Why Apples? A Tale of Eden and Christmas Trees
I won’t lie to you guys. I’m one of those people who goes a little crazy on Christmas. The pumpkins from Halloween are barely soft before Christmas decorations go up. We wrap the stair banister in holly and garland, lights adorn our kitchen window, and unwitting cats find themselves in various Christmas outfits. I enjoy all of the decorating, but the Christmas Tree holds an extra-special place in my heart.
I just love sitting in the glow of a Christmas Tree, and one of my favorite holiday ventures is picking out new ornaments. I feel giddy when stores cram their shelves with colorful balls, fun shapes, and sparkling tree trim. 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, I found myself some 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. Let’s face it, it’s pretty hard not to. Stores carry ornaments shaped and colored like pies, cakes, cookies, tacos, and 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 modern trends, 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 pre 1900s, people put real apples on the tree. It felt like an odd ornament choice, especially for those days of yore. Because apples aren’t in season in the winter – at least not where I grew up! Back then, before mass shipping and all that, many folks would be hard pressed to find fresh apples in December. So why would they hang those hard-to-get fruits on the Christmas tree? Well, with a tradition that old, some history usually lurks behind it. So, I picked up the old shovel and dug into the roots of apples on the Christmas tree.
I had to go much further back in time than I anticipated, to a time when Christmas trees weren’t even born yet. In those ancient times, evergreens 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 often played a big part in religious ceremonies.
When Christianity entered the picture, they wove evergreens into their traditions too. People hung pines and evergreens in the house and barns to scare away evil spirits. They also used them at Christmas time for a symbol of Jesus and eternal life. The practice sprouted some seedlings for Christmas Tree traditions, but when it comes to the Christmas tree as we know it, most historical fingers point to Germany. And apples have a starring role in the story.
In Medieval Germany, December 24th saw the celebration of another festival besides Christmas. They called it “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.” An acting out of the Adam and Eve story, performed 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 became so prominent that some churches paraded it through the streets after service, 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 they thought it hard to encourage 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 moved into private homes, where families decorated it 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 merged with another well-known German Christmas tradition – the Christmas pyramid. This wooden structure was decorated with evergreens, figurines, and sometimes a star on top. When the tree and the pyramid came together, it started 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 made room for some apples this year. Because sometimes, the history is just too hard to ignore. They can mostly rest easy too. Humans won’t be tempted to eat them in our house – but the ornery two cats sure might.
“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!