Was there always a hearty feast during the Christmas season or were the holidays celebrated quite differently in the past? Cultural anthropologist Gunther Hirschfelder speaks with DW about a seductive sin: gluttony.
During Advent and Christmas, people feast themselves in Germany like there's no tomorrow. At Christmas markets, at Christmas parties and among families, the tables sink under the weight of delicacies such as gingerbread, cookies or a holiday roast. Gunther Hirschfelder, of the University of Regensburg, is a cultural anthropologist who deals, among other things, with the Germans' eating and drinking habits. Our DW interview reveals some surprising facts about gluttony during the holiday season.
DW: Mr. Hirschfelder, has gluttony always been something negative?
Gunther Hirschfelder: For thousands of years, we humans suffered from the fact that as a species, as a social group and as individuals, we did not have enough to eat. Until the middle of the 19th century, people always had a dramatic undersupply of calories, so that being fat was regarded as fundamentally positive. Eating a lot and eating well was the privilege of the rich.
But even in ancient Greece, there were attempts to consider moderation as a virtue and gluttony as something bad. There was a fundamental paradigm shift only with the moralization of nutrition during the Reformation in the early 16th century. Appeals for moderation became the cultural norm.
But on Christmas Eve, I suspect people have always just dug in.
On the contrary. For centuries, Christmas dinner was not a special event at all. The pre-Christmas period of fasting, which was only interrupted by Saint Nicholas Day, was required by the Catholic Church until 1917 and was practiced even beyond that. Research shows that the basic tenet of fasting was still evident even in the 1930s and 40s. Until then, Advent was a time of preparation for Christmas, a time of silence, contemplation and spiritual introspection.
Christmas festivities, however, have played an increasingly important role since the 19th century. In fact, Easter had always been the highlight of the church year. But with advances in literature, Christmas became a theme of German bourgeoisie and family — and that's when such feasts developed. But the period of great gluttony actually only began in the 1950s.
How did that express itself?
The 50s are sometimes referred to as the "gorging period," and it's statistically verifiable. You can see how the consumption of sugar, meat and alcohol rose sharply. Previously, there were simply economic times of need which did not make this possible.
In the middle of the 20th century, more and more Christmas and Advent products came onto the market and demand rose. Consumption increased markedly because Germany was changing from a society of supply to a consumer society. Advent gradually evolved as a period of great fasting to one of accentuated feasting. There was an increasing demand for things that were previously difficult to obtain, such as white flour and sugar. These were of high value, just as meat and alcohol were.
Advent calendars with chocolate were already available at the beginning of the 20th century, but the economic crises and the two world wars made this luxury impossible. After the Second World War, things were completely different. Before that, only the Advent Sundays and Christmas itself were celebrated. In the 50s and 60s, the festive season expanded through the entire Advent season plus Christmas Eve plus Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
And today, all the Christmas and Advent products are available throughout the country from late summer onward.
Where does this zest for the celebratory and overindulging stem from?
We live in a society of permanent over-regulation when it comes to eating and nutritional imperatives, which is certainly physiologically quite good, but which does not appeal to the emotional and cultural needs of many people. For this reason, societies repeatedly choose occasions to break out of these regulatory mechanisms.
Advent and the Christmas season are turned into occasions of special foods and drinks. And the psychological effect for many people is: "Normally I eat a healthy diet, but now it's Advent." Periods allowing for minor exceptions are created that serve as an outlet or a release.
And the less of a role religion or the church plays in society, the greater the importance of food. Traditionally, Christmas Eve marked the end of the fasting period. So there were traditional dishes such as herring salad or potato salad and so on, which were then perhaps pepped up with a little Viennese sausage, but it was primarily always a small meal.
So potato salad and sausages were the Christmas dinner back then?
Christmas Eve marked the end of fasting period and thus lighter, simpler food was eaten then. Only with the transition into the night does the celebratory character play a role, as the Holy Night marks the birth of Christ. On Christmas morning, the baby is lying in the manger. That is then the great occasion for celebration.
Many people were aware of these connections over long periods of the 20th century. With desacralization, the whole thing became reversed: The typical fasting meal became a feast, with the herring salad or potato salad turned into a luxury fish platter. The more we lose sight of the spiritual-liturgical character, the more on Christmas Eve we celebrate not the birth of Christ, but ourselves. We are moving away from a Christian feast to a seasonal feast. And of course there is one central function: Christmas Eve has become the most obligatory social meeting of the year.
Like Thanksgiving in the US?
Even more so, because the framework is bigger. There are social events in companies, in one's circle of friends and in clubs. "Celebrating Christmas before Christmas" plays an important role. And the most striking family celebration, the common thread for many people, is Christmas.
Isn't all this gluttony just a gigantic form of compensation?
We live in a time of change and uncertainty. As a society we are afraid of the future and of the present. We feel as though we are in crisis mode, but are not in a position to endure so much crisis over the long term. If in the past one could say: "…A child has been born for us," today, we also have good news: "Dinner is ready."
One looks forward to it; there are the things which are otherwise uncommon and expensive. Discount supermarkets advertise with Christmas motifs and gear up to demonstrate: Only the best and all of it only for you, with the goods packed like gifts. And these fictitious gifts we actually give to ourselves.
In addition, given our modern event and thrill-seeking society, we have to turn everything into something special. We can't stand everyday routine anymore. And of course Christmas adds an outstanding layer to this. For example, I won't drink just a normal beer from a six-pack; it rather has to be a craft beer or a regional beer or a Christmas beer, an Oktoberfest beer — this whole unbelievable range. Christmas makes the unbearability of everyday life emblematic, with all these alleged specialties on offer.
And every year Christmas has to get bigger and better, but there is a permanent disappointment compared to the feeling you had when you were a child on Christmas Eve.
That is the essence of a capitalist consumer society. People have a permanent buying imperative. That is the logic of consumption, which is never satisfied unless you buy more. That is exactly the difference to religion. You can discuss this controversially, but a religious preoccupation or a scientific introspection into how something works offers meaning, while consumption others no meaning whatsoever.
So more and more people overindulge because consumption is stimulated more and more?
Yes, and that is also the logic of an "event." In contrast to a tradition, an event must be permanently stepped up. Otherwise, it implodes, and of course we will also experience implosion and change at Christmas dinners and Christmas markets. In fact, the Christmas market has already imploded to the extent that it has been replaced by a winter folk festival spanning an entire season.