Heinrich Böll was first and foremost known as a political writer. In speeches and essays, Böll continually described the purpose of his writing as political, asserting that he did not believe there was a separation between his literary life and his political one. In 1951, he was invited to join “Group 47,” writers who were committed to democratic ideals; eighteen years later, in 1969, he was elected president of the West German PEN, an organization devoted to the politics of literature, and in 1971 he was elected as president of the international PEN.
“Christmas Not Just Once a Year” takes place in the years immediately following World War II. Böll himself had participated in the war as a Nazi soldier. In the course of the war, he wrote hundreds of letters home to his wife, many of which explicitly criticized Germany’s role in the war, and Böll also spent some time as a deserter before being captured by the Americans, which he celebrated as an act of liberation.
Germany, once considered to be the economic and military powerhouse of Europe, had been reduced to rubble by the war. In Böll’s hometown of Cologne, for instance, the population was reduced from over eight hundred thousand before the war to less than thirty thousand. Entire city blocks throughout the country were abandoned, and families trying to rebuild their lives were given opportunities to move into abandoned houses and start anew. The narrator alludes to some of this devastation when he describes walking “past overgrown piles of rubble and neglected parks” as he makes his way to his uncle’s house.
More important for the story, however, is the emotional and psychological rubble the war left behind. Germany was the clear aggressor of World War II. Without Hitler’s aggressive military actions prior to the war and without his policy of eliminating European Jewry along with other “undesirables,” there probably would not have been a European war. And in the years immediately following its defeat, as the full horrors of those policies were made known to the world, German citizens were forced to deal with their role in those horrors.
Most major politicians, and most of the population, chose not to address the war directly. Instead, they argued, it was best for Germany to look “forward,” and not “backward,” and the country should let the past be the past. For Böll, however, it was necessary to understand the past in order to move into the future. “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” can be read as his statement to that effect: that by pretending that life is like it was before the war, that by pretending that every day can be like “Christmas,” Germany was in danger, like Aunt Milla and her family, of complete “disintegration” and “collapse.”
Indeed, one of the strengths of “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” is its timelessness. The issue of Germany’s “collective guilt” would continue to be played out in public spheres for the next two decades; it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that German society as a whole—at least West German society—began to discuss the Holocaust publicly in any depth. And by the time the Berlin Wall was finally torn down in 1989 and East and West Germany were once again united, a whole new issue of German guilt, which “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” could also work to address, suddenly arose— namely, the East German’s collective guilt over its communist past.
Narrative Point of View
It is significant that the narrator of “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” is a cousin of the family that is directly affected by the aunt’s hysteria. This point of view allows him just enough distance to view events somewhat objectively, although he admits that throughout much of the time in which the story takes place even he did not notice the extent to which the events had gotten out of control. A daughter or son of the aunt could not remove her or himself enough from the story to narrate it...
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