During the Christmas season in Germany, you’ll hear plenty of Silent Night and O Tannenbaum—two Christmas carols that originated there. But during the Third Reich, you were more likely to hear a hymn called Exalted Night instead of one about a silent night.
The popular hymn, which dwelled on motherhood, renewal, and holiday fires, seemingly fit right in with the rest of the Christmas songs. But like so much in Nazi Germany, it was a carefully constructed fake, written by a Nazi songwriter as part of an attempt to apply Adolf Hitler’s hateful ideology to Christmas.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis did their best to transform Germany’s beloved Christmas traditions into Nazi ones. Though Hitler’s attempts to create a national church failed, his party’s attempt to redefine religious celebrations was more successful. To do this, they used ideology and propaganda to put the holiday in line with the national socialists’ anti-Semitic values.
The Nazis’ problem with Christmas was baked into Christmas itself. After all, Jesus was a Jew—and both anti-Semitism and the goal of eradicating Jews and Jewishness were at the very core of Nazi ideology.
This presented a problem when it came to Germany. Not only was the nation devoutly Christian, but it was the place where many Christmas traditions, like Advent calendars, Christmas trees and Christmas markets, were born. The Nazis knew it would be impossible to eradicate Christianity entirely, so they decided to rework it in their own image.
At first, notes historian Gerry Bowler, Nazis simply tried to take over Christmas as a party ritual. They inserted Nazi imagery and even Nazi party officials into things like nativity scenes and Christmas parties. They also worked to create positive associations between the Nazis and winter with gigantic welfare drives during the colder months.
The Hitler Youth and the Band of German Girls, the party’s official youth organizations, helped collect coats and money for party members and poor Germans affected by the Great Depression. But as the years went on and Germans continued to celebrate a Christian Christmas, the Nazis’ tactics evolved.
To distract Germans from their time-honored Christian traditions, the Nazis increasingly looked toward Germany’s pagan past. They emphasized the possible role of pagan rituals in modern Christmas traditions. In the Nazis’ idealized, fictitious version of the past, Germanic (Aryan) tribes had racially pure rituals that could be recreated during Nazi times.
Among the most important was the celebration of the winter solstice. The Nazis attempted to move the date of Christmas to the solstice instead and mounted large performances and community bonfires that supposedly drew on pre-Christian rituals. They also tried to redefine St. Nicholas as Wotan, the ancient Germanic deity.
As the years went on, Nazi attempts to take over Christmas intensified. The Nazis rewrote the lyrics of “Silent Night” to remove all attempts to religion or Christ. They distributed Advent calendars for kids filled with propaganda and militaristic imagery. They even tried to rewrite Handel’s Messiah. Mothers were encouraged to bake swastika-shaped cookies. Even the familiar star that topped millions of Christmas trees was replaced by a sunburst that looked less like the Star of David.
Traditional Christmas celebrations became a protest against Nazism. “The apparently banal, everyday decision to sing a particular Christmas carol, or bake a holiday cookie, became either an act of political dissent or an expression of support for national socialism,” writes historian Joe Perry.
As wartime privations and bombings became more and more dire, many Germans stopped caring about Christmas at all. According to Perry, Berliners made a macabre joke during the harsh winters of 1943 and 1944: “Think practically—give coffins.”
Despite their attempts to take over Christmas traditions, only one tradition survived the end of the Third Reich: Exalted Night. The song was banned as Nazi propaganda in 1945, but was still sung by some families at least through the 1950s.
Today, it lives on in performances by neo-Nazi and far-right extremists in Germany—a chilling reminder that though the Nazis’ first war on Christmas failed, it could happen again one day.