Johann Wichern’s Forgotten Advent Wreath: German Christmas Rites in America

With an Epilogue from President Harry S. Truman

From my Writing Room

Copyright © 2020 by Uwe Bahr

For many years, while living in Florida and Georgia, I have wondered why the paganic Christmas Tree (German: Weihnachtsbaum) and even Santa Claus (der Weihnachtsmann) have adapted a widespread popularity in the US, but not the equally traditional advent wreath. This observation is remarkable, all the more so because this particular wreath (Adventskranz) of German origin has a classic clerical history – as opposed to Santa and the illuminated tree used in nearly every living room nowadays in Western Europe and large parts of America as well.

German Advent Wreath in Blairsville, Georgia, December 2020

Whereas a decorated tree was already known in the days of the old Egyptians and then merely revived in a modern style by Germans during the time of the Holy Roman Empire[1] not even 300 years ago, the advent wreath has a much shorter history. Social reformer and evangelic-Lutheran theologist Johann Hinrich Wichern, one of the founders of the home mission movement and initiator of a rescue work for neglected children and adolescents in the northern German city of Hamburg, invented the wreath in 1839. Originally assembled with a candle for every day in December and larger candles for every Sunday, it later became a four-candle wreath only with the first candle lit on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve. This occasion is hence called the first of advent, followed in a consecutive order until the fourth candle is ready to light on the last Sunday before Christmas.

The original wreath from 1839 was intended to serve as a symbolic lifebelt for stranded, poor young Hamburgers, of which many where orphans. Wichern provided shelter for them in a way that was unique back then: For the first time, destitute were not kept in closed shelters penned up in a single, large room, but just a few at a time living in smaller houses instead, enjoying generous liberties such as freedom of action.

In light of grim developments in our present world I would like to include the following true piece of history in my little Christmas story – directed in particular at those Americans deeply lost with the term “socialism” that is permanently thrown at them these days by scheming gull-catchers from the political right:

The Hanseatic city of Hamburg rose to a rather flourishing place after the Napoleonic wars, but only twenty percent of the inhabitants profited from the wealth. For decades the church ignored to see the misery of the poor and their necessities as a society of the proletariat, which led to a widespread renunciation from religious services on part of the destitute populace. At the time of our story, only eight percent of the Hamburgers received the communion compared to nearly hundred percent in the preceding century. Already then the society had reached a point of secularization. Johann Wichern exhorted the churches to look closely at the plight of the poor and to attend to the social crises.

In order to finance his mission, our theologist, himself born into a family of poverty and certainly not equipped with socialistic ambitions, successfully called upon the Christian conscience of the wealthy merchants and demanded their help in supporting those in need financially [2].

As for our little artifact, it took several decades until the wreath went on its triumphal procession through German lands. After World War I, in the early 20’s, Christian youth associations significantly contributed to the propagation. A catholic church in Koeln (Cologne) was first to display the wreath during service in 1925. In Austria, it expanded not before the end of World War II.

When I grew up – in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the (please note!) socialistic part of Germany – the advent wreath was ubiquitous on East German kitchen tables like knife and fork for dinner; not a single household and family home have I witnessed without the Christian relict on display. In retrospect, these historic facts are especially mind-blowing to me: All the other Christian holidays were legally observed in the midst of a socialist, totalitarian regime as well – with stores closed, people home from work and fully compensated for Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost (both Sunday and Monday), first Christmas Day (December 25), and second Christmas Day as well (December 26). These were all legal church holidays back then, and they still are in Germany to date besides some more non-church holidays.

So, the advent wreath never really made it from across the Atlantic to the United States, probably for reasons of its delayed publicity in its homeland and the fact that the bulk of Germans had arrived in America long before. But it’s paganic brother, the Christmas tree, befell an enormous popularity in next to no time after German immigrants had brought the tradition with them to Pennsylvania as early as the 1830’s.


