Christmas Not Just Once a Year Themes
by Heinrich Boll

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Christmas Not Just Once a Year Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

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Böll’s family was devoutly Catholic, and until 1969 when they were forced to leave the church because of their refusal to pay church taxes, he and his wife remained practicing Catholics. In “Christmas Not Just Once a Year,” Uncle Franz uses his connections and his economic standing to build a favored relationship with his parish. When the family priest finally decides, after several months, no longer to participate in the family’s evening rituals, a prelate is quickly sent to take his place. However, the replacement laughs throughout the family’s ritual and does not return, and Franz files a formal complaint with the church. The complaint is eventually dismissed, but Böll seems to be commenting on the favored relationship that Franz has with the church by virtue of his economic status.

During the 1920s and 1930s, when Böll’s father lost his business and the family house because of the economy, and while Hitler was rising to power, Böll’s family remained close and provided Böll with a shelter from all the social and economic unrest of the time. Much of his work portrays the family structure in a positive light. In “Christmas Not Just Once a Year” the family structure once again plays a positive role, to a large degree, in the characters’ lives. Uncle Franz’s bomb shelter keeps the family from harm during the war, and his connections keep the family fed during difficult times. However, while Aunt Milla is devoted at all costs to keeping her family together through the tradition of tree decorating, her inability to accept the changed reality of her circumstances leads to the family’s ultimate disintegration. The family structure, in this case, comes to symbolize the greater “family” of Germany. Just as Aunt Milla’s family is unable to understand how destructive their refusal to face reality is, Germany’s refusal to acknowledge its own reality vis-à-vis the war and the Holocaust was just as destructive.

German Reconstruction
Germany’s economic, industrial, and social infrastructures were decimated by the war. Whole sections of cities were left abandoned, and families wanting to start a new life could often move into a house and call it their own by agreeing to its renovations. Cologne itself lost more than seven hundred thousand of its inhabitants in the war. There are some hints of this situation in “Christmas Not Just Once a Year.” On his way to visit his uncle and aunt, the narrator must walk by “overgrown piles of rubble and neglected parks.” One of Böll’s arguments is that in the aftermath of World War II, Germany’s headlong rush into rebuilding its economy prevented it from adequately addressing its role in the war. Uncle Franz, a highly successful business man, symbolizes this aspect of German reconstruction for Böll.

Historical Amnesia and the Holocaust
In the early 1950s, when Böll wrote “Christmas Not Just Once a Year,” a minority of Germans believed that they were responsible for the war, and very few claimed knowledge about the Holocaust. The Jewish population in Germany had been annihilated, and there were no national moves to discuss reparations or acknowledge the great loss of human lives due to Nazi policies. Böll believed that if Germany was unwilling to address its past and directly confront its own role in the Holocaust, it would “disintegrate” much like Aunt Milla’s family disintegrates around her while she lives as if every day were Christmas. Böll’s satire is a direct response to the historical amnesia he perceived his country was experiencing.

The tradition of Christmas and its rituals is obviously a vital part of Aunt Milla’s life. In “Christmas Not Just Once a Year,” Christmas comes to symbolize the tradition of Christian Germany’s way of life as it existed before the war: Each year families decorate tress, sing carols, and on the eve of Candlemas, they take down their trees to signify the end of the season. World War II interrupted that tradition, and it is Aunt Milla’s steadfast and absurd desire to keep the tradition alive year round, as if she can make up for the lost time caused by the war. Böll seems to be saying that while traditions are important, Germany is hiding behind its own traditions as a means of escaping reality. Like Aunt Milla, Germany is not able to set aside its obsession with returning to the “good old days” long enough to recognize the horrors it inflicted during the war. Another, more subtle comment Böll’s use of the Christmas tradition seems to reveal is that although Aunt Milla’s experience clearly shows the steep price the family must pay to keep their tradition alive day in and day out, at least they are able to continue with that tradition. Because of German war policies, the entire German Jewish population was annihilated, and with it the many traditions Jews practiced on a daily and yearly basis.

World War II was a pivotal event in Germany’s history. Prior to the war the country had built the strongest military in Europe, but its defeat at the hands of the Allied forces virtually destroyed every aspect of its society. The role of its citizens in the Holocaust would eventually become an important topic of discussion and debate throughout Germany, but for many years the country refused to acknowledge that as an issue. In “Christmas Not Just Once a Year,” the narrator essentially apologizes to the reader for bringing up the war. Although none of the family members was killed during the war, it nevertheless had a profound effect on them, as evidenced by Aunt Milla’s hysteria.