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Five Things To Love About "O Tannenbaum"

Updated: Dec 25, 2020


You’ll Be Back

First, a bit of background. Why in the world did we start plopping trees in our houses in the first place? It’s generally accepted that the custom was brought to England (and thence to the world) by the German Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, in 1840. Writing in History Today, however, Allison Barnes notes that another German monarch, Good Queen Charlotte, wife of George III of Hamilton fame, actually set up the first-ever English Christmas tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor way back in 1800.

We’ll Pretend That He Is Parson Brown

Intriguingly, Barnes notes that the first Christmas tree ever is said to have been decorated by no less a luminary than Martin Luther himself, in 1536. Luther, it seems, was walking in a winter wonderland outside his home in Wittenburg, Germany when he looked up to see stars glittering like tiny fires in the bows of the fir trees around him. So he chopped one down, dragged it inside, and tossed a bunch of candles on it. This is an especially surprising bit of legend given that the firebrand behind the Reformation is rarely referred to as "holly jolly" or even "ever so slightly merry" by reliable sources.

A Treu Fact

The modern lyrics, written in 1824 by Ernst Anschütz, a composer and organist in Leipzig, were added to a much older Silesian folk song by Melchior Franck called "Ach Tannenbaum." This song didn’t wax lyrical over a Christmas tree, however. Far from it – it contrasted the faithfulness of the tree with the inconstancy of a faithless lover. Even in Anschütz’s version, those branches are treu (faithful), not grün (green). That change was only made in the 20th century as the song became a Christmas classic.

A Teachable Moment

Here’s a verse that you may have missed:

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 Christmas Tree, o Christmas Tree

Your dress wants to teach me something.

Your hope and constancy always provide comfort and strength

O Christmas Tree, o Christmas Tree

That’s what your dress should teach me.

The notion of a tree as an avatar for a primly dressed matron reminding one by example to shun miniskirts and fishnet stockings is one that receives all too little attention at Yuletide.

Christmas Contrafacta

Remarkably, the music to "O Tannenbaum" is used as the score for several state songs, including "Florida, My Florida," "Maryland, My Maryland," "Michigan, My Michigan" and "Song Of Iowa." The latter was news to The Enthusiast, who presumed that "Iowa Stubborn" from The Music Man (by "It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas" composer Meredith Willson) was surely the song of the Hawkeye State.

Number twenty-four in a series.

Christmas Eve 2020

The Enthusiast ( is the pen name of critic Michael Collins. He reports back only on what’s good, never what’s bad. He is currently imbued with the holiday spirit.

1 Comment

Karen Madden
Dec 24, 2020

And a bit of local trivia, dear Enthusiast, it is the tune to the "school song" of my alma mater, St. John's University, Queens NY.

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