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German Christmas Song: O Tannenbaum Posted by on Dec 14, 2014 in Culture, Folklore, History, Holidays, Language, Traditions

Recently I wrote a post about Der Weihnachtsbaum and its origins in German history. This post was originally a part of it, but it became so large that I thought it only fitting to give it its own post. So, to continue on the Weihnachtsbaum theme, here’s a popular song you might know as ‘O Christmas tree’. This, too, originated in Germany!

 O Tannenbaum

The English starts off, “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are your branches!” However, this popular Christmas song is an English translation of  an old German song entitled “O Tannenbaum”. This is not a song about Christmas trees, but about fir trees!

O Tannenbaum/O Christmas Tree is based on a German traditional folk song dating back to the 16th century. It is in fact about the everlasting beauty of the fir tree, and how we can learn something from its year-round strength. However, it became associated with the Christmas tree in the 19th century.

As a result of this, the song has been translated into English as “O Christmas tree”, even though a Tannenbaum refers to a fir tree in general, rather than a Christmas tree. It is now sung as a Christmas carol in both England and Germany, and there are numerous versions of the lyrics.

Here’s the song in German. You might want to play it as you read the rest of the post:

The song’s history

The first verse belongs to the original, which was written in 1819 by Joachim August Christian Zarnack, and based on the folk song “Ach Tannenbaum” by the 16th century German Renaissance/Baroque composer Melchior Franck. Zarnack wrote this verse about a lover who had been unfaithful – as opposed to a Tannenbaum, which is faithful and everlasting!

The German lyrics to the first verse are as follows:

“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!”

Here’s my fairly literal translation of the verse, to give you an idea of the song’s meaning:

O fir tree, O fir tree,
How faithful are your branches!
You’re not just green during summertime,
But also in wintertime when it snows,
O fir tree, O fir tree,
How faithful are your branches!

The second two verses were added in 1824 by German composer Ernst Anschütz, when the song became associated with Christmas time. Here they are, along with my translations (again, these are not the actual lyrics as they are in the English versions, I should point out, but a more literal translation to help understand the German words and the song’s meaning!)

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 fir tree, O fir free!
You can please me very much!
How often has, not just at Christmas time,
A tree like you delighted me!
O fir tree, O fir tree,
You can please me very much!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Dein Kleid will mich
  was lehren:
Die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit
Gibt Trost und Kraft
  zu jeder Zeit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Das soll dein Kleid
  mich lehren.

O fir tree, O fir tree!
I could learn something
from your dress:
The hope and durability
Give trust and strength
at any time.
O fir tree, O fir tree!
That’s what your dress should
teach me.

Weihnachtsbaum / Christmastree

Photo by kopp1963 on flickr.com under CC BY-ND 2.0

If you’d like to know more about the Christmas tree in German history, you can read my post about it by clicking here.

Have a great Sunday!!

Constanze x

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About the Author:Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze. I'm half English and half German. I write here because I'm passionate about my languages and my roots. I also work as a translator & group fitness instructor.


Comments:

  1. Allan Mahnke:

    Many thanks! Having grown up in the community that I did, “O Tannenbaum” was a carol I learned at a very early age…even before I learned that there was an English version. Since I am, by profession, a musician, I was startled, to say the least, that this carol goes back to Melchior Franck, who has a venerable name in church music history. This new little tidbit shows me a perhaps not so serious side to a man whom I have always admired.

    By the way, I have been curious, what is a cafè girl

    • Constanze:

      @Allan Mahnke Well I’m glad I was able to share that with you! Hahha, I called myself a cafe girl because I work in a cafe. And I am a girl.

  2. Vusi:

    What a nice peace, O For tree.I was overwhelmed when I got English version