Christmas Not Just Once a Year Characters
After nearly eighteen months of having to participate in the nightly family rituals, Uncle Franz hires an ensemble of local actors to take the places of the adults. As artists who can barely make ends meet, they are quick to take on this assignment, and over time they come to take advantage of the situation by eating expensive asparagus every night, drinking the family’s good wine, and smoking its good cigars. Eventually, the children are replaced by wax figures, so in the end the only “true” participants in the ritual are Aunt Milla and the retired priest.
Dr. Bless is mentioned briefly as one of the psychologists who is hired, at no insignificant cost, by Uncle Franz to cure Aunt Milla of her condition. However, neither Dr. Bless nor any of the other specialists hired by Uncle Franz is successful in curing Aunt Milla.
The narrator describes Uncle Franz on more than one occasion as “the kindest of men.” Franz, the patriarch of the family, made his fortune by importing and selling tropical fruits. During the war he expanded his business to include other fruits and vegetables. It is Franz’s decision not to commit his wife for her hysteria, choosing instead to organize and finance the daily ritual of decorating the Christmas tree and singing the carols. The narrator suspects early on that Uncle Franz is having an extramarital affair, a suspicion he eventually confirms. A further indication of Franz’s moral decay is that rumors begin to circulate that he has begun business practices that can in no way be described as “Christian.” Franz eventually gets the idea of hiring an actor to replace him during the evening rituals, a practice that is quickly adopted by all of the family’s adult members. Eventually, he is convinced by the narrator to replace the children with wax figures, and at the story’s conclusion he is said to be “tired of life” and complains that the servants at the house do not dust the wax children regularly and are taking advantage of him. It can be said that Uncle Franz represents Germany’s rush into economic activity as a way to avoid dealing with its past. Instead of addressing the root causes of his wife’s hysteria, Franz decides it is best to keep his wife believing that these are still the “good old days,” even if he must dive headlong into his business activities and become “un-Christian” as a result.
Uncle Franz’s favorite son, Johannes is a highly successful lawyer as the story opens. However, as Aunt Milla’s condition worsens, rumors begin to circulate that Johannes has become a communist—a rumor that the narrator confirms by the story’s conclusion. Johannes uses his extensive connections and finds a company that can deliver Christmas trees throughout the year. An indication of the effect his mother’s hysteria has had on Johannes comes when he resigns from the choral society and declares in writing that he can no longer “devote himself to the cultivation of German songs”—a sure sign that the family’s nightly carol singing had deeply affected him.
Karl is Lucie’s “helpless spouse” who frequents “disreputable” places with Lucie. As Aunt Milla’s condition worsens, Karl begins to research countries where no Christmas trees are allowed and where the singing of carols is prohibited. By the story’s conclusion, he has found such a country located near the equator, and he and Lucie leave Germany for good.
Up until the moment her mother’s hysteria begins, Lucie is generally thought of by the narrator as a “normal woman.” Unmarried during the war, she volunteered in a local factory that embroidered swastikas. Following the onset of Aunt Milla’s condition, Lucie, along with Karl, her “helpless spouse,” is said to frequent “disreputable” places in the evening. Her own condition worsens to such a degree that following Christmas 1947, a year after her mother first became hysterical, Lucie begins to scream uncontrollably herself at the sight of discarded Christmas trees. Karl and she eventually move to an equatorial country that does not have Christmas trees and has a prohibition on the singing of carols. Prior to her departure, the narrator notes that she had essentially taken on an “existential” life; she had started wearing her hair in “bangs,” instead of the more acceptable fashion of the day, and sandals instead of shoes, and she had begun dressing herself in corduroys and “gaudy sweaters.”
Aunt Milla, the narrator’s aunt, is the source of the family’s “disintegration.” She is described by the narrator in several places with warm regard. Generally speaking, she is described as a kindly woman; however, her one peculiarity is “her particular fondness for decorating the Christmas tree”— an attribute the narrator describes as a “harmless if particular weakness that is fairly widespread in our Fatherland.” In fact, though, her fondness for the ritual is so strong that she views World War II “merely as a force that . . . jeopardize[d] her Christmas tree.” For a six-year period starting in 1940, Aunt Milla’s tree falls victim to the war and the country’s subsequent shortages of goods and supplies. She is finally able to decorate a tree at Christmas 1946, but when the tree is taken down on the eve of Candlemas, she begins to scream hysterically. The only “cure” for her screaming is for the family to continue the ritual of singing around the tree every evening thereafter, as if every day were Christmas. Symbolically, Aunt Milla, along with her family, comes to represent Germany’s unwillingness to recognize its Nazi past and its responsibility in the war.
The narrator is an unnamed nephew of Uncle Franz and Aunt Milla. He does not participate directly in the rituals, though it is as a result of his insistence that Uncle Franz replaces the children with wax figures. The success of the satire depends on the narrator being a member of the family but not one of the members who directly participates in the rituals. As a family member, the narrator is able to view the events with an empathy that would otherwise not be possible, and as a family member who is removed from the daily rituals, he is also able to be objective enough not to become too drawn in or detrimentally affected by Aunt Milla’s hysteria. It is Böll’s choice of this narrator that gives “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” the conviction it needs to succeed as a satire.
The family priest who originally participates in the family’s Christmas celebration decides by late spring that enough is enough, and he refuses to participate any longer. He is replaced by a curate who, during the course of the carol singing, laughs uncontrollably and also refuses to return. Eventually, the family finds a retired priest to participate. The priest represents, on one level, the close relationship and favored status Uncle Franz has, by virtue of his wealth and standing, with the church.