I have a confession to make. My favourite Christmas music listening is A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was composed by Vince Guaraldi and performed by The Vince Guaraldi Trio (originally released in 1965). The combination of Christmas carols and jazz is perfect and was originally commissioned by Coca-Cola (who have a strong association with Christmas themselves as we have previously written here).
One of the first themes on this album is based on the carol “O Christmas Tree” which is based on a traditional German song “O Tannenbaum”, now a German Christmas song but originating from a traditional folk song completely unrelated to Christmas. In fact, “tannenbaum” is German for a fir tree and not specifically a Christmas tree, and the original lyrics have no reference to Christmas.
The first lyrics talk about a fir’s evergreen quality which are used as a symbol of constancy and faithfulness. They were written by Ernst Anschütz in 1824, who was an organist, teacher and composer who lived in Leipzig. He based the text on a 16th century Silesian folk song by Melchior Franck “Ach Tannenbaum”, who contrasted the evergreen and faithful fir tree with a faithless lover.
The transformation into a Christmas carol occurred in the 19th century when the custom of Christmas trees became more important as we have written before (see here). The development of Christmas trees as part of the rituals of this season directly fed into the Christmas carols that we now consider traditional and fixed.
The evolving traditions and rituals of Christmas are no more apparent than in the evolving song “O Tannenbaum” and one of its more recent manifestations as a jazz classic. What next for this and other traditional Christmas music?