The German Christmas Tree

Der Tannenbaum – Der Weihnachtsbaum

“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.”

Text: Ernst Anschütz, Leipzig, 1824, set to a traditional tune.
Various “Tannenbaum” songs and ballads date from around 1550.
Web > German Christmas Carols – Lyrics in German and English – from AboutGerman.net

Germany’s Tannenbaum (Christmas Tree)
The German religious reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) is often credited with starting the Christmas tree custom, but the first appearance of a Tannenbaum was recorded in Germany many years after Luther’s death. It was in 1605 in Strasbourg in Alsace, then in Germany, that a chronicler wrote (in old German): “Auff Weihenachten richtett man Dahnnenbäum zu Strasburg in den Stuben auff…” (“At Christmas they set up Christmas trees in Strasbourg in their rooms…”).

Berlin shopping mall Christmas tree

Not your average Christmas tree in a Berlin shopping center. PHOTO © H. Flippo

But it is likely that the custom dates back to at least around 1550, since the first of several “Tannenbaum” ballads was circulating in print at that time. By the 19th century this custom had spread across most of Germany and beyond. Several royal Germans are credited with helping extend the tree decorating custom beyond Germany’s borders. The Duchess of Orleans (from Mecklenburg) brought it to Paris, while other Germanic royals brought the Christmas tree to England and other European countries. But it was commoners—emigrants from Germany—who brought the Weihnachtsbaum to America.

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German Glass Ornaments
Yet another Christmas custom from Germany

The Austrians, Germans, and Swiss are now using more “electric candles” for tree decoration, but many a Germanic Christbaum continues to glow with the warm light of real wax candles. (Germans use special candle holders and have learned how to do this safely; the candles are not left to burn for a long time or without someone in the room.)

Christmas tree

Der Weihnachtsbaum – An old-fashioned German Christmas tree

The use of evergreens as a Christmas symbol of everlasting life goes back much further than even the 1550s, but still with a Germanic connection. St. Boniface is said to have introduced the use of evergreens in connection with his efforts to Christianize the Germanic tribes in the 8th century. He dedicated the fir tree (Tannenbaum) to the Christ Child, displacing the pagan oak tree of Odin.

A more recent “old” Bavarian tradition is the so-called “Bride’s Tree,” upon which a dozen special ornaments are hung to help ensure a better life for a married couple. The 12 ornaments and their symbolic significance are: angel (God’s guidance), bird (joy), fish (Christ’s blessing), flower basket (good wishes), fruit basket (generosity), heart (true love), house (protection), pine cone (fruitfulness), rabbit (hope), rose (affection), Santa (goodwill), and teapot (hospitality). Special hand-blown glass ornaments in these forms are still produced in Bavaria.

The Pickle Ornament
Is the glass pickle ornament really a German Christmas tree tradition? Probably not, but it makes an interesting story. More…

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Photos: Christmas in Germany – Berlin
Our photographic tour of just a few of Berlin’s 60 Christmas markets

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