The singing of Christmas carols has long been an extremely popular tradition in Germany, especially since the Protestant Reformation, when the use of songs in worship was encouraged by reformers like Martin Luther.
Most of today's best-known German carols date from the 19th century, during which Christmas, and its associated traditions, became increasingly secularised. But there are older examples that have stood the test of time. Here are seven of the best, plucked from the last 1000 years of festive history.


Best German Christmas carols

Sei uns willkommen, Herre Christ ('Welcome to us, Lord Christ')

The earliest surviving Christmas hymn in the German language, 'Sei uns willkommen, Herre Christ' dates back to approximately the 11th century, and was first documented in a fragment from the city of Aachen. According to chronicles, this Catholic hymn was sung at Midnight Mass from the choir stalls of Aachen Cathedral by the schöffen - a select group of citizens involved in general government and jurisdiction. It now exists in several modern versions, including three in German and two in Dutch.

'Es ist ein Ros entsprungen' ('Lo, how a rose e'er blooming')

This carol, which first appeared in print in 1599, has lived an eventful life. In 1896 Johannes Brahms used it as the base for one of his Choral Preludes; in 1921 Arnold Schoenberg made it the subject of his short fantasy 'Weihnachtsmusik' for two violins, cello, piano and harmonium; and in 1933 Hugo Distler borrowed it for his oratorio 'Die Weihnachtsgeschichte' ('The Christmas Story').

Unfortunately, the Nazis also got in on the act, hijacking the carol's serene melody and excising all references to Jesus's Jewish origins to promote National Socialist ideology. But the original version prevailed, and remains one of the most famous German carols, most commonly sung to a melody harmonized in 1609 by the German composer Michael Praetorius.

The carol is also known as a 'A Spotless Rose', which we named one of the greatest Christmas carols ever

'Alle Jahre wieder' ('Every year again')

With its simple, upbeat tune, this carol is a popular choice amongst German children, and was in fact published in composer Friedrich Silcher's song cycle 'Twelve Children's Songs from the appendix to Speckter 's fable book of 1842'. The religious text, dating from 1837, is by the German poet, pastor and teacher Wilhelm Hey.

'Kling, Glöckchen' ('Ring, Little Bell')

Some say this bouncy 19th century carol was written to an anonymous folk tune. Others claim it was composed in 1884 by Benedikt Widmann. At the moment, though, its best-known representative is the telegenic Russian-born German actor and singer Helene Fischer - winner of 17 ECHO awards - whose exuberant version of the carol can be seen below.

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'O Tannenbaum' ('O Christmas Tree')

Although the 16th century Silesian folk-song that inspired this carol is about fir trees, it originally had nothing to do with Christmas: the association between fir trees and Christmas did not develop until the 19th century, when the Leipzig organist, teacher and composer Ernst Anschütz added two verses to the original song, celebrating the fir tree for bringing light and hope in the gloom of winter.

'O Tannenbaum' ('O Christmas Tree') is still a Christmas staple, regularly sung in both German and its popular English translation.

'Kommet, ihr Hirten' ('Come, All Ye Shepherds')

Although this carol about the Nativity is derived from the Czech carol 'Nesem vám noviny' it gained popularity in this 1870 German translation and setting by Karl Riedel, who shortened the original version into three stanzas of five lines each, rhyming in pairs with a short final line. It was later translated into a lesser-known English version by Mari Ruef Hofer.

'Am Weihnachtsbaum, die Lichter brennen' ('On the Christmas Tree the Lights are On')

Written in 1841 by Hermann Kletke to an anonymous melody that was already in use in Thuringia and Saxony, the lyrics to this carol reflect the secularisation of Christmas in the 19th century: Jesus's birth isn't even mentioned. Instead Kletke focuses on the feeling of festive cheer, describing the family gathered around the lit and decorated Christmas tree.

Find lyrics to your favourite Christmas carols here


Photo: CGP Grey


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.