How Christmas in Germany will forever change my understanding of The Nutcracker

Do you know what today is? It’s Christmas Eve Eve!  Today lots of people are traveling near and far to be with loved ones for Christmas, and presumably take part in some holiday traditions.  While some traditions are longstanding and widespread, like having turkey or ham for Christmas dinner, others can be a little more individualized and idiosyncratic.  Every Christmas season I see a performance of The Nutcracker ballet with my mother.   But for my best friend’s family, Christmas Eve Eve means it’s time for what has come to be known as Cookie Boot Camp: the entire family (and sometimes friends, too!) is enlisted to start baking dozens upon dozens of Christmas cookies from scratch for their annual Christmas Eve party with a few other families.  It’s actually a lot like the Christmas Eve party at the beginning of The Nutcracker, but my friend has never had to take down a Mouse King with a slipper in the middle of the night…at least not to my knowledge. 

Learning about others’ holiday traditions and how they evolve is always interesting–they reveal a lot about a place, its people, and culture.  Joe Perry does just that in Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History He touches on a wide range of fascinating topics from the past couple of centuries, and offers some insight into how E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the story from which the Tchaikovsky ballet draws, serves as commentary on German bourgeois family life.  An excerpt:

The scenes of delight and joy described by Hoffmann reveal much about the way the Christmas mood legitimized nascent ideas about bourgeois domesticity and familial affection. Christmas was not the only moment for what historian John Gillis calls the “ritualization of middle-class family life.” Weddings, funerals, birthdays — even daily events like crossing the threshold after work or sitting down to dinner in the evening — were evocative events that affirmed the feelings and lifestyles of the middle classes. Christmas, however, stands out as the high point of the ritual cycle. The holiday’s rigidly scripted and evocative set of observances cast men, women, and children in specific roles that recapitulated their place in family hierarchies. Mothers cooked and decorated the home, fathers controlled the ritual action, children voiced ardent enthusiasm and obedient gratitude. In short, the family gathered around the Christmas tree in an exaggerated demonstration of love and harmony and a show of proper age and gender roles.

Historian Gunilla-Friederike Budde has convincingly shown that bourgeois family life was emotionally cold in the nineteenth century and that the closeness described by writers like Hoffmann may have masked a lack of true feeling among family members. Wealthy parents had relatively little contact with their children; nannies, tutors, and domestic servants provided most child care; and men and women spent much of their time apart in homosocial separate spheres. The energy and money that went into preparing gifts helped atone for the affection that went lacking the rest of the year, and the excessive expression of intimacy during the holiday season, according to Budde, made the distance of everyday family relationships more palatable.

Bourgeois family customs like those described in The Nutcracker taught children the pleasures of duty and delayed gratification. Gift bringers like Father Christmas or St. Nicholas and his minions, after all, rewarded good children and punished the bad. As Hoffmann noted, Marie and Fritz must have been “especially well behaved and pious the entire year,” since they had received such wondrous gifts. Children typically had to wait for hours outside the Christmas room and were often compelled to sing a song or recite a memorized Bible verse before opening their presents. Part of the appeal of Christmas Eve was the pleasure of this controlled performance, both for parents, who prepared the minute rituals of subjection, and for “good” children, who received rewards after passing the test.

Goodness. I certainly have a lot more to think about when I see The Nutcracker next year! And if fairy tales and ballets aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of other great information on Gabenbringer and his satanic doppelganger assistant with goat legs, Knecht Ruprecht; the Department Store of Peace; and the Weihnachtsknechte Christmas trolls who offer treats to children as rewards for good behavior–if they pass a quiz about it. Perry weaves all these Christmas customs, and many more, into social, cultural, and political issues that Germany has faced over the years. It’s tough to put down!

Or, if you want to learn about some Christmas customs that are a little closer to home, try Nancy Smith Thomas’ Moravian Christmas in the South. This beautiful book shows how Moravian Church traditions and celebrations have evolved and made Christmas a recognizable holiday in the earliest days of the United States, especially in the southern states where the Church established many communities. Thomas employs many photographs and illustrations that show how Moravian decorations, gifts, customs, food, drink, and music have become Christmas staples for families everywhere that go beyond the Moravian Church.