Aretha Franklin first recorded “O Christmas Tree” in 1992. It wasn’t her first Christmas recording, but it was her first Christmas recording since her days at Columbia Records in the early 1960’s. Her first Christmas cut in nearly 30 years appeared on the compilation album A Very Special Christmas 2, part of the ‘A Very Special Christmas’ series which raised money for the Special Olympics. Aretha always did her part to support various causes over the years, and this was no exception.
In this initial version, she performed the song completely in English, aside from a few ‘o tannenbaum’’s thrown in for good measure. Ever the PK (preacher’s kid) there’s also a spoken piece she inserted that serves as a reminder that Jesus is the reason for the season. She closed the song playfully, quoting a line from Santa Claus, mushing the reindeer onwards, before unleashing a playful laugh.
Aretha performed the song in 1994 at the National Christmas Tree lighting. The original German lyrics intertwined with the English translation during the performance. Instead of adding her monologue mid-song, she riffed through the instrumental section, but then added it at the very end.
In 2015, she performed the song again, much to the surprise of everyone on stage with her. During that evening, Aretha joined Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center at the invitation of Ahmet Ertegun’s widow. As she oriented herself at the piano Aretha said, “Okay Wynton I think I’ll change the program just a little bit, maybe, not too much.” The audience laughed, and Aretha continued to add flourishes of chords and progressions, until she settled into her groove and opened the song singing “O Tannenbaum.” This was the change. They’d planned to perform a b-side from the 70’s, “My Cup Runneth Over”, which they got to after this minor detour. Since this wasn’t planned, Aretha played alone. It’s yet another stellar instance of Aretha driving a song entirely on her own. She sang the song almost entirely in German. It’s beautiful. It’s captivating. It’s moving to an overwhelming degree.
What’s missing from the newly, officially released footage above, is Aretha’s diva-fied entrance. As she takes the stage, she drags a fur coat out with her. She playfully offers the coat to an audience member, before snatching it back and laughing. She drops it on the ground in front of her and positions herself at the piano. It’s the most Aretha way to enter a room.
Listen to Aretha’s 1992 take on “O Christmas Tree”