Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent Memories: A German Christmas

As I’ve previously mentioned, I was raised in the Catholic Church.  December was a special time, growing up.  Not only was it the month of Christmas, but it was also the month of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a time of Christmas pageants at the Catholic school I attended, and a time when my mother baked all sorts of stuff which reflected in part her German heritage, including the quintessential German Christmas cookie, the Lebkuchen (her recipe being unlike any other I have ever seen, and a small taste of which to this day will transport me back to my childhood).

December was also the month, when I was seven years old, that I received my first communion.  I remember Sister Mary What’s-Her-Name as being kind.  That couldn’t be said for the principal of our parochial school, whom we nicknamed “Sister Chicken Lips” due to her enormous protruding lips.  This woman was such an officious person that, one winter day, she actually came over to our yard from the convent (which was just down the street) to inform me, my brother and our friends (most of whom were good Protestants) that having snowball fights was a sin.  I think my older brother told her where to go (and later paid for it).

When I was very young, the mass was still said in Latin, and to this day, whenever I hear Adeste Fidelis or Panis Angelicus (particularly, in either case, when sung by Bing Crosby) or other Latin Christmas hymns, I am transported in my mind to that small stone Catholic Church (which seemed so big to me as a boy) with the choir loft in the back, hearing the Latin music waft down through the candle-lit darkness to where my family sat in the front.  There was a snugness to that corner of my childhood that to this day gives me comfort.  Even after joining the LDS Church, for example, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for The Bells of Saint Mary’s and watch it every December. 

Perhaps in part because of this Catholic upbringing and also because of my German heritage, I have had a special place in my heart at Christmastime for all things German.  Every year, we purchase Stollen with marzipan, as well as some special German chocolates for the kids’ stockings.  We also make various German Christmas cookies, including Lebkuchen, and observe various traditions associated with Germany.

I also love German Christmas music, from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, to his lovely hymn O Jesulein Süss, to one of my favorite Christmas carols Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen, most commonly translated into English as Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming.  The text, the author of whom is unknown, appeared in the late 16th century, and the tune with which we are familiar was written by German composer Michael Praetorius in 1609.  (This melody is also used for the beautiful French carol, Dans une Etable Obscure.) 

The text of Est is ein Ros is based on a scripture in Isaiah 11:1-2:  “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.” 

The German word for “rod” or “twig” is reis.  Apparently, at some point, this word morphed into the word ros (“rose”), which was perhaps partly based on common symbolism of the wintertime feast. Long before there was a "Christmas" feast, Europeans used plants that thrive or flower in the winter as a symbol of hope and life in the spring to come. The Christmas rose was one such flower.  The point is that the “rose” in the hymn is Jesus Christ. 

The following is the common English translation of the German text:

Lo, how a rose e'er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When halfspent was the night.

Isaiah 'twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind;
To show God's love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When halfspent was the night.

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispel with glorious splendour
The darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From Sin and death now save us,
And share our every load.

I am also including a recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Part I, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.


  1. My heritage is also German, although I've had much less connection with traditions or food...just an interest. I loved these videos. Beautiful music...thanks

  2. You have stirred many forgotten memories from years gone by, from my German mission. I, too, LOVE Es ist ein Ros and sing it now, even after all these years. Thank you for the fond walk down "memory" lane. Now- where am I going to get me some GOOD Lebkuchen? Maybe a trip to Siegfried's deli downtown Salt Lake is in order?:)

    Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  3. Last year, when I was in the BYU Men's Chorus, we sang "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" to the missionaries at the MTC. It's a lovely piece. And, apparently, has an interesting origin! I never knew about the Christmas rose.

  4. To This Blog Author - So glad you enjoyed the music. If you go to Siegfried's, I highly recommend the marzipan Stollen. Delish! Also, I happen to know they do have packaged Lebkuchen, as well as other German cookies.

    Apronkid - I wonder if the BYU Men's Chorus has recorded this? I've never checked, but I am sure it would be beautiful.

  5. Primal Scream - I'm glad you enjoyed the music. I've really enjoyed the last couple of posts you've made on your blog.