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Frohe Weihnachten! – Silent Night, O Christmas Tree, and Still, Still, Still

The Stories of Three German Christmas Songs

Frost on Window
"Jack Frost" Visited Us Here in Geneva This Week

Nothing evokes the feeling of Christmas to us like sipping hot chocolate on a crisp afternoon while snow falls. The last few rays of sunlight glisten and sparkle on the frozen limbs of evergreens and on “Jack Frost” leaves kaleidoscope patterns on our windows. We hang stockings on our mantles, or perhaps, if we don’t have a fireplace, on bannisters or doorknobs. The says leading up to Christmas we open up the miniature doors of our Advent calendar’s to discover chocolates, tiny toys, or even, or other treats as we count the days from December 1 to 25. Then we bring in the outdoor ever-greenery into our homes by hanging garlands, making floral arrangements, and decorating Christmas trees. All of these traditions, amazing part of a tropical “American” Christmas, however, many of these traditions, originate in the German-speaking Europe.

The Germans love Christmas decorations and celebrations. They mark the occasion with Christmas markets in many cities, like the one I recently attended in Chicago called the “Christkindlmarket,” A typical Christmas market [der Weihnachtsmarkt] features German food, drink, and many artisan-crafted gifts including carved wooden decor, hand-blown glass Christmas ornaments, knit goods, and more. No matter where you’re from in the world if you’re from a Christmas, celebrating area, nothing can usher in the Christmas spirit quite as quickly as Christmas carols any of our popular carols, just like Advent calendars, stockings, and Christmas trees, originate in Germany, and some traditional German-language songs have become traditional in many other lands, including in English-speaking countries like here in the United States, including one one of our most beloved, “Silent Night” [German title: “Stille Nacht”].

Christmas Market in Germany
Christmas Market in Germany

German-language Christmas music has a long history with many different styles and traditions. Singing Christmas songs has been a part of culture of German-speaking countries since at least as the sixteenth century. Some popular tunes, such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” [German title: O Komm, O Komm Emmanuel] or “O Come All Ye Faithful.” [German title: Herbei, o ihr Gläubigen] originated with the Latin chants from the early Middle Ages such as “Veni, veni, Emmanueland “Adeste Fideles” repsectively. Others may even have originated as folk songs like “O Christmas Tree” [German title: “O Tannenbaum”]. In today’s post, we are going to look into the history of three of the most popular German Christmas carols, "O Tannenbaum," "Stille Nacht," and “Still, Still, Still”.

O Tannenbaum – O Christmas Tree

In German, a Tannenbaum is a fir tree that is sometimes used as Christmas tree (German: der Weihnachtsbaum). Traditional Christmas trees are not always firs, as other evergreen trees, meaning they remain green all year, as well as are coniferous trees or “cone-bearing,” meaning they produce pine cones, are also used to “deck the halls” for the winter season.

The melody is an old folk tune attested in the 16th century. It is also known as the tune of "Es lebe hoch der Zimmermannsgeselle" and of "Lauriger Horatius".

The earliest version of the traditional “Tannenbaum” lyrics come from a folk song composed Melchior Franck (1579 to 1639) from the Silesian region, an area that spans across Germany and Poland. The version we sing today comes from the nineteenth century. The modern lyrics were written in 1824 in Leipzig, Germany, by organist, teacher, and composer Ernst Anschütz (Oct. 28, 1780 – Dec. 11 (or 18), 1861) who added additional verse to the folk song. Anschütz’s lyrics do not actually refer to Christmas trees. Rather, they refer to the fir's green limbs and uses them as a symbol of constancy and faithfulness for that of a committed romantic partner.

Listen to “O Tannenbaum” performed by the Vienna Boys Choir.

Still, Still, Still – Still, Still, Still or Hush, Hush, Hush

Like “O Tannenbaum,” “Still, Still Still” also originated as a folk song. The melody was a familar folktune from the Mozart’s home district of Salzburg, Austria. Its melody first appeared in 1865 as part of a folksong collection made by Vinzenz Maria Süß [pronounced Suehss] (Jan. 15, 1802 – May 5, 1868), who was a pawnshop manager, writer, and founder of the Salzburg Museum. The lyrics tell a story about the infant Jesus being rocked and sung to sleep by his mother Mary.

There have been several variations in the lyrics since the nineteenth century, but the modern German lyrics are attributed to music educator Georg Götsch (March 1, 1895 – Sept. 26, 1956). Various English and other translations are sung today around the world.

Listen to “Still, Still, Still” performed by the Winchester Cathedral Choir.

Still Nacht – Silent Night

Another Christmas lullaby, “Silent Night” is quite possibly the most popular Christmas carol of all time on any language. It was written in Austria in 1818. The lyrics were written by Father Joseph Möhr, priest in the village church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria, and the music was composed by Franz Xaver Grüber, a local schoolteacher and the church's musician and organist.

According to the traditional legend, Father Möhr was inspired to write a poem that later became the lyrics after witnessing the suffering of the people in his village in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. Möhr wanted to create a few lines that would bring comfort and offer hope. On Christmas Eve of 1818, before the annual Christmas Eve service, the chruch's organ broke leaving church musician and organist Grüber to have to create a new musical program on the spur of the moment. Father Möhr presented Gruber his poem, and Gruber quickly composed a melody and accompaniment on solo guitar for the words. The two of them performed "Silent Night" that evening. The song became quickly spread to other towns in the region and was soon translated into other languages. By 1859, it was translated into English and became known as "Silent Night."

Over the years, "Silent Night" has become one of the most popular and beloved Christmas carols around the world. It has been recorded by artists in across genres, from Classical virtuosos like The Three Tenors to multiple platinum popular singers like Mariah Carey.

The original handwritten manuscript is now on display at the Silent Night Museum in Salzburg, Austria. The song has also been designated an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO, and Christmas Eve has been designated “the International Day of the Song to commemorate its spur of the moment composition.

Listen to “Silent Night” performed by The Kings Singers.

Frohe Weihnachten!

Merry Christmas!


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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