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 are dressed in various Christmas outfits. There is lots of fun in preparing for the holidays, but it’s the Christmas Tree that holds an extra-special place in my heart.
There’s just something comforting about sitting in the glow of a Christmas Tree. My favorite is picking out ornaments to decorate it with. I love it when stores cram their shelves with colorful balls, fun shapes, and sparkling decorations. We already have plenty in our own ornament stash (because I have little control at Christmas), but we add to it every year in one of our own traditions. Each Christmas, my husband and I get each other an ornament that marks something special about that year. In addition to that, I 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 the most common foodie ornaments are fruit-shaped, especially apples. And while some of the food shapes are more modern in trend, apples have been around for decades.
We put apple ornaments on our Christmas tree when I was a kid. Many antique stores carry sparkling apple ornaments of red and green. In the much older days like the early 1900s, people put real apples on the tree. It struck me as an odd choice for an ornament, especially for those days of yore. Because apples aren’t in season in the winter – at least not where I grew up! Back then, they would have a pretty hard time finding fresh apples. Why would it be so common to hang hard-to-get apples on the Christmas tree? Well, 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 roots of apples on the Christmas tree.
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 when Christmas trees weren’t even born yet. In ancient times, evergreens had a mystical appeal. Anything that could stay green in the dead of winter must have felt pretty magical. 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 too. They were hung around the house and 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 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 festival alongside Christmas. It was called “Adam and Eve Day,” and it commemorated the story of the fall of man. Some churches hailed the Garden of Eden duo as saints. 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 a “mystery play” or a “paradise play.” This was an acting out of the Adam and Eve story, since many church goers at the time were illiterate and couldn’t read it for themselves. These plays centered around a very important prop called the “Paradise Tree.” This evergreen tree, usually fir, was adorned with apples and used to represent the Garden of Eden. Sometimes, churches added communion wafers to symbolize Jesus and the promise of salvation. The 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 after service, and everyone came to partake in the joy.
All was well until the fifteenth century, when the Catholic church took their official stance against Adam and Eve day. I suppose it was hard for them to sanction sainthood for the people they blamed for the fall of man. Whatever their reasons, they banned mystery plays across the board.
But… the Paradise Tree survived. It was moved into private homes, where it was still decorated with apples and bread wafers. As the years and the times evolved, people swapped out wafers for cookies. They added candles 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 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. People also hung up other fruits like pears and pomegranates, along with candies and popcorn, glass balls, and figurines.
Today, the apple is still a prominent Christmas 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, the history is just too hard to ignore. Besides, I can rest easy with them. 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!