Christmas in the City

Erfurt’s Christmas Market

Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas market visits: Christmas is celebrated long before 25 December, almost worldwide, and it seems to have become a city festival long ago. This knowledge even makes some people feel a little guilty. Can it be called a Christmas party when it’s only Advent? Isn’t there too much jingle bells and too little Jesus child? Too much commerce and too little devotion? And perhaps going even deeper: Doesn’t the sweet Jesus child conceal the meaning of the Christian message of Christmas? But this text is not about a theological view, not about the question of what the true core of Christmas is. The religio-historical question is which traditions shape today’s practices, whether of Christians or non-Christians, of non-religious or religious people. To answer this, it is necessary to go deeper into history in a few steps, into pasts that still shape the present, here and elsewhere.

Step 1: The global family celebration

Christmas is the feast in and with the family. The commercialisation of the festival is based precisely on the reciprocal giving of presents and the willingness to spend a lot of money (and often on joint consumption) for our loved ones. It was not always like that. Christmas as a family celebration is romantic and Biedermeier. The fir tree in the middle-class living room is the most successful symbol of this connection. And perhaps the most successful German export product before the Volkswagen. Prince Albert of Saxony-Coburg and Gotha carried the Christmas tree into the palaces of his beloved Victoria – and from there they began their triumphal march into the Anglo-Saxon world, into the USA. And were further spread by Charles Dickens and Hollywood. The mass produced piano and the exploding number of Christmas songs make it possible to ritualize the domestic celebration even without any church organ. Johannes Daniel Falk not only composed “O du fröhliche”, but also built the Lutherhof in Weimar, a caring home for neglected children. The inventor of the Advent wreath, Johann Hinrich Wichern, himself an early orphan, invented it for a comparable institution. Especially for those lacking a family, “family Christmas” requires special efforts. That is another reason why many people donate these days for people in precarious situations, worldwide.

A Decorated Fir Tree – Symbol of Christmas.

Donations don’t just come from Christians. Even the folk song “O Tannenbaum“, “O fir-tree”, written in 1824, managed without any biblical figure. The bourgeois family Christmas does not need the church in principle – and nevertheless includes going to church even in the cities of Western and Central Europe. The long Advent season is today a time of preparation for Christmas presents, which works with a steady increase in symbols, first gingerbread, then lights, crib, scented candles, Nativity scenes. In the final phase, however, people like to leave themselves to the professionals, the specialists in the churches. And those know how to use the situation, how to mobilize against de-churching: with the Catholic invention of the “Feast of the Holy Family” at the end of the 19th century, with crib celebrations for different target groups and new ritual forms of Christmas praise today – baptism not presupposed. From the perspective of religious history, celebrating Christmas has always been a balancing act.

Step 2: Village community celebration

How was Christmas celebrated in front of the bourgeois family? A look into the folklore and the anthropological, folklore and local history museums give an impression. There, temporary rulers of the village are roaming and howling, clubs are carrying meter-high torches to a local mountain on December 24th, and horrible-looking women are beating their way through the village streets. Groups of children ring through the houses and perform scenes of shepherds or narratives from cribs in a more harmless way. Shepherds and kings – then towards the end of the Christmas season – fill their sacks in a similar way. Christmas is at the winter solstice and at the end of the year, and this has provided a helpful and problematic calendar setting right from the start. A Christmas party in the circle of friends is also at the end of the year – like so many company celebrations.

Even before “Merry Christmas”, Christmas was merry and loud. The village rituals marked (and in some places still mark) a state of emergency. Particularly the special role of those otherwise second or third in “rank” – children, young people, women – strengthened the broader community of the village to which even adult men had to subordinate themselves. After all, it was winter. When it wasn’t about big fires, village life was transferred to the heated rooms: there was no barrier of privacy behind which one could hide. It was worse not to be able to get a visit from these monsters or kings.

That, of course, is a Christmas, which did not please a renewed Christianity. The protagonists of the Reformation did not only want to end church Latin, but also such “pagan nonsense”. The rigorous solution was to ban Christmas. The Puritans in England banned Christmas in 1649, in Boston, North America, in 1659. Clearly these bans did not last long. It was better to convert suitable customs to Christian customs or to theologically upgrade them. Not only Catholic baroque princes enjoyed Christmas theatre plays.

Step 3: The poor Jesus child

Spiritual performances, however, were not an invention of the early modern period. To see a Jesus figure being raised at Easter or on Ascension Day and disappearing behind the church ceiling is different from just hearing some short biblical text. Playing along, whether as the one who carries a cross or as the evil Pilate, enabled a different experience. The same applies to all the Maries, Josephs and shepherds of the Christmas performances. Already for medieval piety, emotional identification, compassion and help were the most important approaches of an intensified, individualized Christianity.

The Christ Child in the Crib.

