"German Christmas Carols: Our Heritage"
by Brigitte Barry
Christmas is approaching and with it comes the American tradition of caroling with family and friends. Children look forward to singing those familiar Christmas carols. Dressed in their best Christmas clothes, they sing at their church choir concert, sing-along to the carols on the car radio, and sing together at festive, family parties. But did you know that some of the most popular Christmas carols that American children sing such as “Silent Night,” “O Christmas Tree,” and “Away in a Manger” were originally sung in German? As a child, I often sang these songs with my Papa, who is from Germany.
“Good King Wenceslas,” “Away in a Manger,” “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Christmas Tree” (O Tannenbaum), and “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht) all have German roots.
Each of these carols has a special history and story. The tradition of singing Christmas carols has a story too. Most carols were originally folk melodies. They date from early Christianity when carolers wanted to spread the good news of the miracle of Christ’s birth.
Christmas carols became popular in Germany in the 1300s. During the Middle Ages in Germany, poor students walked from house to house hoping to receive small gifts. These wandering singers, or Kurrende-Sanger, still go caroling in parts of Germany today. It is thought that these early traveling singers may have influenced today’s custom of Christmas caroling.
One of the earliest known carols is “Good King Wenceslas.” It is possible that many children do not know the words to this song but recognize the melody. Good King Wenceslas was the ruler of Bohemia in the tenth century. The carol urges all men to treat one another as brothers.
“Away in a Manger,” is a carol that glorifies Christ’s birth in the crib. Written in the fifteenth century, its inception is thought to be in the twelfth century when St. Francis wanted to bring the message of God in an understandable way to people. Francis wrote a number of carols about the crib scene, but “Away in a Manger” remains the most memorable one.
Martin Luther, the German leader of the Protestant Reformation, had a strong influence on German Christmas carols. Luther considered music a gift from God. According to legend, Luther composed the fifteen-verse carol, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” in 1535, while rocking his young son, Hans, in his crib on Christmas eve. Every Christmas morning the carol is sung from the Kreuz Church dome in Dresden.
Pastor Philipp Nicolai wrote the uplifting “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” during the darkest days of his church. Many of his parishioners of Unna Church had fallen sick and died from a plague. In the midst of his sorrow, the song came to him. “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” was published in 1599.
Two upbeat German Christmas carols are “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Tannenbaum” (O Christmas Tree). The German composer Felix Mendelssohn popularized “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” by composing a new melody for it in 1840. Irishman Charles Wesley wrote the original song one hundred years earlier, in 1739.
“O Tannenbaum” (O Christmas Tree) is a traditional carol sung by German families after the newly decorated Christmas tree is unveiled. It is one of the most widely sung carols in the world. Today’s version was written by Ernst Anschutz in 1824. The melody of “O Christmas Tree” is even used by four states - Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey - for their state song.
There are two stories about the peaceful and holy “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht), and it is unclear whether each story is distinct or if there is a melding of the two. Only the writer, the composer, and the midnight mass congregants at Saint Nicholas Church on Christmas Eve in 1818 know the real history.
The first story involves some naughty mice. Some people believe that mice caused the composition of “Silent Night.” In 1818, on Christmas Eve, Franz Gruber, the church organist, made a frightening discovery. Mice had ruined the organ by eating away at the bellows. He needed music for Christmas day, so he suggested to the church’s vicar, Joseph Mohr, that a new song should be written during this urgent situation. It is said that Mohr wrote the verses while Gruber quickly composed the melody.
The second story is that Mohr gave a poem that he had written two years earlier, in 1816, to Gruber requesting that he compose a melody for two soloists with choir and the accompaniment for a guitar.
Although the origin of “Silent Night” is unknown, one thing is certain. On Christmas Eve in 1818, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber sang “Stille Nacht” with only guitar music in front of the St. Nicholas Church congregation.
German Christmas carols were written under many different circumstances: brotherhood, enlightenment, joy, sadness, fun, and perhaps urgency. It is with joy and fond memories that American families sing these songs today. German carols are a gift we continue to enjoy every Christmas.
For Further Reading and Study
Look up “Christmas in Germany” and other related topics in an encyclopedia. Use older and newer volumes, if possible.
“Origin of the Song.” Stille Nacht Gesellschaft, www.stillenacht.at/en/origin_song.asp (Oct. 2005).
www.cyberhymnal.org You can hear thousands of hymns and read about them on this site, including “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”
Brigitte Barry is a first-generation German. She now shares her German holiday traditions with her family, husband Kevin and their two sons; Preston, eight, and Spencer, six. A journalist at heart, she spends her spare time writing about societal issues, cultures, history, and faith in everyday life.
Merry Christmas • Merry Christmas • Merry Christmas