‘Christmas Not Just Once a Year’, by Heinrich Böll

This is my favourite festive story, a satire on post-war hypocrisies, and one of Heinrich Böll’s more absurd fictions, an illustration of the weird and dysfunctional ways in which families operate at Christmas- (or any) time.

It concerns a family much disturbed by the psychological breakdown of their wife and mother, the narrator’s Aunt Milla. Each year, this well-do-do, middle-class family prepares for Christmas in the usual fashion, except with the onset of peace and economic recovery they can celebrate as they did in the pre-war years: lavish tree decorations, candies and the familiar, familial singing of carols by the tree.

But that this year, on Candlemas Eve, when Milla’s son attempts to take the decorations down, she begins to scream: an impossible caterwauling without cease, one that can only be pacified if the family leaves the decorations up and by the ludicrous repetition of the Christmas traditions, every single evening, which includes the unseasonal spectacle of the recitation of the lyrics, “O Christmas Tree!” and “…in winter too, when snowflakes fall…” in the middle of June.

Aunt Milla is cocooned within the delusion that every day is Christmas Eve and her family are forced to collude in the delusion. Seasonal treats are prepared and eaten daily. Christmas trees are gone through at an alarming rate. Doctors and psychologists are of no use. The entire family, along with the local priest, are press-ganged into maintaining the façade to the detriment of their personal and moral degradation. At one point, paid actors are brought in to stand in for individuals members of the family who have bowed out.

It’s not the most heart-warming or traditional of Christmas fictions, but in a field of necessary, well-meaning tales offering cheer, optimism and good-will to et cetera… it stands out: a story that is comical and sad, about a clan so consumed by their aunt’s well-being they forfeit their own, and the hellish prospect of a family Christmas that never ends. If nothing else it may put some readers’ own and personal family horrors into perspective.

First broadcast – as ‘Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit’ in 1951 – and published in a collection with the same title in 1952.

Chosen by JL Bogenschneider, who is a writer of short fiction, with recent work published in The Island ReviewEllipsis ZineBurning House Press and theYork Literary Review.

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