the dwarves; they started plunging their cork hammers on to the anvils like crazy.3
One can imagine the havoc created by a small legion of these decorative dwarves. On top of that, the tree was crowned with an angel that whispered “peace” after a certain set of time had passed. This is typically one of those things we can endure because they only happen at Christmas. And that is at the root of the entire misery of Aunt Milla’s family.
An elaborately decorated Christmas tree is not the most practical when bombs are being dropped because the country is waging an aggressive war. During the war itself, Aunt Milla seems to be able to cope with the decision of her husband to just not get a Christmas tree for practical reasons. In the years 1945 and 1946 Christmas trees, let alone decorative dwarves, were impossible to get by, but in the year 1947 Aunt Milla can finally enjoy her fully decorated tree again. So far, so good. But:
Around the feast of the presentation of Jesus in the temple4 (…) as my cousin Johannes started to remove the dwarves from the tree, my until then so kindhearted Aunt Milla started screaming in such a pitiable way, and that so sudden and loud, that my cousin got frightened to death, lost control off the toppling tree, and before anyone realized what had happened the sound of breaking glass filled the room. All was demolished, and my aunt was screaming.5
The first one to crack is the priest
And Aunt Milla keeps on screaming, screaming, and screaming. Doctors, psychiatrists, and whatever experts the family calls in are all at a loss and cannot find the reason. Aunt Milla just keeps on producing horrible noise. Then her husband gets the ominous idea of setting the Christmas tree up again. Not a very easy thing to do when it’s the midst of February, but somehow the family manages to find a tree and an entire set of decorations so the tree can be set up again in March. Not long after the tree is set up, Aunt Milla casually asks her husband whether it is not time to call in the family for the Christmas festivities. Then the horror begins…
Of all people, the local priest is the first one to crack. After a couple of weeks he just stops showing up at the daily festivity, does not pick up the phone, and refuses to open his door when the family comes knocking.6 From then on the rest of the, until then so modest, family starts to show strange behaviour. Milla’s daughter Lucie has to endure hypnotic therapy because she gets into a blind rage whenever she sees something that only faintly reminds her of Christmas, causing her husband to look for a country to emigrate to: “The land of his dreams should not grow any pine trees and have strict prohibitions on importing them. Further the singing of Christmas songs must be under severe penalty there.”7 Aunt Milla’s husband, who is usually so kindhearted, is undertaking activities that cannot be described otherwise then adultery, and when Aunt Milla suffers a severe indigestion, rumours arise that she has been poisoned.8
In the end all family members are replaced by wax figures, the real specimens now being mental wrecks. And the cause of it all was an overdose of Christmas.
But that would be a too easy moral of the story. Böll wrote it as a means to criticize Germany’s then stubborn treatment of their gruesome past. In Böll’s opinion, Germany was too much wallowing itself in pleasant nostalgia and meanwhile corrupting themselves morally. Soothing themselves with a decorative angel whispering “peace” after a certain amount of time had lapsed. Heinrich Böll won the Nobel-price of Literature in 1972, so maybe we should also take his Christmas message seriously. Not only at Christmas time.
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