Christmas: a Time of Carols, Trees and Hauntings
Christmas trees figure prominently in modern celebrations of the season. However the custom of illuminating a fir tree and bringing it into the house is probably based on a pre-Christian tradition that extends deep into the distant past. Before Europe was widely Christianized, pagan celebrations marked the winter solstice in December. Many of the traditions from these long-forgotten celebrations were subsequently absorbed by the Christmas holiday which displaced them. Legends and fairy tales contain remnants of these long-forgotten pagan customs but they have been blended with the gospel narrative and are barely recognizable today. There are common markers of these older traditions in fairy tales, saga and even Christmas carols, which include a reverence for fir trees and also branches, in particular blossoms or fruit springing forth from dead wood often during the deep midwinter or at time near the winter solstice; the offering of gifts; miracles or legends associated with animals in forest or field; processions and lighted candles; strange lights and spooks; hauntings of all sorts and augering the future; but most importantly accounts of incredible transformations when linked to one of the saints but especially the Virgin Mary. (to read more, hit the Christmas Saints link at right). At this time of year the fir tree, hazel branch and lily became associated with Saint Mary and all three appear in many tales of the season (see Grimm’s Saga, the Hazel Branch). It is assumed that the Virgin was replacing an older pagan deity who was similar to her in temperament and importance and that the plants themselves were believed to have certain powers. German Christmas carols may also reflect this blending of Christian and pre-Christian sentiment and I think the carol Oh Tannenbaum is a good example. Provided below is a more literal translation of the popular song that was written around 1820, which has a slightly different emphasis than the more common version:
Oh Christmas Tree (Oh Fir Tree) (Text ca. 1820)
(The evergreen as symbol of life continuing on during the harsh winter months.)
Hit the following link to hear this carol sung in German and English:
1. Oh fir tree, Oh fir tree
How true are your leaves!
You not only bloom in summer,
But also in winter when it’s snowing.
O fir tree, Oh fir tree,
How true are your leaves.
2. Oh fir tree, Oh fir tree
How you please me! (Or: How I love you!)
How often at Christmas time,
Oh tree, have you delighted me!
O fir tree, Oh fir tree,
How you please me.
3. Oh fir tree, Oh fir tree
Your leaves shall teach me:
Hope and constancy
Give me comfort and strength always.
Oh fir tree, Oh fir tree,
Your leaves shall teach me.
Saint Barbara is also one of the saints mentioned at Christmas time. Her feast day is December 4th and in the following German song, the miracle of winter transformation is celebrated in the form of dead twigs (for another “dead twig legend” see Grimm’s Saga No. 349: Image of Mercy in the Larch Branch at Waldrast provided under the link Three Legends of the Virgin Mary).
German Christmas Carol: I broke off three barren branches. (Ich brach drei duerre Reiselein)
1. I broke off three barren branches
from the dead hazel bush,
I placed them in an earthen jar,
warm was the water, too.
2. On Saint Barbara’s Feast Day,
I broke the twigs away.
Christmas, it came,
and with it the miracle.
3. Soon two little branches burst into bloom,
and they blossomed on Christmas Eve.
I broke off the third twig,
and my heart also blossomed anew.
4. I broke off three barren branches,
from the hard hazel bush.
God let them turn green, it thrives,
just like our own lives.
Another favorite German tree carol, or rather, life-springing-forth-from-stump carol (Es ist ein Ros entsprungen):
An older arrangement of the same tune, capturing the mystery but perhaps even the spookiness of the season:
Perhaps the most poignant story of all is the Singing Fir Tree, my favorite tale for the Christmas season, which features the Virgin Mary and a sort of transformation in reverse, the mystery of going from something living to something seemingly dead, but ultimately still living on.
And here is a carol of Mary (Maria durch ein Dornwald ging), the setting is a thorny forest landscape. it is hauntingly beautiful and I think a wonderful backdrop for reading the legend of the Singing Fir Tree:
The Singing Fir Tree, a Swiss Fairy Tale
In Switzerland, a story is told about a man named Hans Kreutz, who lived with his wife on Thun Lake in Ralligen. In the year 1555, a thick black fog descended on the village and it would not dissipate. The alarmed villagers retreated to their homes, closed doors and sealed the windows tightly. But a light blue vapor crept under the window sill and the wife breathed in this vapor and in the evening she lay in bed motionless. Hans looked into her eyes and saw no reflection there and in the morning she was dead.
Many villagers died that year and the survivors buried their loved ones in the church yard at the outskirts of town, where the mountain and forest swept down abruptly into the valley. While the bells in the church tower were ringing, Hans buried his wife and returned home. For days he did not leave his house. He neither ate nor slept but could not forget the vacant stare of his beloved wife and the sound of the church bells as he lowered her into the grave.
One evening when Hans sat by the fire, he heard the church bells ring out the Ave and they rang and rang and he lost track of the time. He raised his head, for he thought he heard wonderful and sweet singing up high in the Hohlbach Forest near the tree line. But when the church bells stopped ringing, he heard it no more. The next day he sat with longing and waited for the evening church bells to ring out the Ave. At first he heard only the faintest sound of distant singing, but then the melody grew stronger until there could be no mistake. A woman’s voice sang a mysterious and beautiful song, the words of which he could not quite decipher.
But Hans spread word among the townspeople. At night the entire village listened while the church bells rang and soon everyone heard the wonderful singing daily. The singing was soothing and the villagers listened at the edge of the village until the snow began to fall and then they returned to their homes. All but Hans, who wanted to know where the singing came from. The next night when the church bells were ringing, the villagers assembled in the church yard. Hans lit a torch and climbed the mountainside, following the mysterious melody. He did this every evening until one night he finally found a giant fir tree, and its voice was sweet and clear. He shyly gazed upon the tree and in amazement listened to its gentle song.
But Hans could find no rest. The singing fir tree occupied his waking and sleeping hours and he wanted to be in the presence of its song always. In secret he climbed up the mountain during the day and spent long hours near the tree. Some time passed and Hans was called away to visit his family in the next valley.
While he was away, a wood carver from among the villagers, who had seen the beautiful fir tree, decided he needed it to make a wood carving. Because the tree was so magnificent, tall and straight, with perfectly formed branches and trunk, he had it felled and brought down to the valley. From the wood, he selected an enormous block of the trunk that had no scars or branches. From this piece of wood he began to carve an image of the Virgin Mary. He worked day and night on this carving and saw nothing more beautiful than the image of the Virgin growing out of the wood. And after some time, the villagers came to his workshop and marveled at the beauty of the image, its heavenly countenance and mild authority.
When Hans returned to the village after some months, he climbed the mountain and went directly to where the singing fir tree had stood. In its place was only a stump and Hans was gripped by such melancholy, that a loud moan issued from his lips. It was like the howling of a wounded wolf or the shriek of an eagle flying overhead. The loud cries filled the valley, echoing off the cliffs and rocks. When the villagers heard the loud cries from above, they gathered below near the church. And soon in the distance they heard the beautiful, long-missed song. They turned and saw the woodcarver, carrying his statue and saw that it was singing. He placed the statue in the church, where it stands today. And some say, they have heard it singing when a loved one dies. The place where the tree once stood is now called Marienstein. There is a smaller rock nearby, where Hans once gazed upon the fir tree. It is said that in his grief, Hans turned to stone and the place is now called the Kreutzantisch.
The Singing Fir Tree Copyright FairyTaleChannel.com
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