Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733
After World War II, apparently in Cologne, Uncle Franz Lenz’s wholesale grocery business is bouncing back from a slight wartime interruption. The Lenz family—Uncle Franz, Aunt Milla, Johannes, Lucie, young Cousin Franz, and assorted grandchildren—have come through the conflict almost intact. Only Aunt Milla has been deeply unsettled by the recent bloodbath—because her Christmas celebrations were curtailed.
Cousin Franz is something of a conscience for the family, a young man of notable piety who scandalizes them by becoming a boxer. The first to notice how badly askew things are, he has little sympathy with his father, identified by the narrator as the kindest of men—who provided his wife a private bomb shelter and a car to take her to the country whenever air raids threatened—nor with his mother, who is still grieving that ornaments on her Christmas tree were damaged by nearby bomb explosions and that Christmas festivities were cancelled in 1940.
Now that those unpleasant times are over—the narrator can scarcely bring himself to mention the war by name—Aunt Milla is insisting that Christmas be restored right down to the angel at the tip of the tree, who actually whispers “peace.” Uncle Franz is prosperous enough by 1946 to gratify his wife’s wishes. He spares no expense to obtain the decorations, food, candies, and candles that Aunt Milla had enjoyed in the old days. When it comes time to take down the Christmas tree at Candlemas (February 2), the usually charming old lady begins to scream. Neurologists, priests, and psychiatrists are summoned to the house, but the shrieking goes on unabated for almost a week. Cousin Franz, who will not participate in indulging his mother, suggests a visit by an exorcist, but Uncle Franz comes up with a different solution: a new tree to replace the old and Christmas all over again.
Because it is nearly carnival time, Christmas decorations are not to be found in the city’s shops, nor are trees for sale. Uncle Franz’s connections allow extraordinary measures: An import license from Czechoslovakia is obtained; phone calls are made to toy companies; and grandchildren are dispatched to the forest with an ax. Soon arrangements are complete. When Aunt Milla is at last summoned to the Christmas room, everything appears normal, and she is able to call in the family to light the tree and sing carols.
To avoid upsetting Aunt Milla, Christmas Eve will become a permanent event. As other people sing “Come, Lovely May,” “Silent Night” will resound from the Lenz house. In June, the parish priest refuses to continue taking part in the nightly ritual, but a replacement for him is easily found, and a firm contracted to replace old trees with fresh ones.
The enforced Christmases gradually begin to take their toll, and family members ask to be excused from attendance. Lucie, the first to succumb, suffers a nervous malady touched off by the sight of Christmas cookies.
Now Cousin Franz’s earlier prognostications and the narrator’s reluctant admission that symptoms of disintegration are appearing in his family come back to haunt the reader: Johannes has quit his choral society, sick to death of German songs; Uncle Franz has hired an actor to impersonate him at the nightly sessions around the Christmas tree, has taken a mistress, and is indulging in unethical business practices. He is even ready to pay professional actors to play the roles of family members in order to fool Aunt Milla.
As the two-year anniversary of this charade approaches, the narrator admits that Cousin Franz has been right. He sees that nightly singing and a diet of marzipan are having a bad effect on the smaller children and arranges to have the children replaced by wax dummies. He notes that his cousins have all suffered psychological disturbances. Johannes has joined the Communist Party. Lucie, a confirmed bar-hopper, is planning to leave Germany with her husband. The artificial Christmases continue, but the participants are drinking more than they should and indulging in petty thievery. Only Aunt Milla and the priest seem unaffected. When the narrator learns that the angel who whispers “peace” is activated by a phonograph in the next room, his disillusionment is complete. He visits his cousin Franz, now in a monastery, who tells him that life is punishment. Moral responsibility, Heinrich Böll seems to say, must be assumed; denial is poisonous.
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