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CHRISTMAS

Five Christmas songs to improve your German language skills

Want to feel more festive while also improving your German? Writer Sarah Magill digs out some of the most beautiful (and fun) German-language Christmas carols.

A choir singing at the opening of the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt in 2019.
A choir singing at the opening of the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

German Christmas songs (Weihnachtslieder) have a very long tradition – with some of the songs sung today having their origins in the Middle Ages.

Like their English language counterparts, there are a few traditional German Christmas songs which can be heard everywhere during the festive season and which are sung every year, without fail on Heiligabend (Christmas Eve).

Here are five of the nation’s favourite Christmas songs, which will not only get you in a christmassy mood, but will also broaden your German vocabulary.

READ ALSO: Seven classic German Christmas traditions still taking place in the pandemic

1. Stille Nacht

You may be familiar with the English adaptation of this carol – “Silent Night” – but the original version comes from the city of Oberndorf bei Salzburg in Austria. 

On December 24th, 1818, the assistant priest of the church of St. Nicola, Josef Mohr, presented the organist Franz Gruber with a poem called Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! (“Silent Night! Holy Night!”) and the two sang the song for the first time at the Christmas mass.

The Silent Night chapel in Oberndorf near Salzburg. Photo:picture alliance / Eva-Maria Repolusk/SalzburgerLand Tourismus/dpa-tmn | Eva-Maria Repolusk

Written just after the Napoleonic wars, the text of Stille Nacht uses imagery of peace and calm, and has played an important role in times of war throughout its 200-year history: it was sung and performed in public during the First World War and also during the Second World War. 

German version

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!

Alles schläft, einsam wacht

Nur das traute, hochheilige Paar.

Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh,

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh.

English version

Silent night, holy night!

All sleeps, lonely wakes

Only the happy, sacred couple.

Sweet boy with curly hair,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

The song has since been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects around the globe.

2. O Tannenbaum

Another German language original which has found its way into the English canon of Christmas carols, O Tannenbaum (“Oh Christmas Tree”) was originally a sad love song. The text was written by Potsdam scholar August Zarnack in 1820 to an already existing melody (“Long live the journeyman carpenter”) and is written from the perspective of a betrayed lover who is praising the constancy of the conifer tree:

German version

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie grün sind deine Blätter! 

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie grün sind deine Blätter!

Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerszeit,
nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie grün sind deine Blätter!

English version

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How green are your branches!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How green are your branches!

You’re not just green in summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows,
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How green are your branches!

Four years later, Ernst Anschütz took the successful song and, retaining the first verse, turned it into a cheerful Christmas carol for children, which has grown in popularity ever since.

Sunlit conifers on the slopes of the Black Forest. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Philipp von Ditfurth

3. O du fröhliche

O du fröhliche (“Oh you joyful”) is one of the best-known German-language Christmas carols. Its melody is based on the Sicilian Marian carol O sanctissima and the text of the first of three stanzas was written by the Weimar “orphan father” Johannes Daniel Falk.

Another text composed just after the Napoleonic wars, this song was written by Johannes Daniel Falk for the war orphans who were in the care of him and his wife Caroline. Around 1815, he wrote a song for these children: o du fröhliche and, to this day, many people all over the world sing it, especially on Christmas Eve. 

German version

O du fröhliche, o du selige,

Gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!

Welt ging verloren,

Christ ist geboren:

Freue, freue dich, o Christenheit!

English version

O merry, O blessed, 

Merry Christmas time!

The world was lost,

Christ is born:

Rejoice, rejoice, O Christendom!

READ ALSO: Ten ways to celebrate Christmas like a German

4. Leise rieselt der Schnee

The Christmas song Leise rieselt der Schnee (“Quietly trickles the snow”) is traditionally sung throughout Advent in Germany. It was written and composed by the Protestant pastor Eduard Ebel in 1895 and is now one of the nation’s most popular Christmas songs.

The text is is packed with beautiful imagery of a snowy landscape:

German version

Leise rieselt der Schnee
Still und starr ruht der See
Weihnachtlich glänzet der Wald
Freue Dich, Christkind kommt bald

English version

Quietly trickles the snow

Still and rigid rests the lake

Christmas shines in the forest

Rejoice, Christ Child is coming soon

5. In der Weihnachtbäckerei

A much more modern Christmas song, in der Weihnachtsbäckerei (“in the Christmas bakery”) describes what’s going on behind the scenes in preparation of German sweet seasonal treats. 

It’s a great song for practising your culinary skills, as it reads like a recipe for making Plätzchen (traditional German Christmas cookies). 

A child cuts out cookies in Hamburg, 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken

The song’s composer and writer,  Rolf Zuckowski, made up the song in 1986 while driving home to his family who were making Christmas cookies. When he arrived home, the song was ready and his three-year-old son immediately sang the new song on his way to bed.

German version

In der Weihnachtsbäckerei
Gibt es manche Leckerei
Zwischen Mehl und Milch
Macht so mancher Knilch
Eine riesengroße Kleckerei
In der Weihnachtsbäckerei
In der Weihnachtsbäckerei 

Brauchen wir nicht Schokolade
Zucker, Nüsse und Succade
Und ein bisschen Zimt?
Das stimmt

Butter, Mehl und Milch verrühren
Zwischendurch einmal probieren
Und dann kommt das Ei (pass auf)
Vorbei

English version

In the Christmas bakery

There are many treats

Between flour and milk

Many a lout makes

A huge mess

In the Christmas bakery

In the Christmas bakery

Don’t we need chocolate

Sugar, nuts and succade

And a little bit of cinnamon?

That’s right

Mix butter, flour and milk

Taste in between

And then comes the egg (watch out)

Too late!

READ ALSO: German Advent word of the day: Die Plätzchen

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

How German dialects are battling back against 'Hochdeutsch'

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works. 

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