Rewriting “Oh Christmas Tree” (O Tannenbaum)

The other day in Walgreens I heard a woman singing. “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, how lovely are thy branches.” I stopped and listened as she sang while pushing her cart. It took me back to my elementary school days when I learned “O Tannenbaum,” as “O Christmas Tree.”

Recently I came across a German writer and poet from the mid-1800s named Friedrich Ruckert. In 1834, Ruckert wrote his own version of “O Tannenbaum [O Fir Tree].” 

“O Tannenbaum” was based on a 16th-century German folk song. However, in 1824 Ernst Anschutz wrote the lyrics that we sing today. 

On Christmas Day, 1833, Friedrich Ruckert and his family decorated their tree. The next day Friedrich’s 3-year-old daughter fell ill with Scarlet fever and died a week later. Within days Ruckert’s 5-year-old son contracted Scarlet fever and, like his 3-year-old sister, died just days later.

After such a devastating loss within weeks of Christmas, the grieving Ruckert wrote his own version of “O Tannenbaum,” calling it “O Christmas Tree”:

—–

O Christmas tree,

O Christmas dream.

how dark is your brilliance,

how broken is the dance that,

cut short, scattered your garland.

O Christmas tree,

O Christmas dream. 

The candles on each

branch burned but halfway before,

mid-celebration, we snuffed them out.

O Christmas tree,

O Christmas dream.

The candies on each twig

are uneaten, untouched.

Ah, that you survived the ravages of revelry.

O Christmas tree,

O Christmas dream,

With your virgin fruit,

your unburnt candles,

stand until Christmas returns,

until their memorial day.

O Christmas tree,

O Christmas dream.

when we light you again, we need buy no angel:

our pair will be here,

celebrating with us.

A grieving father took a popular German folk song and rewrote deeply touching lyrics to help him grieve. As you read Ruckert’s version, his longing is almost palpable.

In truth, though, a story like this is very much in line with the 4 weeks of Advent that lead up to Christmas. “Longing” is one of the Advent themes usually featured in the first two weeks of Advent, but rarely given much thought by many of the faithful. The weeks of Advent normally center on themes of hope, love or peace.

With the coronavirus ravaging the lives of so many people this year, aren’t we all just longing for the world to be made right? I sure am. People are putting up their creches and smiling at the Christ child lying in the manger, but aren’t so many of us also surely longing for the final consummation, that ultimate coming, when Christ will return, make things right and claim those who are his own? Then, promises the book of Revelation, there will be no more tears, no more sorrow, no more longing. No more rewriting songs to help us grieve!

Friedrich Ruckert, who lost two children within weeks of Christmas, knew full well that he hadn’t reached his ultimate home. And neither have we. That’s why it is absolutely right during Advent to let yourself feel the weight of the broken world and long for the world to be made right.

You are welcome to pray this Advent prayer with me: “Come Lord Jesus. Come back as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and set your people free.”