Here’s the surprising history behind your favorite Christmas Carols!
What if “The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, Frosty and the “One Horse Open Sleigh” had nothing to do with Christmas?
Singing Christmas songs goes hand in hand with baking Christmas treats, listening our favorite Christmas tales, watching our favorite Christmas movies, and not only.
Like everything around this period of the year, everything has a story.
From songs that have been saved from being erased forever to not really knowing for sure where a song came from, here is the history of a few Christmas Carols you know and sing still today!
Enjoy our Advent Calendar 2022!
🎄🎅🏻 THERE ARE ONLY 12 DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS 🎅🏻🎄
Commonly translated as “O Christmas Tree” and literally translated “O fir tree”, this beloved carol comes from Germany.
The earliest version of the song dates back to the 16th century, when such a Melchior Franck wrote a folk song, “Ach Tannenbaum”, about the tradition of bringing a small fir tree into one’s home to decorate and sit beside the seasonal nativity scene. Well…more or less.
In any case this decorating tradition and its celebratory song moved from Germany to the U.S. along with its emigrants.
A Tannenbaum is a fir tree, die Tanne, or Christmas tree, der Weihnachtsbaum. Although most Christmas trees today are spruce (Fichten) rather than a Tannen, the qualities of the evergreen have inspired musicians to write several Tannenbaum songs in German over the years. Surprisingly the song was not related to Christmas originally!
The first known Tannenbaum song lyrics date to 1550 and came from the region known as Silesia that crosses both Germany and Poland. A similar 1615 song by our Melchior Franck goes:
du bist ein edler Zweig!
Du grünest uns den Winter,
die lieben Sommerzeit.”
Roughly translated, it means, “Oh pine tree, oh pine tree, you’re a noble twig! You greet us in the winter, the dear summer time.”
Melchior was a prolific composer credited with a great deal of Protestant church music and all-around pretty legendary writer, as he was also credited with bringing many of the musical innovations of the Venetian school north to Germany.
Like a lot of music from the time, there aren’t really notes available on what compelled him to write the song, but given the tune’s reassuring melody, it probably didn’t have much to do with his entire family being killed by the typhus and the Thirty Years War.
Revisions to the lyrics were made in 1819 by German preacher, folk song collector Joachim August Zarnack, and in 1824 by Leipzig organist Ernst Anschütz.
Believe it or not, the lyrics again do not actually refer to Christmas, or describe a decorated Christmas tree. Instead, they refer to the fir’s evergreen quality as a symbol of constancy and faithfulness!
August in 1819 wrote a tragic love song inspired by this folk song, taking the evergreen, “faithful” fir tree as contrasting with a faithless lover. Joachim’s version didn’t win anyone over, so it wasn’t long before another version popped up, this one by Leipzig.
The folk song first became associated with Christmas with our Ernst, who added two verses of his own to the first, traditional verse, describing a tannenbaum as a symbol of endurance throughout the winter.
This is where the history of the Christmas tree makes this whole thing more interesting.
The Christmas tree tradition as we know today it originates in medieval Livonia, present day Latvia and Estonia, as well as early Germany, where Protestants brought decorated trees into their homes. Some say Martin Luther was the first to do it, inspired by the starlight cutting through the branches on a brisk forest stroll on Christmas Eve, althoug Martin Luther gets credit for a lot of things (and there’s very little proof of this one). These trees had a similar design to what we know today, featuring decorations like paper roses and tinsel, plus a bunch of food like apples. The idea was that in celebration of Christmas, the trees would be covered in sweets and brought into the town hall, where children (and not only) could eat something while celebrating.
At the time Ernst Anschütz rewrote the lyrics to “O Tannenbaum,” German Protestants would have already connected the fir tree as a symbol of Christmas, making the tune a natural fit for the season. However, this wouldn’t have taken off in pretty well any other part of the world at the time, as the Catholics to the south regarded the tree as a Protestant custom, and largely ignored it.
As the Protestant faith spread across Europe, more and more people became exposed to the custom, and before too long other people started to appropriate the tradition.
Also European nobility started putting up trees in their homes around the holidays, popularised by figures like Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg in Vienna and the duchesse d’Orléans in France. Around this time, candles were also becoming common place on the trees, and before long those were replaced (for obvious reasons) with electric lights.
In North America, the tradition first popped up in Québec in 1781 among a garrison of German soldiers stationed to ward off impending American attacks. The general and his wife held a Christmas party for the officers, and along with the sweets and dancing, appeared also a decorated tree. Over the next hundred years, the tradition spread throughout the United States starting in cities with high German populations, and before long it became pretty common for anyone celebrating Christmas to put a tree in their houses.
As the tradition spread beyond German communities, the song followed, and so somewhere in the 19th century, the song was rewritten for Anglophonic Christians.
Actually there’s no clear author.
Probably by an American priest or preacher and, interestingly emough, “O Tannenbaum” doesn’t directly translate to “O Christmas Tree” at all!
Now what do you do when you have a recognizable, catchy melody that people seem to really enjoy?
You turn it into a bunch of other stuff.
As Christmas tree trimming caught on in the 1800s, also “O Tannenbaum” grew in popularity and, already in the past century, the song has been included on countless Christmas albums as well as in such family entertainment as Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson, Ernest Saves Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas and not only.
Ernst’s version still had treu (true, faithful) as the adjective describing the fir’s leaves (needles), harking back to the contrast to the faithless maiden of the folk song, but this was changed to grün (green) at some point in the 20th century, after the song had come to be associated with Christmas.
And you know who really love this melody?
Americans, and not two, not three, but four different American States have used that melody as their unofficial state song.
“Florida, My Florida,” “Maryland, My Maryland,” “Michigan, My Michigan,” and Iowa’s aptly named “The Song of Iowa” all use the same tune!
Several schools use the tune as well, including Cornell University and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
From a song about a tree, to a song about a Christmas tree, but also a song about pretty much every state with a three-syllable name, “O Tannenbaum” proves that a catchy-enough melody can travel beyond cultural and religious borders, and to this day can be recognized and sang around the world, in several languages.
Not bad, Melchior, really not bad!
🎄🎅🏻 THERE ARE ONLY 12 DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS 🎅🏻🎄