BERLIN — Every year in December, the same ritual. T'is the season, unmistakably so. And yet, one can't help feeling that something isn't as it should be.
Not that Germany's many towns and cities aren't doing all they can to provide just the right atmosphere. Romantic Christmas markets abound. In shopping centers, Christmas songs waft through the not-so-holy (nor silent) nights. Hundreds of Norway spruces and Delavays firs give their lives in order to slowly die away in over-heated living rooms.
Living room windows glow with rainbow arrays of fairy lights. Santa does the rounds on television, popping up in commercials, cartoons and favorite fillms: Hohoho! And, despite all the second-hand clothes bazaars and tea for refugees, there's no church community that would dare to miss out on the mandatory Christmas oratorio — or at least a reflective recital with little angels and the traditional nativity play.
Still, it seems that fewer and fewer people actually feel involved in this mass ritual of our consumer culture. Something is missing. The magic, perhaps. Somehow, the crowds and tootling don't release the Christmas hormones the way they used to.
It has become a common ritual to complain about how today's high-speed Christmas isn't what it once was. Gone are the silent godliness and familiar harmony. Today it's all too hectic, too greedy, too superficial.
It might have something to do with the weather, which, quite frankly, isn't very Christmas-sy anymore. Instead of drifting snow and sleigh rides we celebrate the holiday surrounded by blooming trees and singing birds — almost like on the Canary Islands, where Santa wears sandals instead of boots. These days, the only way to guarantee a white Christmas is to go at least as far north as Lapland.
Or maybe the roots of the missing Christmas spirit can be found, like many other things, in this country of high-class lamenting, in German thoroughness, which nips any nascent contentedness in the bud. Things need to be perfect: the tree has to be decorated just so; one must strike just the right balance of gift-giving (and receiving); loving family members, as much as they drive each other crazy, need to get along. Peace unto us!
In order to make Christmas a true success, grumpy Germans might draw inspiration from their European neighbors. In Greece, where Christmas has a much longer history than it does here, people celebrate twice: once on the Catholic date and again on the Orthodox date. Double the joy. Multiple banquets and toasts. Twice as many presents. And in Italy, where the bars are crowded on Christmas Eve and children are noisy, people take the festivities less seriously — perhaps as a way to lessen the inevitable stress of difficult mothers-in-law and complicated sibling dynamics.
Munich's Christmas market on Dec. 8 — Photo: Andrea Ronchini/Pacific Press/ZUMA
In Germany, church bells sweep the empty streets in the late afternoon of Dec. 24, while in Italy, people are still filling public spaces with "hellos" and "cheers." Why head home to the confines of one's clan when there's still celebrating to be done among friends. Family time will come soon enough, and will probably benefit from those extra few drinks squeezed in beforehand. Isn't being out-and-about more fun than the forced coziness with candle light we impose on ourselves in Germany, even when we know that most of the the time things end up in a quarrel.
Pretending to remember
In Britain, Christmas, like all holidays there, is built around its football passions. And in Spain, Christmas is overshadowed by the national lottery. "El Gordo" – the biggest cash prize – is given out live on television, accompanied by a children's choir. And of course it's all for a good cause.
Across the pond, in the United States, Christmas is capitalistic and pragmatic. That's the American way. In terms of importance, they place Christmas shopping way above the actual festivities, boosting business without any false ethical concerns.
Aren't those merry deformations of the Christmas tradition much more human than Germany's fixation on religious and family festivities, which automatically exclude everyone who is alone or follows another religion?
The de-Christianized Christmas is not only more social, it's also less false than the pseudo-Christianized. Nobody should be forced to sit under a Christmas tree, pretending to recall all of one's childhood Christmas carols by heart, or to mumble half-hearted prayers during the midnight mass.
Even the minority of religious Christians don't want Christmas to be a social duty. Anyone who so desires is free to celebrate Christ's birth with their fellow Christians, listen to only religious music and avoid overly-commerical activities.
For everyone else, the joyful message should be to take it easy, to not take Christams so seriously. In that case, Christmas might actually become the joly, merry, festive season it is meant to be.