For decades, militaries have weaponized Christmas songs, symbols, and sentimentality for psychological warfare and propaganda purposes. Here are some bizarre tales about ersatz Christmas cards during World War II, controversial Christmas trees, and decking the halls in the Colombian jungle.
1.) The Korean DMZ Christmas Tree
This week, South Korea lit up a 95-foot-tall metal Christmas tree along the North Korean border for the first time since 2004. Frosty relations with Pyongyang have impelled South Korean officials to keep the tree lit until January 8, which is also the birthday of DPRK successor Kim Jong-Un (South Korea insists that this is a coincidence). Here's a description of South Korea's massive metal Tannenbaum:
[The] giant, brightly lit Christmas tree [is] reportedly visible from Kaesong, the border city on the northern side of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South. The tree serves a propaganda role, reminding of repression and the lack of religious freedom in the North. Yet even in the tumult of plummeting North-South relations, it may also serve as a beacon of continuing Korean brotherhood.
The Yoido Full Gospel Church had tried to light the tree in years past, but the recent deficit of goodwill between the two nations (due to the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan) has led to resumption of South Korean pop propaganda, including the threat of sexy weaponized K-pop.
2.) Colombia's Operación Navidad
In a recent effort to demobilize FARC guerillas, the Colombian military has unleashed "Operation Christmas," an Xmas-in-the-jungle campaign designed to convince FARC guerillas to abandon the rebel group and accept government amnesty. From the BBC:
Special forces infiltrated the remote Macarena mountain range to dress a 25m (82ft) high tree with 2,000 lights. Movement sensors will make the tree light up when guerrillas approach. The army says it will put up trees in nine other rebel-held zones to spread the message that Christmas is a good time to abandon armed struggle [...] As well as lights, [the tree] was decorated with slogans saying "Demobilize, at Christmas everything is possible" and "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home".
3.) Fake Christmas Cards During World War II
Throughout the second World War, Axis propagandists distributed fake Christmas cards and pamphlets to demoralize Allied troops. Some cards contained images of scantily clad ladies with teasing messages to soldiers, whereas other less lurid cards targeted the troops' homesickness and pacifist inclinations. You can check out a massive gallery of these phony Seasons Greetings over at PsyWarrior; there's also a number of cards that North Vietnam designed to frazzle American troops in the 1960s.
4.) The Nazification of Christmas Under The Third Reich
The notion of a Jewish messiah didn't jibe with the Nazis' racial supremacy dogma, so German propagandists decided to put a Aryan spin on Christmas. This initiative was more propaganda than PSYOPS, but the Nazi attempt to replace Jesus with patriotic fervor and Teutonic hokum was pretty bonkers. Under the Third Reich's Christmas reforms, Jesus was written out of Christmas carols, German citizens could purchase swastika-shaped cookie cutters, and St. Nicholas was phased out for the Norse god Odin. From Der Spiegel:
One particular sinister example of the Nazi Christmas tradition is the Julleuchter ("Yule lantern"), a kind of candlestick which can also be seen in the exhibition. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, had the supposedly "Germanic" lantern produced by inmates in the Dachau and Neuengamme concentration camps to give as a present to members of the SS. The same version of the Julleuchter that Himmler had made is still sold today in certain shops with a New Age bent as a traditional Christmas decoration.
This wholesale overhaul of Christmas traditions met limited resistance from German churches, who were afraid of Nazi reprisal. You can watch creepy archival footage of a 1937 Third Reich Xmas here.
5.) The US Blasts Xmas Music At Manuel Noriega
During the 1989 United States invasion of Panama, embattled dictator Manuel Noriega took shelter in the Vatican embassy on Christmas Eve. On December 25, the US military set up large speakers and blasted Christmas songs at the strongman. Although the military blared the Yuletide tunes to keep the press from eavesdropping on negotiations inside the embassy, PSYOPS officers claimed it was an attempt to drive Noriega out. The US military's playlist wasn't however limited to Christmas tunes. According to Herbert Friedman over at PsyWarrior:
The military radio station has stated that prior to the 26th they had played various requests from the troops; the Marines asked for "Welcome to the Jungle," the canine handlers requested Billy Idol's "Flesh for Fantasy," and the Special Forces wanted the Door's "Strange Days." Other calls were for patriotic songs like Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." and hard rock songs like "We're Not Gonna Take It" by the Twisted Sister.
You can read more of Friedman's account of Operation Just Cause here.
[Top photo via Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters. Bottom photo via Life.]