The Death of God and the Birth of Christ
The proclamation of the death of god and a celebration of the birth of baby Jesus might seem somewhat at odds. So it may be surprising to discover that Friedrich Nietzsche was a fan of the festive season. Sure, he famously declared that god was dead, but Christmas retained an allure for him that persisted throughout his life.
Like most of us, as a child he was especially caught up in its excitement. At age 13 he asks himself in his diary why he loves Christmas even more than birthdays and concludes that Christmas is:
‘The most blessed festival of the year because it doesn't concern us alone, but rather the whole of mankind, rich and poor, humble and great, low and high. And it is precisely this universal joy which intensifies our own mood’.
This childhood enthusiasm colours his adult attitude to Christmas. In The Wanderer and His Shadow, Nietzsche yearns that all men should:
‘Share the experience of those shepherds who saw the heavens brighten above them and heard the words “On earth peace, good will towards all men.”’
These sentiments are quite out of character with his anti-democratic, elitist and even warlike polemic expressed elsewhere. Clearly, Christmas brings out the softer side of Nietzsche. At Christmas 1864, aged 20, he was unable to afford the fare home and so he writes to his mother and sister:
‘I do hope you will have a Christmas tree with lights… We will light a tree in the tavern but naturally that's only a pale reflection of how we celebrate at home, for the main thing, the family and circle of relatives, is missing… Do you remember what wonderful Christmases we had?… It was so lovely; the house and the village in the snow, the evening service, my head full of melodies, the togetherness… and me in my nightshirt, the cold, and many merry and serious things. All together a delightful atmosphere.’
As a young man, Nietzsche spent many Christmases with the Wagners. This speaks volumes regarding his intimacy with the great Richard Wagner and his family, as Christmas is very much a time for family among the Germans.
Wagner’s wife, Cosima, had her birthday on the 25th December, so these occasions were a double celebration. An excerpt from Cosima’s diary from Christmas 1870, when Nietzsche was 26, reads:
‘As I awoke, a swelling sound came to my ear, ever louder. I could no longer imagine it a dream, it was music sounding, and what music!... I was in tears but so was the entire household’.
Nietzsche was among the family members waiting on the landing with the fifteen-piece orchestra that awoke Cosima on Christmas morning. Later he gifted her a copy of his essay ‘The Origin of Tragic Thought’ which was really a dry run for his first major work The Birth of Tragedy. His own Christmas gift from the Wagners that year was a copy of the collected works of Michel de Montaigne, of whom Nietzsche was an avid fan.
The giving and receiving of presents delighted Nietzsche. During Christmas 1873 he wrote to a friend excitedly reeling off his booty:
‘A gilt photo album for large photographs, a wooden letter holder with a carved floral design from Elizabeth [his sister], items made of Russian leather from Princess Therese of Altenburg [his father had been tutor to the princess] and a large Raphael reproduction.’
Not too shabby.
Other Christmases were spent among friends of an intellectual bent, with dinner, wine and piano music late into the night (Nietzsche was a very capable piano player, as were many of his friends). This was interspersed with readings of thinkers from Plato to Voltaire, which inspired lively debate.
Not every Christmas was so full of joy however. Christmas day 1882 came on the heels of a very upsetting estrangement from his best friend, Paul Reé, and the woman Nietzsche had fallen in love with, Lou Salomé - the pair had run off together. Poor Nietzsche wrote to his friend, Overbeck, of his despair. He was taking huge doses of sleeping drugs and hiking up to eight hours a day, yet he still could not sleep. It didn’t help that he had also alienated himself from his mother and sister - the latter having taken a pathological dislike to Salomé.
‘This bite of life… is the hardest I have ever had to chew’.
He adds that he is ‘going through all phases of self-overcoming’ as a consequence of the loss of Salomé and worries that he is not up to it:
‘If I don't invent the alchemist's art of making gold from shit - from this too - I am lost. Here I have the best possible opportunity to prove that, to me, ‘all experiences are useful, all days holy and all men divine!’’
Another grim Yule, that of 1887, sees him writing to his sister, Elizabeth, on Christmas day:
‘You have committed one of the greatest stupidities - for yourself and for me! Your association with an anti-Semitic chief [Elizabeth’s husband to be, Bernhard Förster] expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy… It is a matter of honour with me to be absolutely clean and unequivocal in relation to anti-Semitism, namely, opposed to it, as I am in my writings… that the name of Zarathustra is used in every Anti-Semitic Correspondence Sheet, has almost made me sick several times.’
This is just one of many instances of Nietzsche making his disapproval of anti-Semitism clear. These views were glossed over by the Nazis when his philosophy was appropriated for their cause.
It is true that Nietzsche had some rotten Christmases. Haven’t we all? And yet, as is the case for many of us, it still possessed for him a glimmer of something just a little magical. Why might this be?
Arguably the reason it still represented something valuable, even after Nietzsche’s wholesale rejection of Christianity and its morality of loving thy neighbour, is that the idea of the great festival was of crucial importance to his conception of positive human culture.
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche’s madman says that the only way humanity can atone for the murder of god is to invent ‘festivals’ and ‘sacred games’. For Nietzsche, his atheism notwithstanding, such communal comings-together held a quasi-religious importance, as they forged a cultural identity - a cultural identity in which the individual was subsumed within the whole. This is his essential dynamic of the Dionysian realised at a societal level. He believed that at an early stage of Greek culture, such festivals were a key means of consolidating a powerful and productive culture through communal passion. His hope had been that Wagner’s art could, likewise, be a means of achieving a contemporary renewal of European culture. This is the thrust of his book The Birth of Tragedy. These hopes were dashed, however.
With regard to Christmas, recall the words of the 13-year-old Nietzsche:
‘It doesn't concern us alone, but rather the whole of mankind… It is precisely this universal joy which intensifies our own mood.’
For Nietzsche, despite its defunct Christian trappings, the festival of Christmas was a time for a mass coming-together, an experience of the ‘universal’ (rather than the individuated) and a time for one to be immersed in the ‘joy’ of self-transcendence through the loss of one’s own identity in the greater body of the community.
To all you subscribers of The Nietzsche Self Help Experiment, I wish you a Christmas filled with Dionysian ecstasy and a New Year of Nietzschian Self-Overcoming.
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