Hermann Hesse: Thoughts on Christmas
This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)
When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, Hermann Hesse, still a German citizen but living in Switzerland, registered himself with the German army. Although he was found unfit for combat duty, he was assigned to care for German prisoners of war. Unlike many of his contemporaries, including writers, who supported the war efforts of their respective countries, Hesse opposed the war, and during the next several years, composed several essays outlining his opposition to the ongoing conflict.
Among these essays was the following:
Even before the great reminder, I always felt vague misgivings at Christmas time, an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Here was something pretty but not quite authentic, something universally trusted and respected but which nevertheless inspired a certain secret distrust.
Now that the fourth wartime Christmas is coming, I cannot dispel that taste in my mouth. True, I shall celebrate Christmas, because I have children and wouldn’t want to deprive them of a pleasure. But I shall celebrate this children’s Christmas in the same spirit as I celebrate the prisoners’ Christmas in the course of my war work – as an official gesture, a concession to a time-worn tradition, a dusty sentimentality. For the past three years we have been treating these unfortunate prisoners of war like hardened criminals, and now we send them pretty little boxes and packages with snippets of evergreen in them — it’s touching, sometimes I myself am moved, I imagine the feelings of a prisoner who receives his little present, the flood of memories that come over him as he smells his bit of evergreen. But at bottom that too is sentimentality.
All year long we keep the prisoners in confinement, though they have done nothing but let themselves be surprised by enemy action, and then on Christmas we visit these unfortunate hundreds of thousands or millions with tender gifts and remind them of the feast of love. That is just how we treat our children. Once a year we invite them to rejoice in the legend of divine love; for one evening, under the Christmas tree, we are touchingly attentive to them, while all the rest of the time we bring them up to shoulder the very fate that we all curse. When a prisoner of war throws the pretty Christmas package I have sent him in my face and tramples the sentimental evergreen, he is perfectly right. And when our children are not quite able to believe in our emotion, our beatitude in the presence of the Christ child, when they regard us as a wee bit hypocritical or ridiculous, they too are perfectly right. Except for a few sincerely religious people, our Christmas has long been sheer sentimentality. Or worse: a basis for advertising campaigns, a field for dishonest enterprise, for the manufacture of kitsch.
Why? Because for all of us, Christmas, the feast of childlike love, has long ceased to be the expression of a genuine feeling. It has become the exact opposite, a substitute for feeling, a cheap imitation. Once a year we behave as though we attached great importance to noble sentiments, as though it rejoiced us to spend money on them. Actually, our passing emotion at the real beauty of such feelings may be very great; the greater and more genuine it is, the greater the sentimentality. Sentimentality is our typical attitude toward Christmas and the few other outward occasions on which vestiges of the Christian order still enter into our lives. Our feeling on such occasions is this: ‘This idea of love is a great thing.’ How true that only love can redeem us! And what a pity that our circumstances allow us the luxury of this noble sentiment only once a year, that our business and other important concerns keep us away from it all the rest of the time! Such feeling has all the earmarks of sentimentality. Because it is sentimentality to comfort ourselves with feelings that we do not take seriously enough to make sacrifices for, to convert into actions.
When the priests and the pious complain that faith has vanished from the world and happiness with it, they are right. Our attitude toward all true human values is more barbarous and insensitive than anything the world has seen for centuries. This is evident in our attitude toward religion, in our attitude toward art, and in our art itself. For the widespread opinion that modern Europe has risen to unprecedented heights in art, or in ‘culture’ for that matter, is the invention of our culture-philistines.
The ‘cultivated’ man of today takes a characteristic attitude toward the teachings of Jesus: all year long he neither gives them a thought nor lives by them, but on Christmas Eve he gives way to a vague, melancholy childhood memory and wallows in cheap, tame, pious sentiments, just as once or twice a year, while listening to the St Matthew Passion for instance, he makes his bow to this long-forgotten but still troubling and secretly powerful world.
Everyone admits as much, everyone knows it, and everyone also knows that it’s very sad. We are told that political and economic developments are to blame, or the state, or militarism, and so on. Because something must be to blame. No nation ‘wanted the war,’ just as no nation wanted the fourteen-hour day, the housing shortage, or the high rate of infant mortality.
Before we celebrate another Christmas, before we try once again to appease our one eternal and truly important yearning with mass-produced imitation sentiment, let us face up to our wretched situation. No idea or principle is to blame for all our wretchedness, for the nullity, the coarseness, the barrenness of our lives, for war and hunger and everything else that is evil and dismal; we ourselves are to blame. And it is only through ourselves, through our insight and our will, that a change can come about.
It makes no difference whether we go back to the teachings of Jesus and make them our own again, or whether we seek new forms. Where they strike the eternal core of humanity, the teachings of Jesus and of Lao-Tzu, of the Vedas and of Goethe are the same. There is only one doctrine. There is only one religion. There is only one happiness. There are a thousand forms, a thousand heralds, but only one call, one voice. The voice of God does not come from Mount Sinai, it does not come from the Bible. The essence of love, beauty, and holiness does not reside in Christianity or in antiquity or in Goethe or Tolstoy – it resides in you, in you and me, in each one of us. This is the one eternal and forever identical doctrine, our one eternal truth. It is the doctrine of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ that we bear within ourselves.
Light the Christmas candles for your children! Let them sing carols! But don’t delude yourselves, don’t content yourselves year after year with the shabby, pathetic, sentimental feeling you have when you celebrate your holidays! Demand more of yourselves! Love and joy and the mysterious thing we call ‘happiness’ are not over here or over there, they are only ‘within ourselves’.
A contemporary reader will likely recognize many of his own thoughts at Christmastime upon reading this essay written more than a century ago. And many readers might even think that Hesse is opposed to, or even ambivalent about, the religious or secular observation of Christmas. A closer examination of the text, however, suggests that Hesse was not opposed to Christmas at all, but rather lamented the holiday’s compartmentalization in the larger context of modern society.
Two recurring themes in Hesse’s work are particularly evident in this essay: sentimentality and the infinite manifestations in the world of what many refer to as “God”. In the essay, Hesse defines sentimentality as “to comfort ourselves with feelings that we do not take seriously enough to make sacrifices for, to convert into actions”. For Hesse, the world war that was entering its fourth winter at the time he drafted the text was an everyday reminder of feelings for which few were willing to sacrifice – despite the—perhaps false—sacrifices that the war had nevertheless brought.
God’s appearance and interpretation in the world, regardless of religion, is a theme that occurred throughout Hesse’s works, and Hesse uses this theme in this essay to encourage his readers to not look for God’s presence in the outside world, where that presence was claimed and exploited everywhere, but to find that presence within themselves. And in finding “God” within themselves every day of the year, and not just during the Christmas season, Hesse hoped that humanity could find a return to salvation.
We can see, then, that this century-old essay is as relevant as ever. Today, amid a pandemic that has already lasted too long, with many people closed inside their homes and borders, isolated, Hesse reminds us that there are things that bring us closer together than we might think in our everyday lives.