Tannenbaum: Faithful Fir Tree

The writer of the first version of the German song O Tannenbaum did not have Christmas in mind.  The song personified the fir tree’s enduring loyalty to staying green year-round, in contrast with a lover’s unfaithfulness.  One might say it was a love song.  Its roots began 400 years ago.  (fir:tanne tree:baum)

Did you know balsam fir leaves persist for eight years?

Do you have a favorite rendition of the song?  Let’s take a look at what it says.

The music is an ancient German folk tune of unknown origin.

Versions of the text, some say, date back to the year 1550, but the only one commonly quoted is the German folk song Ach Tannenbaum written in 1615 by Renaissance composer Melchior Franck.  Unlike the later traditional versions, Franck’s began, “Ach Tannebaum, ach Tannebaum, du bist ein edler Zweig! Du grünest uns den Winter, die lieben Sommerzeit.”

(I sent a request to an expert for a correct translation.  The second line doesn’t work in English with a word-for-word literal translation.  My very rough guess is, “You are a noble tree.  You stay green for us in winter and love summer.”  Can you translate it?  The overall intended meaning appears to be the same as the version that eventually became popular.  I’ll update this post when I get a real translation.)

Two hundred years later, Joachim August Christian Zarnack drew inspiration from the 1615 Franck verse for his 1819 version.  Zarnack wrote the first verse of the now three-verse traditional Christmas song.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit,
“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!

A translation by professional translator Constanze Arnold reads:

O fir tree, O fir tree,
How faithful are your branches!*
You’re not just green during summertime,
But also in wintertime when it snows,
O fir tree, O fir tree,
How faithful are your branches!

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See large copies of pictures in this article.

In 1824, German composer Ernst Anschütz added two more verses, associating it with Christmas.  Constanze Arnold’s translation (more literal than the traditional song lyrics), follows below.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
Wie oft hat nicht zur Weihnachtszeit
Ein Baum von dir mich hoch erfreut!
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

O fir tree, O fir free!
You can please me very much!
How often has, not just at Christmas time,
A tree like you delighted me!
O fir tree, O fir tree,
You can please me very much!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Dein Kleid will mich
was lehren:
Die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit
Gibt Trost und Kraft
zu jeder Zeit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Das soll dein Kleid
mich lehren.

O fir tree, O fir tree!
I could learn something
from your dress:
The hope and durability
Give trust and strength
at any time.
O fir tree, O fir tree!
That’s what your dress should
teach me.

So!  You say you’re a fan of the balsam fir?  Among your reasons perhaps you include these virtues of firs, lauded in song for over 400 years, and for more than a century as a popular Christmas song.  Have you found in balsam fir some inspiration for faithfulness and a lesson for us about trust and strength drawn from hope and durability as the song says?

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What pleases you most about the balsam fir (Abies balsamea)?  One of the things that pleases me is learning more about it, and finding that what I sensed all along has been true for a hundred generations.  I believe our love of this tree is a manifestation of biophilia, a natural aspect of being human that arouses our affinity for nature, gives us the love of nature, and this tree has a particular aptitude for inspiring such love.  Your take on it?

If you would like share your talents with Balsam Fir Center, or make suggestions for things to do here, please visit the Contact page!
What would you like to see?


History and explanation of the song by Constanze Arnold, life-long German speaker born of German mother and English father, now a professional translator, language consultant and writer in both languages.

* – Most sources translate Blätter as leaves.  It can mean leaves, sheets, pages or other English words, but I trust this translator’s application in the context, given her qualifications, and the intent of the line is the same whether looking at the leaves (needles) or branches of a fir tree.

Google Translate
Babylon Software online translator
Reverso online translator
SDL Freetranslation
TU Chemnitz Beolingus translator
Collins Dictionary online translator

Other sources consulted:

The German Way & More; Language and Culture in Austria, Germany and Switzerland article O Tannenbaum

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas history of the song and Christmas tree traditions


Published by

The Balsamean

Resident of Balsamea, my little forest refuge named for its most abundant tree, in the Adirondack Mountains. See TheBalsamean.com

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