Christmas Not Just Once a Year Summary
by Heinrich Boll

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(Short Stories for Students)

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“Christmas Not Just Once a Year” (“Nicht nur zur Wiehnachtszeit“)was written in 1951 and was first “published” in a German radio broadcast that year. Considered to be one of Heinrich Böll’s finest satires, the story was included in German in his 1952 book, Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit, a collection that was expanded in 1966 and renamed Nicht nur zur Wiehnachtszeit: Satiren. In the United States, the story appeared most recently in Böll’s collected stories, The Stories of Heinrich Böll, published by Knopf in 1986. In addition, “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” is one of Böll’s most widely anthologized stories. By 1975, according to Robert C. Conard, writing in Understanding Heinrich Böll, the story had appeared in at least twenty-three German and foreign anthologies.

“Christmas Not Just Once a Year” tells the simple story of Aunt Milla’s hysterical reaction to the taking down of the family Christmas tree in 1946 and her family’s subsequent reaction to her hysteria. Told through the eyes of one of the family’s first cousins, the story describes the complete moral and psychological disintegration of a family that refuses to acknowledge Milla’s profound psychological problems. Instead of addressing the issue of Milla’s breakdown clinically or directly, the family decides to continue with the ruse that every day is Christmas. For two years they go to great lengths and expense to host a nightly ritual of Christmas tree decorations and carol singing in order to keep Aunt Milla from screaming hysterically.

Böll’s narrative becomes increasingly absurd as the story develops. Written while Germany was in the early stages of its postwar reconstruction, and during a time when it had yet to fully acknowledge its role in World War II or in the Holocaust (according to J. H. Reid, writing in Heinrich Böll: A German for His Time, in a 1954 essay Böll laments the fact that in one particular class of forty German students, not one had heard of the Holocaust), “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” addresses the theme of historical amnesia. Just as the family refuses to accept the fact that things are no longer “like the good old days” of prewar Germany and that Aunt Milla could not become healthy until the family acknowledges this basic fact, Böll believed that Germany would remain stunted if it did not directly address its Nazi past and come to terms with its role in the war.

However, to say that the story is simply about Germany would be to underestimate its strength; critics have pointed out that the characters and symbols Böll uses in the story are universal enough that “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” can be applied to any country, including the United States, with a historical past that it would rather ignore.


(Short Stories for Students)

Section 1
“Christmas Not Just Once a Year” tells the story of how a German family, shortly following World War II, is affected by an aunt who suffers a severe psychological breakdown and reacts hysterically to the taking down of the family Christmas tree. Told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, the nephew of Aunt Milla, the story is a satire, and the events the narrator describes over the course of two years grow increasingly more absurd as his narrative develops.

In section 1 the narrator introduces the members of the family who play important roles in the story and among whom “symptoms of disintegration” are beginning to show: Uncle Franz, “the kindest of men,” who is said to have recently become “tired of life”; his sons Franz, a famous boxer who now rejects all praise with utter indifference, and Johannes, whom the narrator fears has become a communist; Lucie, the sister who had always been a “normal woman” but who now frequents “disreputable places”; and Aunt Milla, the “originator” of the family’s ills but who “is as well and cheerful as she has almost always been.”

Although section 1 offers no details, the narrator makes it clear that it is because of Aunt...

(The entire section is 1,742 words.)