The traditional German song O Tannenbaum is often translated as O Christmas Tree. This translation is only partly accurate, however. The English version is quite different from the German: the essence of the German song is far more universal.
One of the beauties of learning languages is discovering what words and poetry mean to those who first spoke or wrote them. Much is often lost in translation.
A Tannenbaum is an evergreen tree. While Christmas trees are traditionally evergreen trees, most evergreens are not Christmas trees. There’s no mention of Christmas or the birth of Jesus in the German song.
However, if we think of what these trees symbolize, we can begin to understand the universality not just of the song but of the entire celebration of Christmas.
To people living in northern European climates centuries ago, winter was dark, cold and dismal. Outside, there were few signs of life. The days were short and the nights were long. There was little fresh food, and people huddled around fires to keep warm. It was easy to forget that better days were coming.
One symbol of hope stood out, however. Evergreen trees look the same in winter as in summer. When everything around them looked dead, they were obvious signs of life.
The veneration of these trees goes back to times beyond recorded history, and that reverence was adopted by Christianity as it spread through Europe and adapted to new cultures.
In O Tannenbaum, the fact that the tree remains green in winter is stated, but so is its symbolism, as reflected in the following lines:
|Dein Kleid will mich was lehren||Your dress (outfit) wants to teach me something|
|Die Hoffnung und Bestaendigkeit||Hope and permanence|
|Gibt Mutt and Kraft zu jeder Zeit||Give strength and courage at all times|
For Christians, it’s important to remember that, although the birth of Jesus is celebrated on Dec. 25, it’s highly unlikely that the actual event occurred on this day. What’s more important is what the birth of Christ symbolizes.
The ancient prophet Isaiah said that the Messiah would come to set prisoners free and bring joy to those in sorrow. This is the essence of the Christian message: Yes, there are problems in the world and in our lives, but Jesus is alive and with us as we move forward into better times.
The evergreen tree held a similar meaning in northern climes that had no contact with Europe. The Cherokee, for example, have a beautiful legend of how these trees demonstrate the special awareness that allows them to get through difficult times and provide hope and shelter for all.
Perhaps the celebration of Christmas is universal, even though most people don’t live in snowy northern areas or practise Christianity, because we can all relate to the need for hope. It’s so easy to get discouraged when things look dark and dismal all around us.
As Christmas approaches and we face the harshness of the winter months ahead – literally and figuratively – we know summer and better times are coming.
Evergreens remind us of this. They help us to find the courage and strength not only to endure but to thrive.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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