"O Tannenbaum" Lyrics in English and German

This Christmas Classic Dates Way Back

boys decorating Christmas tree
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The popular Christmas carol "O Tannenbaum" was written in Germany in the mid-1500s. The original folk song has been rewritten many times over the centuries. The song's long history is not very detailed, but it is interesting. It's also fascinating to see how one modern German version literally translates into English. It's not quite what you're probably familiar with.

The History of "O Tannenbaum"

A Tannenbaum is a fir tree (die Tanne) or Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum).

Although most Christmas trees today are spruce (Fichten) rather than Tannen, the qualities of the evergreen have inspired musicians to write several Tannenbaum songs in German over the years.

The first known Tannenbaum song lyrics date back to 1550. A similar 1615 song by Melchior Franck (ca. 1579–1639) goes:

Ach Tannebaum, ach Tannebaum, du bist ein edler Zweig! Du grünest uns den Winter, die lieben Sommerzeit.” 

Roughly translated, it means, "Oh pine tree, oh pine tree, you're a noble twig! You greet us in the winter, the dear summer time."

In the 1800s, the German preacher and collector of folk music, Joachim Zarnack (1777–1827) wrote his own song inspired by the folk song. His version used the "true" leaves of the tree as a contrast to his sad tune about an untrue lover.

The best-known version of a Tannenbaum song was penned in 1824 by Ernst Gebhard Salomon Anschütz (1780–1861). He was a well-known Leipzig organist, teacher, poet, and composer.

His song doesn't specifically refer to a Christmas tree that is decorated for the holiday with ornaments and a star. Instead, it sings of the green fir tree, as more of a symbol of the season. Anschütz left the reference to a true tree in his song, and that adjective dates back to the faithless lover Zarnack sung about.

Today, the old song is a popular Christmas carol that is sung far beyond Germany. It's common to hear it sung in the United States, even among people who don't speak German.

The Lyrics and Translation

The English version here is a literal translation, not the traditional English lyrics for the song. There are at least a dozen other versions of this carol. For example, a number of modern versions of this song changed "treu" (true) to gruen (green).

The traditional melody of “O Tannenbaum” has also found use in non-Christmas songs. Four U.S. states (Iowa, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey) have borrowed the melody for their state song. 

DeutschEnglish
"Tannenbaum"
TEXT: Ernst Anschütz, 1824
MELODIE: Volksweise (traditional)
"O Christmas Tree"
Literal English translation
Traditional melody
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.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves/needles.
You're green not only
  in the summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows.
O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves/needles.