DW reflects on some of the best-known Christmas songs in the German speaking lands, examining their political, cultural and historical background - beginning with "O Tannenbaum" (O Christmas Tree).
Leipzig, 1824: Ernst Anschütz, cantor of the Saint Georg church, is preparing for Christmas festivities. He's looking for suitable old songs that can be adapted for young listeners. Along the way, he discovers something in a different vein. Written by Joachim August Zarnack, it's a tragic love song contrasting the infidelities of a flighty maiden with the steadfastness of an evergreen fir tree. Translated into English, its lyrics begin with "O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree."
The fir tree had been a popular festive icon in German-speaking countries ever since the Middle Ages. Green fir branches were used as decoration before being replaced by entire trees in the 16th century. And this gave Anschütz an idea; with a few minor changes - for example, he replaced the word "treu" (loyal) in German with "grün" (green) in reference to leaves - the doleful love song could be changed into an atmospheric Christmas carol.
Though its origins are in the 19th century, "O Tannenbaum" didn't become a beloved Christmas carol in Germany until after World War II.
Its place in popular culture was partly due to the melody being used in a satirical song about the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany's last emperor, who saw out his final days in exile after fleeing from Germany in 1918. At the time, carolers might have sung, "O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree, the Kaiser's packing it all in."
Political versions of the song also circulated during World War I, with "O Hindenburg, o Hindenburg, how beautiful are your victories" being sung after the German victory at the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes.
Battle songs, party anthems
German émigrés took the song to America and there, too, the melody proved its durability. In addition to the now world-famous carol "O Christmas Tree," the song had been appropriated as early as 1861. With the lyrics switched to "Maryland, my Maryland" it was used as a battle song by Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. By 1939, it had been adopted as the official state song of Maryland.
Even London was charmed by the catchy melody. In 1909, a slightly more stirring version of the song, "The Red Flag," was featured in the "Little Red Songbook," a book of protest songs used by the international labor movement. Since 1945, the song has been the unofficial party anthem of the UK’s Labour Party. To this day, delegates begin every party conference with a chorus of "The Red Flag."
Along the way, the infidelities of the flighty maiden who inspired the original song have been long forgotten.