A homosexual Christmas in 1905 Berlin

Colin Wilson rediscovers a forgotten chapter of LGBT history in this account of a “uranian” Christmas, written by a leading campaigner over a hundred years ago.

Hirschfeld with uranian friends

Magnus Hirschfeld (second from right, with moustache and glasses) with a group of uranian people.

Magnus Hirschfeld was a doctor and a leader of the German LGBT movement from the 1890s to the 1930s.The text translated here is an excerpt from one of his earliest books, Berlin’s Third Sex, published in 1905. The book describes a varied and often cheerful subculture, in which middle class homosexuals mark their birthdays with theatrical performances, the more feminine of them taking women’s roles, while a working class homosexual and friends celebrate in the local pub with sausage and potato salad, entertained by female impersonators “of the lowest kind” and a tattooed dockworker who sings indecent songs. Christmas, however, is a gloomy time: near the end of this account, Hirschfeld describes a suicide attempt.

Hirschfeld often uses the term “uranian” in this extract as a synonym for “homosexual”. As in much of Europe, the main celebration of Christmas here is on Christmas Eve. Readers may feel that some of the people mentioned here are trans and that Hirschfeld misgenders them, but it’s also true that people in the past may have thought of these things differently.

Hirschfeld wrote over a hundred years ago, yet a Huffpost article last Christmas Eve commented that many LGBT people are still rejected by their families, some ending up homeless.

The gatherings which have the most solemn character out of all those in Berlin’s homosexual society are those organised for Christmas Eve. More than on any other day, on this festival of family happiness the unmarried uranian feels the loneliness of his fate. Many would spend the evening even more sadly, if there weren’t always one or other well-to-do homosexuals who gather together these people with no place to go.

Let me single out one story from the city.

The day before the celebrations the master of the house has already himself decorated the Christmas tree, a great noble pine; everything colourful is avoided, between the white wax candles are silver garlands, icicles, snowflakes, glass baubles and angels’ hair, which stretches from branch to branch like a spiders’ web, all tastefully arranged, and high at the top a great silver star is fastened, on which a cherub with a trumpet, dressed in a robe of tulle, proclaims “peace to men on earth.”

Then the little presents are neatly wrapped in tissue paper and laid out around the tree, something for everyone: a diary, a book, some small piece of jewellery such as a ring, a pocket mirror, a moustache band. On the morning of the twenty-fourth the master of the house has brought the big table cloth, made of the finest linen, out of the cupboard and set the table with his servant – arranged the silver, folded the serviettes, filled massive fruit bowls, laid a little bunch of flowers on each plate and placed a dainty place card in front of crystal glasses. Sometimes this causes no small embarrassment with this or that guest, when the host cannot recall his real name. People have been addressing him all year by a female nickname, but would like to dispense with that for this evening.

A second table is set up in the corridor, where the children and servants will eat their Christmas meal – yes, children, a rare sight in a uranian home. As part of the festivities the washerwoman’s two children and the concierge’s three grandchildren have been invited. It’s considered important that the same dishes are enjoyed at this second table as at the main one, and that, here too, everything looks properly festive.

Events are scheduled to begin at eight o’clock, since several guests have previously taken part in festivities with friends or relatives before they join their group of friends here. Finally, after everyone has arrived, the master of the house disappears into the drawing room, locked until now, where he lights the candles, checks the presents one more time and then calls to the children and the guest who is going to accompany their Christmas carols on the piano. Now the double doors are opened and children’s voices sing of the silent, holy night and the blessed, happy Christmas time.

Everyone’s face is deeply serious and a tear can be seen in many an eye – even “big Emily” who makes ladies’ clothes, normally so cheerful, cannot control his emotions. The thoughts of the uranians go way, way back to those times when this day was a family celebration for them too, when no one suspected that their fate would turn out so differently from that of their long-married sisters and brothers. At first the gap opened quite gradually which separated them from their families, but then came the long years when they spent this evening in a restaurant, restless and cheerless, or spent it “with a good book” in a “furnished room”. Many think of their destroyed hopes, of what they could have achieved if old prejudices hadn’t stood in the way of their careers, and others with respected positions think of the sham existence that weighs on them so heavily. Many think of their parents, who are dead, or at least dead to them: and all think with sorrow of the woman they loved above everything, and who loved them above everything, their mother.

Now the children’s voices have died away, people exchange small gifts, give larger presents to the children and the servants and sit down at the table. Here the conversation isn’t as cheerful as usual – people speak of good old X, who was here for Christmas last year but who is now in his grave.

Slowly the tension eases, the tone becomes rather more merry, though the solemn undertone remains, and over the whole evening there hangs an aura of world-weary sentimentality.

“Glory to God in the highest and peace to men on earth! When will people finally recognise” – so a homosexual wrote to me several years ago on Christmas Eve – “that the Saviour came for us too, that we too should not be shut out from his kind, noble, merciful and all-encompassing love?”

Last Christmas Eve, I was called in the morning to a uranian student in west Berlin and told that in the night he had suffered an attack of mania.

When I arrived, I saw a terrible sight: the whole room was full of broken glass and furniture, torn fabric, books and papers, all mixed up with blood, ink and paraffin. In front of the bed there was a large pool of blood, and on the bed lay a young man, his face as pale as wax – from which there shone forth burning eyes, black stands of hair surrounding the delicate, regular features. Blood-soaked bandages were wrapped around his forehead and arms.

He had fallen out with his severe father, a respected Berlin bourgeois, on account of his homosexuality: neither could bring themselves to say a friendly word to the other, and now he was spending his first Christmas Eve far from his family, wandering through the empty streets of the great city. Standing in a dark alleyway on the other side of the street, he saw the bright lights in his parents’ home, the laughter of younger brothers and sisters came to his ears and for a few moments he saw the outline of his mother as, brooding while her children celebrated, she leant her forehead against the window pane.

When those lights were extinguished, he had gone to the nearest bar, where, by himself at a corner table, he had drunk glass after glass of schnapps, and then, in a second and third public house, done the same thing again. He spent the last of his money in deserted coffee houses on black coffee with kirsch.

After then returning home to the cold winter night and unsteadily climbing the four flights of stairs to his room, a tremendous state of agitation took hold of him. He destroyed everything, and smashed the burning lamp in the hope of cutting his wrists and bleeding to death. A doctor, called in haste by the landlord and landlady, was able to peer through the crack of the door and quickly wrote out a certificate for him to be transferred to the insane section of the Berlin Charité hospital.

A friend of the sick man brought me to him. On that Christmas morning I washed and bandaged one wound after another: he made no complaint and spoke not a word, but the burning eyes spoke, and the pale lips spoke and each of his wounds spoke of his deep suffering and of the noble, holy task of those who work for the freedom of uranians.

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