Monday, December 24, 2018

O Tannenbaum

Yesterday morning I read an article in Freiburg’s Sunday paper Der Sonntag titled "O Tannenbaum".

"O fir tree" is the title of a traditional German Christmas song, translated into English as "O Christmas tree." The tune is that of a Latin mediæval student song "Lauriger Horatius" and was used since then many times over, e.g., Maryland’s state song "Maryland, my Maryland."

The lyrics of "O Tannenbaum" were written around 1819, but singers soon replaced the second line "wie treu sind deine Blätter" (meaning needles do not fall off, i.e., they remain true to the fir tree) by "wie grün sind deine Blātter" (how green are your leaves).

As far as we know today the evergreen Christmas tree originated in German-speaking Alsace for the earliest written reference dates back to 1492, the year when Columbus discovered the West Indies. In the account book of the Strasburg minster church you can read the following entry, "Item koüfft 9 Tannen in die 9 Kirchspill, das gut Jor darjnn zu empfohen, unnd darumb gebenn 2 Gulden" (To receive the new year well we also bought 9 fir trees for the 9 parishes for 3 gilders). Note: In those times the new year started with the celebration of Christmas, i.e., on December 25.

Freiburg Rappenpfennig
It seems that evergreen trees were much appreciated during Christmas time. An entry of 1521 in the account book of the Humanist Library at Schlettstatt in Alsace bears witness thereof, "Item IIII schillinge dem foerster die meyen an sanct Thomas tag zu hieten" (Also 4 shillings to the gamekeeper, so he will guard the trees as of Saint Thomas day, i.e., December 21).

Already in the outgoing Middle Ages, the Black Forest served as an abundant source of Christmas trees although in the minutes of Freiburg’s city council of December 1554 we read that the Schlagen der Weihnachtsbäume würde „grosser schad" anrichten (the logging of Christmas trees would wreak havoc). Therefore the city council imposed a „straff " (penalty) of 10 Rappen*.
*The Rappen or Rappenpfennig was a form of the penny minted in Freiburg im Breisgau in the 13th century featuring an eagle, which later on was interpreted to depict a raven. Nowadays the Rappen is still used in Switzerland.

©Der Sonntag, Freiburg
While early Christmas trees were raised in churches and in public places they later found their way into private homes. Here again, the Alsaciens were pioneers. Following his studies in Strasburg young Goethe writes in his bestselling novel The Sorrows of Young Werther about a tree he had seen decorated with wax lights, sweetmeat, and apples.

It is estimated that this year 60 million candle-lit trees will illuminate the Christmas Eve in Germany where LEDs not only replace fine dust polluting wax candles but energy hungry incandescent lights too. Since reusable plastic trees surrogate the real stuff serious discussions broke out about the sustainability of fir compared to plastic trees.


I do not want to spoil your Christmas feelings further so I better stop, but not without showing a lithograph presenting a hanging fir tree. Those of you who have tried in vain to fiddle a tree straight into a Christmas tree stand will appreciate this solution.

Manger scene in front of a Christmas tree in the church of Staufen near Freiburg

With the above in mind, I wish all my readers a

Merry Christmas and a peaceful holiday season

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