Christmas Not Just Once a Year

by Heinrich Boll
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1271

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.

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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 Milla the family has suffered tremendously and that cousin Franz has warned the family much earlier of the “terrible consequences” of what was, at the time, deemed a “harmless event.” Now, as a result of not listening to Franz, things have gotten “so out of hand” that the family is at a “total loss” of what to do.

Section 2
Section 2 provides the background and first details of the source of the family’s ills. The setting of the story is an unnamed German city, shortly following the end of World War II. Aunt Milla has always had a “particular fondness” for decorating the Christmas tree and singing Christmas carols, activities that her son Franz always resisted with “vehement indignation.” During the war, however, aerial bombardments and the general war-torn state of the country prevented the aunt from having a tree. In fact, her desire for the ritual was so great that she saw the war mainly as a “force” that “jeopardize[d] her Christmas tree.”

The family itself was left virtually unscathed by the war. Uncle Franz, a successful importer of fruits and vegetables, had built a strong bunker that protected them from the raids, and his business and political connections kept the family relatively well endowed during most of the war. However, as the war continued, it became difficult even for Franz to find supplies, so it was not until Christmas 1946, more than a year after the war ended, that Aunt Milla could once again bring her family around the decorated Christmas tree.

There was nothing peculiar about Christmas that year; however, three months later, in March of 1947, as the narrator was nearing his uncle and aunt’s house, he could hear the singing of Christmas carols. Later, Uncle Franz explained the situation to him: On the eve of Candlemas, or the “Festival of Lights” that occurs at the beginning of February, Johannes began to strip the tree of its decorations, as was the custom of the region. However, as he was detaching the dwarves that decorated the tree, the tree crashed to the floor, and Aunt Milla began to scream hysterically. For almost a week she continued to scream despite the best efforts of neurologists and psychologists. She refused to eat or sleep, and it was not until Uncle Franz suggested getting a new tree that the aunt finally stopped.

Sections 3–6
The reality of Uncle Franz’s “solution” to Aunt Milla’s hysteria begins to settle in as the family discovers how difficult it actually is to procure a Christmas tree outside the Christmas season. But somehow arrangements are made, a new tree is erected, complete with its decorations, and the family continues to meet on a nightly basis, as if each night were Christmas Eve, to sing carols around the tree and eat holiday sweets.

Spring approaches and with it the region’s carnival season. As an indication of how deeply disturbed Aunt Milla has become, she complains about the thousands of carnival-goers for not respecting the sanctity of Christmas. Nevertheless, the family and the family priest continue to celebrate Christmas each night. By June, the doctor the family has hired to cure Aunt Milla gives up his efforts, and one night the family priest does not show up, citing other obligations in his parish. A fellow curate is sent to replace him, but in the course of the singing, he laughs hysterically at the absurdity of the situation and refuses to return. Uncle Franz files a complaint with the church, ultimately to no avail, and the family must replace him with a retired priest in the area who agrees to participate in the nightly ritual.

By now, the family has become quite efficient in organizing the ceremonies: The family arrives at the uncle’s home and assembles around the tree, the candles are lit, the angels on the tree begin singing “Peace, peace,” a few carols are sung, and all end the evening with a “Merry Christmas!” and retire to their regular lives. One item the narrator notes is that the financial cost of keeping up this facade is beginning to add up.

Sections 7–11
Although the actual Christmas of 1947 goes off without a hitch, in January Lucie suddenly begins to scream when she sees fallen Christmas trees littering the streets. Soon thereafter Karl, Lucie’s husband, secretly begins to research emigration possibilities to countries where carol singing is not allowed and where Christmas trees do not grow and are not imported; Johannes suddenly resigns from the choral society; and Uncle Franz is rumored to be in an adulterous relationship. Most significantly, Uncle Franz has hired a stage actor to replace him in the nightly ceremonies, a precedent-setting act that ultimately leads to the hiring of a complete ensemble to replace each of the adult members.

Eighteen months following Aunt Milla’s initial scream, rumors circulate that Uncle Franz has entered into business practices “that virtually no longer permit the description ‘Christian businessman.’” Lucie has come to wear gaudy clothes and has otherwise thrown “all restraint to the wind”—acts she considers to be “existential.” Johannes has, indeed, become a communist and has severed all relations with his family. Karl has discovered a country along the equator where he and Lucie will move, and Franz has retired from boxing.

Nearly two years following the start of these extraordinary events, the narrator, on one of his evening strolls, stops by the uncle’s house to observe the ceremony. The room is filled with actors who are treating themselves to good food, cigars, and wine. The narrator points out the possible negative effects this constant partying will have on the family children, who continue to participate, and he convinces the uncle to replace the children with wax dummies.

Section 12
The final section mirrors section 1 in that all of the characters and their respective situations are mentioned. Lucie and Karl have emigrated; Johannes has moved out of the city; Uncle Franz has become “tired of life” and complains that the servants are no longer dusting the wax dummies; the aunt and the retired prelate continue to “chat about the good old days” at the nightly ceremonies; and cousin Franz has traded the boxing ring for the monastery, where, according to the narrator, he looks more like a “convict” than a monk. “Our life is our punishment,” Franz says to the narrator before quickly departing for his chapel prayers.

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