BERLIN — After a local supermarket chain started advertising traditional Christmas floral decorations — poinsettias — as “winter stars” — instead of calling them the traditional “Christmas stars” — a minor controversy ensued, intensifying public arguments that have been growing in recent years in this country.
In a debate that’s similar to other Western countries, particularly the United States, German conservatives are complaining that removing the word Christmas in subjects ranging from flowers to markets to chocolate Santas is carrying political correctness too far.
But unlike in the U.S., the debate here over using the word Christmas in public spaces is less about religion and more about politics. In recent years, far-right political parties — particularly popular in the former East Germany, where, after decades of state-sponsored atheism, most people are not religious — have seized on the removal of mentioning Christmas as an attack on traditional German culture.
Such rhetoric also plays well to conservative Germans, which as the Zeit newspaper reports, have worried about how Germany may change after absorbing more refugees than any other European country.
“Christmas is such an emotional thing here,” says Beate Kuepper, a social psychologist at the University of Applied Sciences in Niederrhein and who researches right-wing populism and attitudes. “It’s still one of the biggest holidays in Germany and everybody celebrates it — even though most don’t celebrate it as a religious holiday. It’s more like Thanksgiving. It’s about family and home and coziness. And the line they (the far right) are taking is that somebody is trying to destroy that.”
Holiday Season Historically a Political Football
In the past, there have been genuine attempts in Germany to take the Christ out of Christmas. The Nazis tried to substitute religion with nationalism in the early 20th century. And later, in the former East Germany, the Communist-led atheist government tried to make the holiday less holy, by suggesting “end-of-the-year” trees and angels, and by putting the emphasis on a “family festival of peace.”
The more recent public debate in Germany about the use of the word “Christmas” began around the end of 2014, when the tabloid newspaper Bild reported that some Christmas markets in one district of Berlin, Kreuzberg, could be forced to change their names. “Is nothing sacred anymore?” the paper asked.
“German tradition has fallen victim to censorship by the extreme left,” conservative Bavarian politician Josef Zellmeier said in response to the story.
Except that it hadn’t. It was true that a municipal council in the German capital had made a rule that “religious bodies would not be given permission to use public spaces to promote themselves”. But that was in 2007 and the rule was actually formulated because a local mosque had asked permission to use a public square for a festival. One city councilor suggested this rule should then apply to Christmas markets, too. But as another councilor replied, Christmas markets were not about any single group promoting themselves, nor were they even particularly religious anymore. “In my opinion, they’re better classified as commercial,” he said. None of the local Christmas markets changed their names in 2014, or any other year.
Nonetheless, after the Bild story in 2014, Lutz Bachmann, the founder of a newly created anti-immigration group — Peaceful Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA — mentioned Germany’s own attack on Christmas in an end-of-year speech.
“The Kreuzberg case spread widely in (far-right) and PEGIDA circles, and that probably also led to Bachmann noticing it,” says Robert Luedecke, a spokesperson for the Berlin-based Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which opposes right-wing extremism, racism and anti-Semitism. “The ‘war on Christmas’ as a local topic is only as old as the PEGIDA movement.”
Far Right Focuses on German Culture
Criticism over removing the word Christmas in public spaces has had much more coverage in the past two years, Kuepper says. That is due to the growing profile and popularity of PEGIDA and the German far-right political party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which posted dramatic gains in an October state election in eastern Germany.
Members focus on activities that they deem are important German cultural customs, such as eating pork sausages, drinking beer and swimming naked.
And there is no doubt that Germany’s far-right supporters are also taking a cue from American counterparts, Kuepper says. “They are very well networked.”
Both Kuepper and Luedecke also think Germans are hearing more about their own war on Christmas because of a growing appetite in Germany’s media for this kind of story. It makes for good headlines and online outrage — which is why Kuepper believes it is equally important for local media to also explain the issue with facts and context. This issue “is more about emotion than rationality,” she notes.
In fact, the German right’s focus on Christmas is best seen as part of a political tactic, analysts say. The strategy also ties into another approach one aimed at increasing votes by appealing to German conservatives who identify as Christians. “They are open to this message,” Kuepper says. “The far right are trying to tell them: ‘Look, we’re on your side, we’re good citizens, too, and we’re defending your values.’ And it all looks so innocent.
“After all,” she says, “you can’t be opposed to somebody trying to ‘save Christmas’, can you?”
Cathrin Schaer is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She has edited for German publications such as Spiegel Online and Handelsblatt, and her freelance work has been published in numerous outlets, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vogue and Wired. You can find her on Twitter @cathrinschaer.