Thoughts on “Maria Walks Amid the Thorn”

By | January 2, 2015

Maria durch einen Dornenwald gingFor the Ninth Day of Christmas, let us look at the wonderful but relatively unknown German Christmas carol “Maria Walks Amid the Thorn” (“Maria durch ein’n Dornwald ging”). It is one that I sang as part of several Christmas programs when I was a child, but have rarely heard since.  The carol was published as an Advent song in Maria von Trapp’s book Around the Year with the Trapp Family (New York: Pantheon Books Inc., 1955), p. 25, but with only the first three of the seven stanzas (click here for those three).

Below is a literal translation of all seven stanzas with some notes explaining the symbolism. The carol, with its haunting melody, is part of a group of German songs called Leisen. These songs are characterized by the inclusion of “Kyrie eleison” or “Kyrieleis” (“Lord, have mercy!”) in each stanza.

I urge you to spend a moment to listen to this beautiful carol. For a performance with early instruments by Early Music Freiburg, click here. For a performance by the Choir of St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, click here.

Mary walked through a forest of thorns,1
Kyrie eleison! (Lord, have mercy!)
Mary walked through a forest of thorns,
which for seven years had borne no leaves.2
Jesus and Mary.

What did Mary carry in her womb? 3
Kyrie eleison! (Lord, have mercy!)
A small child with no pain,
that is what Mary carried in her womb!
Jesus and Mary.

Then roses appeared on the thorns,
Kyrie eleison! (Lord, have mercy!)
When the child was born in the forest,4
then roses appeared on the thorns.5
Jesus and Mary.

What shall we call this child?
Kyrie eleison! (Lord, have mercy!)
His name shall be Jesus,
His name from the beginning.
Jesus and Mary.

Who shall baptize this child?
Kyrie eleison! (Lord, have mercy!)
That shall be St. John,
he shall baptize the child.
Jesus and Mary.

What shall the child receive as a baptismal gift? 6
Kyrie eleison! (Lord, have mercy!)
The heavens and the entire world
is what the child shall receive as a baptismal gift!
Jesus and Mary.

Who has redeemed the world alone?
Kyrie eleison! (Lord, have mercy!)
That has been done by the Christ Child,
He has redeemed the world alone.
Jesus and Mary.

Copyright © 2015 Martin P. Dicke. All rights reserved.

Thanks to Christine Scheele Weerts for suggesting looking into this carol. If you have a carol that you would like to know more about, please let me know, although we may need to wait until next year because there are only a few more days left in this Christmas season.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Lord, have mercy on us all!

  1. The “forest of thorns” refers to the world under the curse of sin (see Genesis 3:18). In the standard English translation by Henry S. Drinker, “Dornwald” is translated simply as “thorn.” However, “Wald” is a “woods” or “forest.” So the image the poet paints here is not one thorn or even a thornbush, but rather an entire forest of thornbushes and thorn trees.
  2. Seven is a number in Scripture that sometimes is symbolic referring to fullness and completeness. In the context of this stanza it means that the world had been under the curse of sin for a long, long time.
  3. Literally “under her heart.”
  4. Or more literally, “When the child was carried through the forest” (“Als das Kindlein durch den Wald getragen”). Drinker translates this line “And as the two are passing near.” This translation, however, doesn’t capture the meaning of the original text.
  5. This stanza brings to mind the prophecy in Isaiah 11 and another German carol that expounds on that prophecy, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
  6. “Baptismal gift” is a translation of “Patengeld,” which is a present that a baptized child receives from his or her godfather or godmother.

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