For the state leadership of the German Democratic Republic, Christmas was a problem in the real existing socialism, the Christian holidays did not really fit into their ideology of an atheistic world.
Until the 1980s, those responsible for propaganda tried to reinterpret it. The end-of-year festival was a “festival of peace”. Often the newspapers simply wrote “the feast” for short. The Christmas bonus was renamed the end-of-year bonus.
In 1958, a propaganda work was published under the title “Peace is created by man alone”. It contained material for schools, factories, Pioneer and FDJ groups for ideological rearmament during the Christmas season.
Advent calendars were not allowed to be called such until the early 1970s. Instead, the term “pre-Christmas calendars” appeared on invoices and orders. Christian motifs were not allowed to be printed on them at all until 1973. Then, for the first time, a publishing house in Lusatia was given permission to depict the Christ Child and the Magi. But there were also socialist variants, such as an Advent calendar featuring young pioneers with scarves and caps. Other common motifs were Christmas markets or winter scenes with children. But they did not catch on; the most popular motif was a late Baroque church from the Erzgebirge.
Father Frost” was adopted from the Soviet Union and was to become a socialist rival to Father Christmas. But people accepted him only as an addition to Father Christmas.
They tried again and again, but it was no use. In 1982, SED Politburo member Kurt Hager, talking to West German DKP comrades loyal to the line, declared: “We lost Christmas long ago.”
There was also strong internal opposition to this. According to the BND, in 1979 a Stasi defector reported to the secret service people that the Stasi itself had exerted “moderating influence” on the GDR leadership. They had looked the people in the mouth and feared negative reactions.
For the socialist planned economists, however, there were practical problems as well as ideological ones.
The Dresden Christstollen was also a bestseller in the workers’ and peasants’ state. But some ingredients were simply not available domestically. Almonds, currants and candied orange peel had to be imported from capitalist countries for scarce Western dollars.
For the GDR economic functionary Alexander Schalck-Golodkovski, this was an untenable situation. He seriously recommended to his colleagues in the Politburo a so-called “Stollenschenkverbot”. The simple logic: if there are no tunnels, we don’t need to spend foreign currency on materials.
But his colleagues found this too tricky, so the hare-brained idea, like many others, was shelved.
After 45, the former Reichsbahn bunker in Friedrichstraße first served as a textile warehouse, and from 1957 it was the GDR’s central storage facility for dried and tropical fruit from Cuba. Run by the “Volkseigener Betrieb Obst Gemüse Speisekartoffeln” (People’s Own Fruit, Vegetable and Potato Company), the building quickly became known as the “banana bunker”. During the Christmas season, the Western imports so detested by Schalck-Golodkovski also landed there. So it became the “Christmas bunker” during this season.
Nevertheless, the basic materials were scarce. Especially for those who wanted to bake their own Stollen at home. At the beginning of autumn, many families began to collect ingredients for the Stollen. But certain ingredients were simply not available in the shops. Even many large bakeries were faced with problems that could hardly be solved. Albrecht Großmann, then production manager at the Döbeln bakery goods combine, remembers: “Sultanas were scarce, almonds were scarce, candied lemon peel and candied orange peel were not available at all, so we made do with the raw materials that were available.” For example, green tomatoes were candied as a citronate substitute and carrots as an imitation of candied orange peel.
Those who were lucky could count on loving relatives in the West. November/December saw an enormous increase in the number of parcels with the inscription “Gift! No merchandise!” increased enormously. Apart from coffee, cigarettes and ladies’ stockings, it was mainly ingredients for Stollen that filled the parcels. It often contained a Stollen or Christmas carving or wood-turning art from the Erzgebirge.
For the economic planners of the GDR, the West packages were a fixed item in the supply plan… And for the citizens, a welcome addition to the gift table.
Since it was impossible to beat the Christ Child and Father Christmas, people began to bring in their own aspects. No one could object to peace. But the pacifism of the GDR superiors always had a side taste. The NVA was presented as an indispensable part of the state, even at Christmas time. And even though war toys did not officially exist, many a Christmas tree contained a cable-operated battle tank, accompanied by toy soldiers.
“Guten Abend, schön Abend, es weihnachtet schon …” was one of the most popular Christmas carols widely sung in the GDR. The married couple Hans and Ilse Naumilkat wrote the lyrics in the 1950s and it was spread that the melody came from a funny folk song from the Eifel.
In fact, however, the melody came from a song from Austria, a song with a distinctly Christian content. Hail Mary, virgin of grace, you are full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Other changes in the hymnody met with approval in the West. In Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s song “Morgen kommt der Weihnachtsmann” (Father Christmas is coming tomorrow), the original reads: “Drum, whistle and rifle, flag and sabre and even more, yes, I’d like to have a whole army of war!” Hans Sandig, director of the Leipzig Radio Children’s Choir, rewrote this text into a more contemporary, peaceful, version: “Cradle, doll, ei der Daus, sugar stuff and crunchy house, yes a whole doll’s house I’d like to have!”
A classic in the memory of the GDR is the “winged end-of-year figure” that was supposedly an official term in the GDR for angels. In the West, this term was (and still is) always good for a laugh.
The only catch is that no one can prove with certainty where it comes from. There is no evidence of state use of the atheistic term, which does seem very convulsive.
The term is often attributed to the only official satirical magazine in the GDR, “Eulenspiegel”. But the Eulenspiegel author Ernst Röhl wrote that he had actually seen the term on a sales stand. It can be found in his 1986 book “Wörtliche Betäubung” (literal anaesthesia), in which he took aim at bureaucratic excesses of GDR language.
The historian Bodo Mrozek included it in his “Lexikon der bedrohten Wörter” (Dictionary of Endangered Words), but in the article he writes that the exact origin cannot be proven to this day.
While the Christstollen was hardly available in sufficient quantities, there was, as in many GDR areas, a lively barter trade with even rarer Christmas “Bückware”. (Bückwaren were articles that were not on the shelves, they were kept under the counter for special customers).
In winter, Seiffen incense smokers were one of many parallel currencies. Whether Trabi tyres or fruit, the products of the small businesses were highly sought after in the barter trade.
Nutcrackers and incense smokers were scarce because they were excellent foreign exchange earners. Most of the small businesses’ production went to capitalist foreign countries.
But even well-grown Christmas trees were in short supply. There were almost only pine trees. The good firs ended up in the West.
Many trees from the Erzgebirge were small and ugly. But since a running metre only cost two marks, two trees were often bought at once. The good branches of one tree were artfully sawn off and glued into small holes in the trunk of the other with the help of the GDR glue “Duosan Rapid”.
The beautifully made tree was decorated with colourful baubles that had been collected over the years and with tinsel. But even the tin tinsel was in short supply. So it was usually carefully removed from the tree after the festive season and stored away.
But Western families also did this to save money. In my Tempelhof family, this preliminary form of recycling was completely normal.
It may seem strange, but the East Berlin Christmas markets had a special charm for West Berlin visitors in the 70s. But for a family of several, a visit there in the 80s was a luxury. The 1980 increase in the compulsory exchange fee of 25 marks per adult visitor and 7.50 marks for six- to fifteen-year-old children was a high entrance fee for the otherwise admission-free Christmas market.
But roast wild boar, mulled wine, Alt-Berliner Bierbowle and Romanian Slibowitz were very cheap at the market on the Alex. Many a West Berliner reached the border crossing on the return trip heavily intoxicated and many a person missed the exit time. Carpooling was similarly cheap. It is understandable that for the GDR citizens the many wealthy citizens from the West on the market were not pure joy. For there were scarce goods at the market, which were then often bought away by the Westerners.