[1] Though German culture, tradition and history hark back more than a thousand years, German people living in medieval times were at loose ends with the term “Germany.” From the 13th Century on, only single German states, dukedoms, baronies, bishoprics, and fiefdoms with autonomous rulers existed in a loose complex of territories and a subordinate emperor with only limited fullness of power. The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman, defined by 17th century historian Samuel Puffendorf as an “unclassifiable body comparable to a monster” (see Robert B. Asprey: Frederick the Great, XV). – A German nation state as such did not exist prior to the formation of the Second German Empire, founded by Otto von Bismarck in 1871.

[2] In view of the current (early December, 2020) debate in Congress about another stimulus package, it might be reasonable to call wealthy corporations to account in the corona crises instead of granting them immunity through liability protection and shuffling off the entire financial burden to the ordinary taxpayer and future generations. Yes, following the same principle of Johann Hinrich Wichern in 1839 toward the super-rich: Would that be foolishly called “socialism”, so be it. President Harry S. Truman was a Democrat, but history remembers his words, spoken in 1952: “Socialism is their [the Republicans] name for almost anything that helps the people” (Quote: Harry S. Truman, 12 October 1952, Syracuse, NY). As we can see, it was not that much different back then.


From my Writing Room

Copyright © 2020 by Uwe Bahr

This country – the United States of America – has produced an abnormally increased proportion of illiterate, deluded people who are in denial of any reality, inconvincible apparently for mental reasons and, therefore, irrevocably inept to include rational arguments in their conclusions: be it related to science, the severity of a worsening corona pandemic, man-induced climate change, or the credibility of the most recent election. The disease in the public mind is obviously more widespread than the Coronavirus itself.

Reason and responsibility for the American catastrophe not full-blown yet rests not only with the right-wing media propagating falsehood and deception supported by the nuisance about the term “socialism”, but also with religious delusions beget by many churches. This is the pathological combination that has created the foundation for the emergence of a president who bullies, talks, and acts in a manner of a fifth-grader. The man is sick, and so are those who have allowed him the position he is in.

Aside from the majority of lowbrow Trump supporters exists a worse and worse discernible minority of voters ascribed to the educated class and yet in full swing for dull phrases of the political right – come hell or high water. To them, any political path left of the current Republican Party would be a blank check for the American drift straight into socialism. Not only will it be difficult, if not impossible, to dissuade intelligent but ideologically blinded people from their wrong track – the abject failure of the Republican Party altogether in their Trump-mania will leave a dangerous vacuum in the democratic center-right spectrum of the American Republic.

These are the dominant reasons why the United States of America is presently spiraling downward in a faster and more disastrous development than any other country in the modern Western world, coupled with the consequences of a deliberately downplayed Coronavirus and a misaligned “Health Care System”, ruthlessly designed for maximum profit to the advantage of the few versus harm and suffering of the many.

More mischief in the coming months is inevitable.


[*] “Kaput”, often used in American English, is an expression borrowed from the German language, properly written with two “t,s”: kaputt – meaning something is broken, irreparable, down the drain.

The Handy Merger: American Socialism, Fantasy, and “Alternative Facts”

From my Writing Room

Copyright © 2020 by Uwe Bahr

 “We are standing in the breach against socialism.”
Senator David Perdue (R-GA) in a contribution on his campaign web site on 16 November, 2020.

“We are the firewall … We are going to hold the line against socialism, right here in Georgia.”
Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) in a campaign appearance on 20 November, 2020.

“Stop the Spread of Socialism.”
Slogan on a campaign flier distributed by the Republican Party to households in North Georgia on 20 November, 2020.

Note: The author of the following article has spent the first 30 years of his life in socialism in East Germany, the former GDR, until the Berlin wall fell in November 1989.

As richly ironic as it is in the presence of scientific and historic facts versus millions of Americans nevertheless falling for political demagogues radiating hollow slogans, it can be repeated mantra-like over and over again, just to fail as often in appealing to a sound mind:

“Socialism is a System or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.”
Source: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged), page 2162.

