Sunday, December 20, 2009

Goethe and the Rebirth of the Sun

Last year about this time I started looking for Christmas material to post on this blog, only to discover that Goethe wrote very little in the way of poetry about this Christian feast. In the meantime I came across a small book at the Goethe Institute here in Manhattan: "Christmas with Goethe" (Weihnachten mit Goethe). Anyone hoping to find Goethe expressing heartfelt joy at Christmas, however, will be sorely disappointed. The longest entries in an otherwise slender book (137 pages of large-print text in a 5x7 inch volume) are literary selections, from the Wilhelm Meister novels (e.g., "The Second Flight into Egypt"), or are vaguely anthropological ("Christmas in Naples," in Italian Journey).

Apparently Christmas did not go uncelebrated in Weimar. In a letter dated 20 December 1816, Marianne von Willemer informs August von Goethe that she has sent a package to Weimar that includes the kinds of sweets that Goethe père likes, including gingerbread cookies, as well as hams and sausages for August. Moreover, wrapped up with a pair of slippers for August is a "Christkindchen." I am not sure whether this is a figure for the Nativity manger, or whether it is another baked good in the shape of the infant Jesus. I think it must be the latter, because she writes that it is a gift for August and is an "allegorical allusion to their childhood." (She and August, who are about the same age, had got to know each other earlier in Frankfurt when he was visiting with his mother there.)

Marianne goes on: "You are, true, grown up now, but I am and remain small [i.e., a child]; and if the rest of the year I am large [i.e., an adult], every Christmas I become a child again." Goethe apparently liked the sweets that were profuse at Christmas, but not the sentiments that accompany the occasion. Still to be researched is whether Goethe wrote or said so little about Christmas because he disliked its Christian associations or because Christmas fell in the depths of winter. A clue is this report from Eckermann, dated Sunday, 21 December 1823:

Goethe's good mood was radiant again today. We have reached the shortest day, and the hope of seeing the days becoming significantly longer every week seems to exert the most favorable influence on his mood. "Today we are celebrating the rebirth of the sun!" he hailed me as I came in this morning. I hear that every year he spends the weeks before the shortest day in a depressed mood and goes around sighing.

As we approach the shortest day, the East Coast has become decked in snow. The snowfall began last evening.

I can't resist adding this rather weird image of the Flight into Egypt by Caravaggio. What would we do without Christian art!

Photo credit: McCutheon

No comments: