"'When can I live my dreams again?' This sigh of exasperation, my fellow Germans, is one of the thousands of personal messages I received from all parts of our country."
That is how the German president began his traditional Christmas message to the nation. There has rarely been a year when the main topic of the address has been so clear and all-consuming from the outset. In previous years, the head of state usually addressed various social issues at Christmas — but this time, his speech deals almost exclusively with the coronavirus pandemic.
A "tiny virus" has taken possessions of our lives and our thinking, has thwarted plans and destroyed dreams, Steinmeier said. People have had to do without many things: "Going to watch football in the stadium, to the cinema, to a concert, going on holiday, celebrating weddings and much, much more."
The president spoke of frustrated schoolchildren and exhausted families who had endured the impositions of teaching and working life; of artists, restaurateurs, hoteliers and retailers who fear for their very existence.
A very different Christmas
Christmas in particular would have to be very different this year, he said. "A celebration of love: Most definitely! But particularly at this time when we yearn to be especially close to one another, we have to keep our distance. We — myself included — are missing friends and relatives who we have not been able to see all year. Many older and ill people are spending time alone to protect themselves from the virus."
Steinmeier drew particular attention to "the women and men who, as I speak, are fighting the virus in an intensive care unit (...) of their nearest and dearest who fear the worst (and) of the people who have lost their battle with this illness. Many have died a bitter, a lonely death and they are all missed."
'Our country is a strong country'
At the same time, he said, the pandemic has shown us how strong society is "because so many people are there for others and are going the extra mile in the crisis."
In words that echoed a speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel five years ago, he said "Our country is a strong country." That is exactly how Merkel introduced her famous "Wir schaffen das" speech — "We can do it" — in August 2015, when she announced that Germany would allow hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants to enter the country.
Whether Steinmeier deliberately referenced Merkel or not is unknown, but in any case the message mirrored hers: Germany can take on the challenge.
The president wanted to convey that if everyone works together and the state does its part, then Germany will overcome the crisis. During the pandemic, he said, civic spirit had been strengthened. He said it showed the courage we have in the face of other crises, from climate change to the fight against hunger and poverty— one of the few forays he made into other topics.
'The voices of reason make up the vast majority'
Democracy and the dangers currently facing democratic governments have been a core focus thus far for Steinmeier as president. In his speech, he did not shy away from mentioning those who cast doubt on the work done by both state and society. He said he was aware that there were many vaccination opponents and skeptics in Germany. "At a time of uncertainty, we have learned that we can trust our democracy. We have argued about the right course of action — and then joined forces to implement decisions. Those who deny the danger posed by the virus are, admittedly, often particularly vocal. But the voices of reason make up the vast majority."
The progress toward mass vaccination efforts offer a glimmer of hope amid the pandemic, and a few days ago, Steinmeier publicly called for people to be vaccinated — which he described as an act of solidarity.
And because the groundwork has been laid for vaccination efforts, Steinmeier could say: "This Christmas is a celebration of hope!" and that Christmas 2021 will bring "embraces and song."
Still, the German president did not try to sugarcoat the difficult situation — but rather, offer encouragement in a challenging time. "We still have a long and difficult road ahead. But now we are seeing the long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel is starting to shine more brightly."
It depends on every one of us how long the road will be, Steinmeier added. If everyone remains "patient" and "with good sense," many things that were not possible for a long time will once more be possible. At the end of his speech, the president was confident in venturing a forecast for a year from now.
"We are allowed to look forward to celebrating Christmas next year the way we so love to: with all the family around the table, with our friends, with embraces and song. Let's hope that the anticipation of next year's joy will help brighten this extraordinary festive season. Wishing you all every blessing this Christmas!"
This article was translated from German.