Why Apples? A Tale of Eden and Christmas Trees
I won’t lie to you guys. I’m one of those people that goes a little crazy on Christmas. The pumpkins from Halloween are barely soft before the Christmas decorations go up. The stair railing gets wrapped in holly garland, lights adorn our kitchen window, and unwitting cats get dressed in various Christmas outfits. There is lots of fun in preparing for the holidays, but it has always been the Christmas Tree that held an extra-special place in my heart. There’s just something comforting about sitting in the glow of a Christmas Tree, and my favorite is picking out ornaments to decorate it with. I love it when the stores get crammed with colorful balls, fun shapes, and sparkling decorations to hang on the tree. We already have plenty in our own ornament stash (because I have little control over myself at Christmas), but we still add to it every year in one of our own little traditions. Each Christmas, my husband and I get each other an ornament that marks something special about that year. In addition to that, I also splurge on at least one new box of regular ornaments. Last year, it was Shiny Brites (click here to read all about it). This year took me in a slightly different direction.
It’s not that I never noticed all the food-shaped ornaments at the stores. Let’s face it, it’s pretty hard not to. There are ornaments shaped and colored like pies, cakes, cookies, tacos, and there are even some glitter-adorned French fries, hamburgers, and hot dogs. But what seems to be the most common are fruit-shaped ornaments, especially apples. And while some of the food shapes are more modern in trend, apples have been around for decades. There were apple ornaments that we put on our Christmas tree when I was a kid. Many antique stores carry sparkling apple ornaments of red and green. In the really old days like the early 1900s, some people even put real apples on the tree. It struck me as an odd choice for an ornament, especially in those good old days. Because apples aren’t in season in the winter – at least not where I grew up! Back then, they would have had a pretty hard time finding fresh apples. Why would it be such a common tradition to hang apples on the Christmas tree? With a tradition that’s been around that long, there is usually some history behind it. So, I picked up the old shovel and dug into the concept of apples as a Christmas Tree garnish.
To get to the bottom of it, I had to go much further back in time than I anticipated. In fact, I had to go back to a time when Christmas trees hadn’t even been born yet. In ancient times, evergreens always had a mystical appeal. Anything that could stay green in the dead of winter must have felt pretty magical. So, evergreens came to symbolize life eternal and they were always a big part of religious ceremonies. When Christianity entered the picture, evergreens were woven into their traditions as well. Evergreens were hung around the house and in the barns to scare away evil spirits, and they were often used at Christmas time as a symbol of eternal life. But when it comes to the origin of the Christmas tree as we know it, most historical fingers point to Germany, and apples are a big part of that story.
In Medieval Germany, December 24th saw the celebration of another kind of special festival in addition to Christmas. It was called “Adam and Eve Day,” and it commemorated the story of the fall of man. Some churches even hailed the Garden of Eden duo as saints, and pairing up their story with Christmas created a theme of hopeful redemption through the birth of a savior. The celebration of Adam and Eve day involved what was known as a “mystery play” or a “paradise play.” This was a telling of the story of Adam and Eve that was acted out, since many church goers at the time were illiterate and couldn’t read it for themselves. These plays typically centered around a very important prop called the “Paradise Tree.” This was an evergreen tree, usually fir, that was hung with apples and used to represent the Garden of Eden. Sometimes communion wafers were also put on the tree to symbolize Jesus and the promise of salvation. Adding wafers also merged two powerful tree ideas in Christian literature – the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Paradise Tree was so prominent that some churches paraded it through the streets when the official service was over, and everyone came to partake in the joy of it. All was well until the fifteenth century, when the Catholic church took their official stance against Adam and Eve day. I suppose it would be hard for them to sanction the idea of sainthood for the people that they blamed for the fall of man. Whatever their reasons, mystery plays were banned across the board.
But… the Paradise Tree survived. It was instead moved into private homes where it was still decorated with apples and bread wafers. As the years evolved, wafers were swapped out for cookies, and candles were added to celebrate the coming of the light of the world. In the sixteenth century, the Paradise tree was merged with another well-known German Christmas tradition – the Christmas pyramid. This was a structure of wood that was decorated with evergreens, figurines, and sometimes a star. When the tree and the pyramid came together, it was the start of the modern-day Christmas Tree. Thanks to the holdover traditions from Adam and Eve day, apples, cookies, and wafers remained popular Christmas Tree ornaments well into the 1900s. Other fruits like pears and pomegranates were strung on the tree as well, along with candies and popcorn, glass balls, and figurines. Today, the apple still survives as a prominent ornament, but in most cases, they come in plastic or glass form. As for the rest of the foodie ornaments, they have taken Christmas trees by storm. This year alone I have seen French Silk Pie ornaments, S’mores, nachos, and chocolate-covered strawberries – all made of plastic and coated with glitter.
While I’m not sure those food ornaments have a place on our own tree, I went ahead and made room for some beaded apples this year. Because sometimes, I find the history is just too hard to ignore. Besides, I can rest easy with them. Because the only temptation they will face in our house is two ornery cats.
“The Christmas Tree Book” – P.V. Snyder
“Inventing the Christmas Tree” – B. Brunner
National Christmas Tree Association
The Free Dictionary by Farlex
All photos by M.B. Henry.
A very merry Holiday Season to you all!