What Good Friday performances and processions offered to the men, the Jesus child, wrapped in diapers and in the cradle, offered to women and girls. Since 1300 the wrapped Jesus developed as a baby doll. At first it was made as a toy by and for nuns. From then on, it spread as a girl’s toy or handicraft project – even into the middle-class children’s rooms. Rocking the Christ child (Kindelwiegen) – which Josef, who was initially presented as old and thertefore weak , was not yet able to do – became a religious achievement. Mary showed it off in the pictures of the High Middle Ages, she lovingly looked at the child in the manger, took it out, breastfed it. But Joseph also had to find his role and later became an active foster father who supplied his wife and child with the porridge he had stirred.

It was Franciscan and Dominican monks who, from the 13th century, gave these scenes a central place in the piety that they themselves practiced and preached. In their entourage, crib depictions appeared in the following centuries. After the Reformation it was the Jesuits who placed this object at the centre of their Christmas games. It quickly spread as something that could also be set up in one’s own home as a Christmas symbol. The crib, a feeding trough for animals, not a sleeping place for people and at the same time an old iconographic motif, became the object of devotion as well as an invitation to action – and this tradition is also part of the contemporary approach to Christmas.

Step 4: The Son of God

Christmas is older than the Middle Ages. But it’s not “super-ancient”. For those Jews of the first centuries, who saw themselves as “Christians”, the crucified one was important as the first Person persecuted by the Romans, and a resurrected Jesus was identified as the future ruler of the world. Christmas was only invented when minds heated up on the question of how exactly Jesus Christ was to be thought of: an angel of God? God in human disguise? a man who became God? God and man at the same time?

How to celebrate the appearance of the Redeemer became a declaration of war. Natalis domini, “Birthday of the Lord”, was really for the “true man”, a slap in the face for all the churches and theologians who saw only God in Christ. The “appearance” (Epiphany) in the manger conveyed the same message: down with the false believers. In the eastern Mediterranean, for example, this was emphasized by the fact that Mary was represented not only as the Mother of God, but also as the mother of a human being: She was laid on a puerperium, close to a bath tub – it was just a real birth with midwives and the first bath of the newborn. Where that was not important, she would sit next to it and looking around.  

While in Constantinople in the middle of the 4th century, the theologians argued, the church in Rome introduced 25 December, the churches in Alexandria or Jerusalem 6 January as Christmas Day. The one date before, the other after the beginning of the new year on 1 January. No one had ever claimed to know the day Jesus was born. From the beginning, Christmas was associated with celebrations and rituals of the end of the year and the turn of the year – or competed with them, with Saturnalia and sun worship, with New Year customs and divination about the future. Which of the two dates became more important depended on power and trade relations. In Armenia the 25th of December never arrived, in Gaul, later called France, it interrupted at first only briefly a six-week fast before Epiphanias. Advent was also a question of interpretation: Preparation for Christmas, for the celebration of the historic birth of Jesus, as with the Romans, or preparation for the Second Coming, the Last Judgment? Here most of today’s practices position themselves very clearly, namely Roman. Protestant strongholds are on the same page. For confessional sophistry, Christmas was no longer the most important place in modern times.

5. Going to Bethlehem and into the stable

But where in a spatial sense does Christmas belong? Are people adequately celebrating Christmas in the hustle and bustle of the inner cities, crowded with Christmas markets? Does not Christmas belong where it actually happened: out in the fields, in the mountains, where the view of the star is unspoiled by light pollution and the shepherds do not have to be afraid of being run over? One does not have to think of the nationalist excesses – especially the “German Christmas”, which the Nazi regime used and pretended to protect – to ask this question. The answer leads back one last step.

The Nativity – Jesus’s birth in a stable.

Since the fourth century Jesus was born in a lonely stable or even, in Eastern Mediterranean traditions, in a cave. The greatest mystery of the world invisible to most, and yet visible to those who want to see it: the shepherds, in whom the respective viewers can find themselves, and the others, the Jews and the Gentiles, who become witnesses at least in the form of animals, as ox and donkey. The earliest narratives, probably written more than a century after the birth of Jesus (someone like Paul was not yet interested in biographical­­­ details), are unambiguous here. With Matthew and Luke, Jesus is born in the city of Bethlehem. Luke is really important for the urban: he emphasizes the urban character of Bethlehem, speaks of the lack of rentable spaces. The shepherds must leave their place of work, change their location. Epochs that were once again proud of their urban culture also settled their Christmas stables in their pictures in cities, in the Carolingian-Ottoman period, in the High Middle Ages and later. In this respect, the urban Christmas of the present is in a very old, even the oldest tradition. It is in the city in particular that the contrast of the Christmas story increases. Right here, the stable is even more a place that is inappropriate for a birth. This tension does not spare any tradition.

— Jörg Rüpke

Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is the co-spokesperson of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal formations”.

All images (c) Jörg Rüpke.

Recent Talks by Members of the KFG

Jörg Rüpke, one of the spokespersons of the KFG recently delivered a lecture at the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of the Monotheistic Religions at Doshisha University, Japan. The lecture on “Urban Religion – Religion and the City in Historical Perspective” can be viewed here:

Susanne Rau, the other spokesperson of the KFG, delivered a lecture on “Religion and Urbanity” at the University of Regensburg.

