German Christmas Traditions: Tannenbaum (Christmas Tree)

by John Baumgaertner a.k.a Festmeister Hans.

Do you know the holiday song “O Christmas Tree” or the German version “Oh Tannenbaum”? Did you ever wonder how and why that tree from the forest ended up in your living room covered in blinking lights?

The Christmas tree tradition has roots as far back as ancient Egypt and China where evergreens were used to symbolize eternal life, but our modern conception comes directly from ancient pagan rituals in what is now Germany and Scandinavia. Not unlike the way that St. Patrick is said to have explained the concept of the holy trinity with a three-leaf clover, St. Boniface is said to have used the tree to pique their interest of Germanic peoples in accepting Christianity. With St. Boniface’s influence, the fir tree was adopted as a Christian symbol of the holy trinity because of its three-pointed, triangular shape with the apex pointing towards heaven.

Ancient Germanic and Scandinavian folk had already been placing the evergreen branches in their homes for centuries to ward off evil spirits, but then the whole tree was brought into the home. The Germans called it the Weihnachtsbaum “Christmas Tree,” Christbaum “Christ tree,” or of course, “Tannenbaum” or “fir tree.” By the 15th century tree decorations started becoming part of the holiday celebration.

Apples, nuts and other foods gave way to candles in the 18th century, and in the 19th century, the Christmas tree hitched a ride with German immigrants to become an expression of Germanic culture and Gemütlichkeit in the USA. Before you knew it, families of all ethnicities across were choppin’ ‘em down and stringin’ ‘em up with electric lights, bright shiny tinsel, and a star or angel on top.

Nowadays a lot of us celebrate with plastic trees hanging out reliably in storage until we need to put them up every December. But remember, that ubiquitous holiday decoration, the ole “Tannenbaum,” had its origin in Germany thousands of years ago!”

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