The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Tannenbaum History

Robert Shea, Ruth Reichmann

 

 

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O TANNENBAUM - O CHRISTMAS TREE

In the German-speaking countries the Christmas tree is part of the pre-Christian tradition of the "12 Rauhnächte" (12 harsh or wild nights), which later became the "Twelve Nights of Christmas." The tree is put up on December 24 and taken down after New Years or on January 6, known as "Twelfth Night." A part of the tradition of taking down the tree is the "Plündern," raiding the tree of cookies and sugar plums, an event, anxiously awaited by the children. January 6 is also known as "Three Kings." On that evening carolers, three of them dressed as the three kings or Magi, stroll from house to house. In some areas the old trees will be brought to a public place and burnt in a big bon-fire. January 7 ushers in the pre-Lenten Fasching or Carnival season.

Winter in the northern countries was harsh. As the early Germans observed Fall with the gradual dying of nature, when plants and leaves of trees began to change color, shriveled up and fell to the ground, followed by Winter with ice and snow, they blamed evil spirits for the "killing." Only a few trees stayed "alive," the evergreens, and to them they became a symbol of immortality. Good spirits and the magic power of the evergreen were believed to resist the life-threatening powers of darkness and cold. They believed in the special powers of these trees and wherever they were, evil spirits could not go, so they brought the greenery into their homes.

First reports of people bringing holly and pine branches into their homes at Christmas-time date from the late Middle Ages. Life green branches, symbols of life in the cold and dead of winter, were placed on windows, mirrors, and in vases, and may have served to keep evil spirits away. Over time, this mythical function of the greens became simply decorative. Evergreen ropes (garlands) were draped over staircase railings, mantels, picture frames and along ceilings. Fearful that dry branches would catch fire from oil lamps or sparks from the fireplace or heating stove, families waited until almost Christmas eve to hang the garlands.

The decorated tree was originally a pagan tradition in Germany's upper Rhine region. A decorated holly tree was brought into the house and even placed in the village square. We know this because in 14th-century Alsace laws were written which forbade farmers to cut down evergreens for Christmas uses.

In the 15th or 16th century, the church gave new meaning to the customary symbol of life by decorating trees during the holiday season with apples to symbolize Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden. Greens were incorporated into medieval miracle plays and into a Christmas a play, honoring Adam and Eve, that was traditionally presented. An evergreen hung with apples, the fruit of knowledge, was the stage prop.

Families eventually brought decorated trees into their homes, adding to them apples, paper roses, and wafers shaped like stars, angels, hearts, flowers and bells. Tree decorations were mostly symbols of the new-born Christ. The star recalled that first Christmas night.

The first report of a decorated tree is from Strassburg in the Alsace. A traveler writes about the 1605 Christmas: "Auff Weihnachten richtt man Dannenbäume zu Strassburg in den Stubben auf, daran henkett man Rossen aus vielfarbigem Papier geschnitten., Aepfel, Oblaten, Zischgold, Zucker ...." (Frank Gerhard, Es weihnachtet sehr, p. 80) Trees were decorated with roses made from colored paper, apples, wafers, yellow mica, sugar ....

The early Christmas tree stood on a table and decorations were customarily made of food, principally wafers, cookies and candy. The gift-giving custom began when little items were hung on the tree, like tin cutouts, dolls, books, gilded nuts, fiddles and drums, work boxes, needle cases, pen wipes, ribbon, lace and paper chains. All of this is mentioned in early reports from the southern part of Germany and especially from the Alsace. At app. 1840 the tree appeared also in France proper, i.e. beyond the ethnic-German province of Alsace.

Candles replaced bon-fires as a symbol for the returning sun. The imitative magic of the illuminated Christmas tree, as did the bon-fires, was to assure a steady supply of light and heat from the sun, and it had as a second aim the purification or destruction of the forces of evil (Symbols, p. 101). In the Christian tradition, candles represented Christ as the Light of the World.

An early version of a tree with candles was the "lichtstock," a wooden pyramid, trimmed with green sprigs and candles. Conifers, by virtue of their shape, also partake of the symbolism of the pyramid. The connection between the Christmas tree and lights came about during the 18th century most likely in the Alemannic area of southwestern Germany.

Legends about the first Christmas tree abound. One of these tells about a woodcutter who helps a small hungry child. The next morning, the child appears to the woodcutter and his wife, and is none other than the Christchild. The child breaks a branch from a fir tree and tells the couple that it will be a tree that, at Christmas time, will bear fruit. As foretold the tree is laden with apples of gold and nuts of silver.

Another legend has it that Martin Luther brought a fir tree into his home and decorated it with candles. The candle-lit tree created the image of the starry sky from which Christ emerged. But there is no documentation of lights on the tree until the 18th century. The poet Goethe first saw a Christmas tree in 1765 in Leipzig. The earliest known Christmas celebration mentioned in German literature is the description of a Christmas celebration with a candle-lit tree in Goethe's best-selling novel "Die Leiden des Jungen Werther" ("The Sorrows of Young Werther") of 1774. It may have helped spread the custom.

The German trees are silver fir and balsam with their branches spaced far enough apart and grown in such a way that candles can be placed on them without serious danger of a fire.

Of the German Christmas songs which have become a part of American traditions, the best known besides "Silent Night" is "O Tannenbaum"- O Christmas Tree.

That this song was popular in the United States, not only as a Christmas song, can be documented easily. The melody of "O Tannenbaum" is used by four states, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey, for their state song. The opening line of Maryland's state song is: "Maryland, O Maryland!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter.
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
du kannst mir sehr gefallen.
Wie oft hat nicht zur Weihnachtszeit
Ein Baum von dir mich hoch erfreut.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
du kannst mir sehr gefallen.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
dein Kleid will mich was lehren:
die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit
gibt Trost und Kraft zu aller Zeit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
dein Kleid will mich was lehren.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
dein Kleid will mich was lehren:
die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit
gibt Trost und Kraft zu aller Zeit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
dein Kleid will mich was lehren.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us.
They're green when summer days are bright:
They're green when winter snow is white.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
You give us so much pleasure!
How oft at Christmas tide the sight,
O green fir tree, gives us delight!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
You give us so much pleasure!

 

Ruth Reichmann


Das deutsche Haus - Athenaeum Christmas Tree, Indianapolis


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