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How the Führer Stole Christmas

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While the Third Reich had many of the trappings of a religious sect – it was led by a cult figure with Messianic visions, had its own dogma and rituals, and earned, by merit or by force, the faith of a congregation – Hitler did not wish to turn Nazism from a political movement to a religious one.

The Nazis had a messy relationship with religion and the party’s own members had a grab bag of religious views: practicing Protestants and Catholics; atheists; some who believed Jesus was Aryan instead of Jewish; others who sought to bring down the Catholic Church from within by sending SS spies into seminaries.

Hitler was raised Catholic but came to prefer the ideas of German Protestantism as an adult. He once complained of the Nazis who wished to mythologize the party, “To think that I may some day be turned into an SS saint! Can you imagine it? I would turn over in my grave…”

What Hitler wanted, instead, was a secular Pan-Germanism based on the “blood and soil,” the race and the nation that rose above and united the Christian sects. Religious holidays would provide both difficulty and opportunity on the road to this goal.

While some Christian teachings were at odds with Nazi ideology, especially the idea that a Jewish man was the Son of God, holy days could also, as Party propagandist Hannes Kremer put it, be used to “mobilize the spiritual or emotional strengths of the community for National Socialism.” Using them as such would involve two tasks: “On the one hand, we must create new ideas and new customs, and on the other hand it is necessary to adjust those customs that have grown out of the people to the ‘new community of the Germans,’ which means giving these inherited customs a new content consistent with the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft)… These new customs develop directly from the ideas, experiences, and traditions of the party itself.”

Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and his daughter in 1935. Getty Images.

Christmas, one of the most important dates on the calendar for German Christians, offered the perfect target for this sort of co-opting. And so, no matter what any one Party member thought of Christmas or Christianity, the holiday was recast in the Nazis’ own image shortly after their rise to power: A holiday of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryans celebrating ‘Nordic’ traditions that pre-dated Christianity and were anchored in their native land. (The Nordic race was a racial subcategory created by anthropologists in the early 20th century. It was a branch of the Aryan race, which belonged, in turn, to the larger Caucasian race. Nordic Germanic peoples were, in the eyes of the Nazis, the master race.)

The Reason for the Season

Some of the Nazis’ work was already done for them. Völkisch movements (“populist, nationalistic-patriotic” groups and individuals who typically wanted to cultivate a uniquely German identity and eliminate material and spiritual influences from other peoples and cultures) had made efforts to redefine the German identity with help from invented traditions and suspect historical research, most going back to a supposed prehistoric Aryan master race that was wiped out by an invading Christianity. Christmas’ proximity to the winter solstice, a celebration of the beginning of the end of winter, made it easy for the Nazis to point to the holiday as a pre-Christian Nordic solstice celebration, a particularly German holiday on which National Socialist families could connect to the past of the Fatherland and their Aryan roots with decorated evergreens and Yule logs.

Germans had traditionally referred to Christmas as Weihnachten (Holy Night), but the Nazis preferred and promoted two other names, Julfest (Yuletide) and Rauhnacht (Rough Night), which severed the holiday’s ties to Christianity, emphasized its pagan, Germanic roots, and reminded people of the harsh, dark and cold nights of winter and eventual return of the sun. The subtext is clear enough: Germany’s post-World War I dark years were over, and salvation came not in the form of Christ and the Kingdom of God, but the Nazi Party and a renewed German Empire.

I’m Dreaming of a White, Aryan, National Socialist Christmas

Wherever possible, in both public and private spheres, Christmas’ religious aspects were de-emphasized and replaced with nationalistic and pagan symbolism. “People’s Christmas trees” were erected in many towns and cities with the traditional star topper replaced by swastikas, Germanic “sun wheels,” or the Nordic “sig runes” used by the SS as their insignia.

These trees became the subject of numerous Christmas carols rewritten with no reference to Christ or religion, as well as the focal point of Christmas celebrations, events and activities organized by groups like the Hitler Youth, the League of German Women and the German Workers Front and the state. The Nazi Party organized massive celebrations across the country where the Hitler Youth reenacted solstice rituals and soldiers swore “oaths of fire” before huge bonfires. Joseph Goebbels often appeared at celebrations like this at the tree in Berlin, handing out presents to children like a jackbooted Santa Claus.

Santa, of course, still existed in Nazified form, as someone had to bring gifts to good National Socialist children. Instead of St. Nick in the red robe of a bishop, though, he came in the form of the Norse god Odin, riding around the planet on a white horse to announce the coming of the winter solstice. Presents were still exchanged among families, friends and co-workers, sometimes with a depraved twist: the special Yule lanterns that SS leader Heinrich Himmler handed out as gifts to his officers were made by the inmates at the Dachau concentration camp.

While forced labor didn’t make the Nazis bat an eye, the commercialization of their Aryan Christmas seems to have bothered them as much as it bugs some people today. Savvy entrepreneurs blended Christmas kitsch with Nazi symbolism and began churning out swastika-shaped Christmas tree lights and cookie cutters, chocolate SS men, and sig rune-patterned wrapping paper. This ruffled the Party’s feathers and led to a law banning the “misuse” of Nazi and national symbols. The state encouraged families to instead buy hand-crafted decorations and other items that had a more völkisch nature and invoked the nation’s Nordic past.

During World War II, Julfest spread to the frontlines, and the Party’s central propaganda department, or Reichspropagandaleitung, produced an annual Christmas book for soldiers and civilians featuring more than 100 pages of stories, letters, songs, and illustrations, many focusing on the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers and their families. By 1944 and 1945, with defeat close at hand, the Nazis tried to reinvent Christmas once more as a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers. By then, though, there wasn’t much Christmas spirit left in Germany.
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For more on Christmas in Nazi Germany, see the Reichspropagandaleitung’s 1944 Christmas book, a 1943 Nazi Advent pamphlet, Hannes Kremer’s essay “New Meanings for “Inherited” Customs?” and Von wegen Heilige Nacht: Das Weihnachtsfest in der politischen Propaganda.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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