Today’s Christmas carol is ‘Oh Christmas Tree’. The original title of this carol was the German one of ‘O Tannenbau.’ (German for ‘O Fir Tree’ or ‘O Christmas Tree’). Based on a traditional folk song, it became associated with the traditional Christmas tree by the early 20th century and sung as a Christmas carol.
The modern lyrics were written in 1824, by the Leipzig organist, teacher, and composer Ernst Anschutz. A Tannenbaum is a fir tree. The lyrics do not actually refer to Christmas or describe a decorated Christmas tree. Instead, they refer to the fir's evergreen quality as a symbol of constancy and faithfulness.
Anschütz based his text on a 16th-century Silesian folk song by Melchior Franck, ‘Ach Tannenbaum’. In 1819, August Zarnack wrote a tragic love song inspired by this folk song, taking the evergreen, ‘faithful’ fir tree as contrasting with a faithless lover. The folk song first became associated with Christmas with Anschütz, who added two verses of his own to the first, traditional verse. The custom of the Christmas tree developed in the course of the 19th century and the song came to be seen as a Christmas carol and has been associated with Christmas ever since.
Having been born the oldest of seven children to Irish parents who migrated to West Yorkshire for a better life in the mid-1940s with their first three children, I was brought up living a life of ‘live and make do’ until I started working in a local mill at the age of 15 years.
Every working-class household in the 1940s and 1950s would eat food from their table this week which the family grocer never received payment for until our father received his wages, next week. Not surprisingly, struggling to survive from day to day supplying food for the family table, clothes for the children’s backs, and second-hand shoes for their feet were the norm. Having real Christmas trees in one’s home at Christmas time only happened in the homes of mill owners, professional people, and the better off, as well as in book illustrations of the decorative mansions of aristocrats during the month of December.
I recall the very first time I ever smelled the magnificent pine aroma of a real fir tree. It was the home of a solicitor down Moorside as one travels to Cleckheaton from the Pack Horse. Moorside was the area where all the doctors, solicitors and mill owners lived with their families. It was the area where I chose to carol sing during the month of December. I would carol sing to help mum out with our Christmas expenses and to buy a few presents for my younger siblings.
In those days, carol singers were not ‘begrudgingly tolerated’ as they tend to be today. No! They were a welcome house visitor, especially to the home of a wealthier person. Carol singers from working-class estates probably reminded the rich house owner of the difference in social status between the host and seasonal singing visitor. Carol singers were welcomed by their ‘betters’ in the 1950s and were rarely kept in the cold outside while the host listened inside. I was often invited inside the house to sing and carol singers were usually offered a mince pie or some other Christmas fare to eat as well as been given a money token. A good carol-singing house would give a minimum of a silver sixpenny piece, and if one was very lucky, one might even receive a silver shilling.
Mum always brought out our tree during the first week of December. The tree wasn’t tall enough to stand on the ground as it was neither heavy enough to maintain balance nor hearty enough on the floor not to be knocked over. Mum's tree was about one foot high, so we stood it on the top of the sideboard.
We had that tree all of the years I lived at my parent’s house before I went to live in Canada at the age of 21. When I married and managed to get a good job that provided a comfortable lifestyle, I swore then that I’d always have a Christmas tree in my house, that would be too small to fit snugly in our window. I was determined that my tree would smell like a proper tree should smell because it would be a real Christmas tree!
If only I could have my dear mum back for one more Christmas, along with our one-foot-tall Christmas tree, my Chrismas would be complete!
Each year, the starting gun for Christmas is never fired until I have been to the Garden Centre, bought a six-foot tree, erected it and adorned it with seasonal baubles and its own fairy lights, and topped off with an angel on its spire. Until all this has been done, Christmas has not begun.
My wife, Sheila, likes to see our Christmas tree in its full adornment but not as much as I do, to have one erected each Christmas when I am no longer here. I feel reasonably sure that when I'm gone, she might not bother. Fearing such to be the case, I went out a few years ago and bought a beautiful pine tree that is planted in pride of place in our allotment. This is ‘our tree’ and even has its own special name which one might give a special friend. I even told Sheila that if she fertilises ‘Tree’ with my ashes, it will grow even more splendid year-upon-year.
The year we bought our Christmas tree for the allotment, Sheila and I watched a film on television with the one-word title of ‘Tree’. The film was about a Christmas tree that had mysteriously grown after a person had died, although nobody had ever planted one there. The tree was now two hundred years old and held special powers. In the film, the specimen was never called anything else but ‘Tree’.
Sheila knows to spread a few of my ashes beneath our ‘Tree’ after I am gone and I have made advanced arrangements with my allotment buddy, Brian, to ensure that every year thereafter, Sheila puts a bauble on ‘Tree’ during the month of December in fond memory of both her Maker and her Master’s birth and life on Earth.
Sheila and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year xx
Love and peace Bill xxx