It is worth noting here that any legal, accompanying measures within a political system – for instance, a nationalized Health Care System – has as much to do with socialism as a tomato grower in Georgia would have to do with the backside of the moon [1].

This should be easy enough to understand. I personally have – not voluntarily – lived and worked in such a system of socialism, and I can assure that there is nothing even close to that form of society existent or in arrangement in the United States of America. Those Americans suggesting the country is on its way to socialism or this is what the Democrat’s operative, final objective constitutes, are probably equally exposed to the delusion that Satan and Rumpelstiltskin are in existence and on their way somewhere in the woods.

The unsolicited flier from the Republican Party coming to my house could not have been delivered to a more inapt recipient: Having been exposed to dull paroles by the communists throughout my younger years, they did not even reach our minds and, instead, were quickly disposed where they belonged: to the garbage dump of history. At any given time, the vast majority of the people living in the so-called communistic German Democratic Republic (GDR) retained their ability to distinguish between what was right and what was wrong. The historic fact that East German people by the hundreds of thousands in the fall of 1989 took their quest for freedom to the streets, did not simply emerge overnight. It resulted from the ability to think for ourselves and recognize reality, admittedly supported by the proximity of a free, yet inaccessible democratic West Germany, with close relatives living there and the unhampered reception of West German TV- and Radio stations in the East.

As a resident in the United States for now 22 years, the unlikely emergence of someone like Donald Trump as the country’s president has led me to the conclusion: There are obviously millions of Americans literally incapable to think for themselves outside their domiciliary companionship or their churches. This is a frightening perception, for any democracy in the world is in jeopardy if not only the thinking of a few alone, but the thinking of millions operates on a different level of facts and truths. Ironically, the astonishing assertion of former White House advisor, Kellyanne Conway, that there are “alternative facts”[2], has – at least in my judgement – coined the entire presidency of Donald Trump. There were “alternative facts” emerging from the White House almost on a daily basis, including the denial and downplaying of a deadly virus circulating in the US with the unimaginable loss of 255,000 American lives so far (as of this writing).

There are clear signs that the ubiquitous prevarication, accepted as facts in shockingly large parts of the American society, will not vanish with the disappearance of Donald Trump as president. The contrary seems the case, and political windbags like David Perdue are the beneficiary demagogues of such incomprehensible, unbiased gullibility. Perdue is the same man who not only repeats his dull paroles about an alleged socialism he has no clue about again and again, but had childishly mocked vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, this October by repeatedly and deliberately mispronouncing her first name in a campaign appearance. Needless to say that such an individual, behaving like a 5-year-old in Kindergarten, should never have a place in any function of public responsibility.

There is nothing constructive to expect from colorful figures like Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. They don’t have a concept of socialism; they are using the phrase repeatedly as a catchword to delude the people, knowing about the fishiness widely attributed to any smack of socialism in the US. Lawmakers who have no reservation or conscience to sell their own people for a sucker with brainless slogans for the sole purpose of reelection have their own ego and their own clientele of profiteers in mind – and nothing else.


 [1] The Second German Empire, founded in 1871 and the first German nation state in existence, is regarded as the ancestral homeland of social security. The Reich’s founder, Otto von Bismarck, introduced the compulsory insurance in 1883, including health care insurance in the same year, followed by accident insurance in 1884. – Bismarck, for sure, was far from being a socialist: Under his instigation and leadership, the Anti-Socialist-Law passed the German Reichstag in 1878, de facto banning social democratic, socialist, and communist associations and activities. – Although I am hesitant to mention it: A widely unknown historic fact is that social security in Germany was significantly extended by Adolf Hitler – the very same leader who sent not only Jewish people, but also hundreds of thousands communists, socialists, social democrats, liberals, unionists, and centrists to the infamous concentration camps.   

[2] The remark is mentioned in Bob Woodward’s 2020 book “Rage” on page 262. – After White House press secretary Sean Spicer had presented false statements about the attendance numbers of Trump’s inauguration, Conway stated in a press interview two days later, on 22 January, 2020: “We have alternative facts.”