CSOTD 12/7/2015: Of roses and branches

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1)

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 7 is, possibly, based on a 400-year-old case of mistaken identity.

Plants that thrive in the wintertime have long been used as symbols of new life, even before the winter solstice became a celebration of the birth of new life in Christ. Fir trees are an ancient example, and poinsettias are a more modern one. The “Christmas rose” is in the same vein.

Today’s song, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” was written in German as “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” and reached its final form by 1599, when its first known publication was made in a German hymnal. No one knows who wrote the original poem, but Michael Praetorius, perhaps best known for his Terpsichore dances, composed the harmonies that still are sung today.

The most familiar set of English lyrics were written in 1894 by Theodore Baker, a musicologist who translated many German songs into English as German immigrants became Americanized.

Yet the entire image of the Christmas Rose may be based on an ancient error.  At this late date, it’s impossible to be sure, but the song’s transcriber may have confused the word Reis (twig, sprig) with the similar Ros (rose) when it was set to paper. The Isaiah verse quoted above says nothing about a rose. Regardless, it’s a beautiful song.

Relatively few pop singers have recorded it over the years. One that I find especially moving is this rendition by Canadian singer Leslie Feist, who professionally goes by her last name alone. It originally appeared on the 2005 version of a various-artists collection called Sweet Tracks, which was an annual premium for members of Best Buy’s Reward Zone affinity program.

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