Although the sacred message of Christmas remains steadfast, the season’s secular makeovers tend to morph more readily. Who would have thought, for example, that the uplifting tale of Santa’s iconic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (8.990013) would already have hit a second-generation upgrade? Yet now we have the song of Pablo the Reindeer who, if you didn’t already know, comes out of retirement every year to help Santa with his trips to Mexico by translating the local lingo for the old boy.
Christmas cards (dating from the 1840s), Advent calendars (the first examples appeared around the same time) and beautifully wrapped presents (a reminder of the Three Wise Men’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh)—they all endure as seasonal fixtures. But one of the sturdiest symbols is provided by Mother Nature: the Christmas Tree.
Bringing fir trees indoors as part of Christmas celebrations has been practised for some 500 years and the song most commonly associated with that custom is probably O Christmas Tree, which originated in Germany as O Tannenbaum (hear 8.550301 for an entertaining version à la Baroque!).
The decorated tree is prominent in Tchaikovsky’s last ballet, The Nutcracker (8.550324-25), in which the work’s fantasy action plays out right underneath its branches. It also pops up off-stage in works such as Liszt’s Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree) suite for piano (8.553461) and Yolka, Rebikov’s charming Christmas Tree Waltz (8.572744).
Trees are also firmly embedded in many a Christmas carol. The tree of life finds an important spot in many cultures and religions, representing a range of concepts, from fertility to the interconnectivity of all living things. Its symbol in Christianity is well aired in Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree (8.554179), which begins as follows:
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.
This theme is mirrored in The Linden Tree Carol (8.554179). The tree’s natural fragrance still falls short in comparison with the heavenly image of the Virgin Mary:
There stood in heav’n a linden tree,
But tho’ t’was honeyladen
All angels cried, ‘No bloom shall be
Like that of one fair maiden.’
One of the charming 3 Carols (8.572102) that Peter Warlock wrote in 1923 at the suggestion of fellow British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams has the narrator contemplating the Christmas Story in the shade of yet another tree:
As I sat under a sycamore tree,
a sycamore tree, a sycamore tree,
I looked me out upon the sea,
A Christmas day in the morning.
The fact that Warlock’s carols come with orchestral accompaniment reflects how the celebration of Christmas was finding an extended milieu, spilling out from churches into concert halls. Vaughan Williams had himself written a popular addition to this repertoire with his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (8.570439), first performed in 1912.
A hundred years on, that secular-instrument attachment to the Christmas carol tradition is furthered in one of this month’s new releases on Naxos—Bill Chilcott’s The Rose in the Middle of Winter (8.573159), in which flute, oboe, saxophone and harp complement the organ. And there’s a tree sprouting in the middle of the disc’s 22 tracks with a new setting of The Cherry Tree Carol, a wry observation on Joseph and Mary as they have a slight tiff: Joseph is an old man and, to his slight chagrin, Mary has experienced an immaculate conception; when they walk through a cherry orchard and the pregnant Mary asks her husband to pick her some fruit, Joseph gruffly tells her to pick her own, at which point the miracle happens:
Then bowed down the tallest tree, it bent to Mary’s hand;
The she cried: ‘See, Joseph, I have cherries at command.’
But for anyone looking for a more secular musical cherry that makes a jolly good accompaniment to a glass of port and a mince-pie, I can recommend Mario Lanza’s recording of Oscar Asbach’s setting of Joyce Kilmer’s popular poem, Trees (8.120720). Lanza sadly had his tree of life cut short at the age of 38, possibly accelerated by his fondness for food and drink, not just at Christmas; fortunately, his captivating voice survives.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.