Our fellow Cristiana Facchini gave a talk entitled ‘“Gli dei della città”: Secolarizzazione e urbanizzazione.’ in Torino, Italy, as part of a conference organised by Il Centro Culturale Protestante and il Centro Teologico of Torino. In Erfurt, she works on a project entitled “As a nautilus shell … Religious Diversity and Urbanity. A historical journey”.

Finally, our annual conference “Urban Heterarchies: Changing Religious Authority and Power in Cities” took part from 11-13 December 2019. Members of the KFG, fellows and external speakers contributed to a stimulating discussion on heterarchies, religion, and cities from antiquity to the twentieth century. You can find some highlights on Twitter under #UrbRel2019. A more detailed conference report will be published soon.

Sacred Places and their Co-Use

The third edition of our ‘Religion and Urbanity’ city walk continued our exploration of dynamic religious spaces in Erfurt. While last time we looked at the transformation of religious spaces, for this new Edition., we engaged with diachronic (plurality of usages over time) and synchronic co-use (confessional coexistence) of sacred places.

Besides rehabilitation, confiscation and change of use that resulted in the desacralisation of religious spaces, certain sacred places also underwent confessional changes or opted for bi-confessionalism. These examples of negotiation of allegiance and confessional mobility speak for the dynamism of sacral topography: religious places were constantly re-negotiated and re-affirmed.

The first station of our walk was the Old Synagogue, an emblematic monument for the city of Erfurt, and a place illustrating an ambivalent city narrative. Dendrochonological evidence date it back to 1094, making it one of the important religious places of early medieval Erfurt (and the oldest still standing synagogue building in Europe). The old synagogue was a solid cut stone monument, competing in size with other important religious buildings of the time. It represents, along with the so called ‘treasure of Erfurt’, now preserved in its underground room, the vibrancy and growth of Erfurt’s medieval Jewish community. Its activity and social life was tightly woven with Erfurt economic success as a ‘Messestadt’ and woad producing place. However, 1349 was the tragic year of the massacre of the entire Jewish community as part of wider persecutions during a plague epidemic. The synagogue was damaged and converted into a warehouse. Later Jewish communities rebuilt synagogues that never reached the size and importance of the original one. The building of the old synagogue was used for storing goods until the 19th century, when the building eventually got converted into a ballroom and a restaurant. The wooden railing and the painted decoration in the first floor of the building are reminiscent of the place being used for dancing. The desacralisation and long historical omission might have protected the monument during the Nazi period. It is only in the 1990ies that rising interest for history and heritage brought to light the significance of the monument. The restored building is now a museum and place of memory.

The Old Synagogue, Erfurt (see here for copyright information).

Another example, in a very different context, of diachronic co-use of religious space is the Kaufmannskirche. Contrary to the Old Synagogue, the Kaufmannskirche did not suffer desacralisation, but it witnessed the movement of confessional change following the Reformation and thus underwent spatial and interior desig re-arrangements. The Kaufmannskirche owes its name to its function of parish church of Erfurt’s first market. We saw during our previous walks that monasteries and other religious foundations developed very large religious space within the walled city, but as a parish church, the Kaufmannskirche was of particular importance. In the early 16th century, the introduction of the Reformation brought agitation to the city: Martin Luther preached in the Kaufmannskirche in 1522 about his doctrines in order to defuse rising conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The community of the church supported the Lutheran ideas and the church became a Protestant church. After the choir suffered heavy damages in 1594, the entire choir furniture was redone in line with a Protestant program: pulpit, baptismal font, altar and epitaph were carved by the carpenter masters Hans Friedemann the Older and the Younger. These Renaissance masterpieces reflect a Protestant iconography, while the same carpenter workshop also produced furniture pieces for the Dom and other Catholic religious spaces – another example of confessional cohabitation.

Erfurt’s Kaufmannskirche. (See here for copyright information).

The last station of our walk took us to the Reglerkirche, a contemporary example of pluri-confessionnal use. Both Catholic and Protestant services take place there, and it presents itself today as a space shared by the Augustinians (Catholic) and the Protestant Reglerkiche community. The co-use of the church is regulated through th allocation of different time slots to each service, ecumenical services are also organised. The church’s connection to the Augustiner-Chorherren goes back to the foundation of the place: The church was started 1130 by the Augustinians canons ‘regular’, thus the name of the monument. The collegiate Reglerkirche was the first church when entering from the south of the city: For this reason, it got significance in the context of Erfurt trade activity and medieval economic dynamism. The church became Lutheran in 1525 as many other religious places of the city did. Yet some churches remained Catholic: The bi-confessionnal geography of the Erfurtian city space illustrates the un-achieved attempt to adopt Lutheranism during the 16th century. During the French occupation (Napoleonic wars), the Reglerkirche also serves as a ‘Lazarett’ or hospital and local asylum for the sick. After this short period that also reflects on the transformative capacity of a religious space, the monument was renovated and served again as a church.

The Reglerkirche in Erfurt. (See here for Coypright information).

With these three stations enriched by fascinating discussions, the time allocated to the walk was soon over. We are thankful to all the participants and look forward to update you on the project. Please feel free to send us your suggestions and comments to:

Sara Keller

Sara Keller is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in medieval Indian history, especially water works in western India.