Heinrich Böll’s “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” is a satire on Germany’s refusal to address the moral implications of its Nazi past. Written in 1951 as Germany was working feverishly to recover from the devastating effects of the war, the story was one of Böll’s many warnings that Germany faced an uncertain future of “disintegration” and possible “collapse” if it did not adequately treat the root causes of its historical and moral amnesia.
To convey this warning, Böll chose as the narrative voice a calm and slightly detached nephew of Aunt Milla—the main character whose hysteria is the immediate cause of her family’s ills. This choice of narrator was crucial to the resounding success of “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” as a satire. By virtue of his close relationship to his aunt’s immediate family, the narrator is privy to enough family history and gossip to offer a comprehensive account of their troubles. However, as a once-removed relation, he is sufficiently protected from the immediate effects of Aunt Milla’s hysteria and is therefore able to comprehend the depths to which the family is sinking. And yet—and this is a crucial element to Böll’s underlying message— despite his knowledge, the narrator—just like his fellow countrymen who remained silent to the effects of Germany’s amnesia—is still unable or unwilling to intervene on behalf of the family’s welfare.
There is little disagreement among critics that “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” is not only one of Böll’s most successful satires but perhaps one of the Nobel laureate’s finest works. Erhad Friedrichsmeyer, writing in his University of Dayton Review article, “Böll’s Satires,” calls “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” one of Böll’s masterpieces. Böll scholar Robert C. Conard writes in Understanding Heinrich Böll that “Böll’s work in the satiric mode has no equal in postwar German literature,” and he adds that “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” is “not only a national classic but a satire for all ages.”
Set in the years immediately following World War II, “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” tells the story of Aunt Milla and the devastating effects her obsession with the family Christmas tree has upon her family. From 1940 to 1945, the war made it impossible for Aunt Milla and her family to have a Christmas tree. In 1946, the situation in Germany had improved enough to allow the family to renew the celebration, much to Aunt Milla’s delight, but when the tree is finally taken down, Aunt Milla begins to scream hysterically, and nothing can stop her. It is only when the family sets up another, fully decorated tree and repeats the celebration that her screaming stops. The narrator of “Christmas Not Just Once a Year,” an unnamed nephew of Aunt Milla, describes how the family, rather than ad dressing the source of Aunt Milla’s psychosis, celebrates “Christmas” in the family living room every night thereafter. This profound denial of reality gradually takes its toll on the family members, and by the story’s conclusion, a full two years has passed since Aunt Milla’s screaming had begun, and the narrator has detailed what can only be described as the complete “disintegration,” if not utter “collapse,” of Aunt Milla’s family.
One of the effects Böll’s story had was to highlight his country’s refusal to acknowledge its Nazi past and the devastation it was responsible for in the war. In 1951, Germany was in the early stages of its headlong rush into postwar reconstruction. Although the rest of the world considered Germany to be the prime instigator of the war and although the horrible truths of the Holocaust were becoming public, the country itself seemed either to be in great denial or in great ignorance of these basic truths. The vast majority of German...
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