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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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SOURCES

“The Christmas Tree Book” – P.V. Snyder

“Inventing the Christmas Tree” – B. Brunner

National Christmas Tree Association

Encyclopedia Britannica

The Free Dictionary by Farlex

All photos by M.B. Henry.  

A very merry Holiday Season to you all! 

 

 

66 Comments on “Why Apples? A Tale of Eden and Christmas Trees

    • Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 I must recommend that book “The Christmas Tree Book” in my sources. I’ve found some pretty neat things in there!

  1. You and my wife Peggy would get along just fine, MB. We are going to spend this Christmas with our kids back east, however, so Christmas decorations will be limited, maybe one box instead of the standard 5 or 6. 🙂 We do have a wooden German tree, however. It rotates by candle power. I suspect it may come out. I also suspect that your cats are particularly interested in seeing how many ornaments they can knock off your tree after you have dressed them up. Grin. Thanks for the fun history lesson. –Curt

    • You suspect absolutely right about the cats! And I also suspect you are right about your other suspect – sounds like your wife and I are cut of the same Christmas jib! 🙂

  2. This is fascinating! I had never heard any of this history before — which is saying a lot, because I’ve spent a couple of Christmases in Germany. Thank you as always for another beautifully researched, beautifully written post. Fröhliche Weihnachten!

    • I bet that was wonderful – I would love to spend Christmas in Germany someday. My husband and I visited there for the first time this summer and we loved it. And vielen danke! Schöne Ferien!

  3. Adam and Eve Day – fabulous!! That explains a lot..:)
    And I think what you and your husband do with the ornaments every year is a really cool idea…
    Merry Christmas!

    • Merry Christmas to you too! 🙂 We started it the first Christmas we spent together, because we were both pretty stretched for cash and decided it would a fun (but financially easy) way to exchange gifts. We liked it so much we just kept it up 🙂 Now we will have quite the historical collection of our Christmases someday! 🙂

  4. What a wonderful and timely slice of history. In our family tradition, we strung together popcorn and cranberry garlands with the thought that after Christmas, the tree would be put out for the birds.

    • I love that!! What a neat way to spread the joy of the Christmas tree to the animal kingdom 🙂 Plus I’m sure it looked beautiful

  5. I love the way our festive traditions are such a mish-mash of things – many of them pagan and nothing to do with Christ’s Mass. Hadn’t realised the apples went that far back – or the association with Adam & Eve. Excellent article! And I’m still trying to wrap my brain round the idea of glittery chips (French fries), hamburgers and hot dogs; good grief!!

    • You’re so right, and I think that’s one of my favorite things about Holiday traditions is how far they actually go back and finding where they come from. Like so many other things, I think it helps me feel more connected to the past 🙂 And yes it is truly amusing to see the different food ornaments out there! Agreed about the chips and hot dogs – I saw it with my own eyes and still can’t quite believe it hahaha.

  6. I think I’ll buy an apple ornament this year to honor my German husband. 🍎 He’s going to love the story behind it…

  7. Awesome story! Bob’s mother knows about this. She also used to hide a decorative pickle on the Christmas tree. I believe it meant good luck to the person who found it..not sure though. The people of old also placed candles in their windows and on the trees to celebrate the return of the light. This was done on the solstice. Thanks for this story of the apples!

  8. Love the apple decorations, never seen them before. I wasn’t in mood for Xmas tree this year, but you have inspired me.

    • I can’t tell you how happy that makes me 🙂 Inspiring others is every writer’s favorite! I hope your tree brings you comfort and joy this holiday season

  9. This was a really interesting read. There is so much history to Christmas, no? It’s influenced by so many past cultures.

    The apples in your photos are so pretty! What a wonderful tradition in your home.

    • You’re right – many past cultures played a role in Christmas as we know it today. Both the books listed in my sources provided lots of fascinating info on that, if you’re ever interested.

    • Awwww! 🙂 That’s precious, Paula! Dogs are so helpful like that 🙂 😉

  10. This was such a fascinating read! Your Christmas excitement is so palpable and contagious. I had no idea Christmas trees (and their decorations) carried so much symbolism. I wonder why the Catholic Church was annoyed with the Adam and Eve Day – it seems rather harmless to me.

    • Glad I can help spread some Christmas cheer! 🙂 It would have been fun to sit in on an Adam and Eve day Mystery Play!

  11. Oooh, I loved these pictures, M.B. They helped get me in the Christmas spirit. And I love it that you get super jazzed about Christmas–especially that you like dressing up your cats!

    • Hahaha yes – we love dressing up the cats, but I don’t think they like it nearly as much as we do haha. My Instagram has some delightful photos of it when they do cooperate if you ever want to see them in all their Christmas cat glory.

  12. Thank you for this informative summary. Even though I grew up in Germany, I was not in possession of all the historical facts.
    Happy holidays to you. Enjoy your new and old ornaments.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! The books listed in my sources have lots more info on the many Christmas traditions that came from Germany if you are interested in further reading

  13. Ahhhh, so interesting, thank you for this educational post. Never knew about the apples and Germany and great tradition for the family, on top of all.

  14. Fascinating post… I had always wondered, in the back of my mind, why the Christmas tree tradition had started in Germany. Thanks for the research!

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 That “Christmas Tree Book” listed in the sources is a fascinating read for a lot of Christmas traditions – many that started in Germany. You might like it!

  15. Loved the article! We have a glittery ketchup bottle, slice of pizza and a hamburger on our tree! We, too, get an ornament every year symbolizing something from our year. Joe and I began the tradition 40 years ago this Christmas. Mom wouldn’t let me have any ornaments from my childhood for our first tree, so I decided that would never happen with my family. Mary has an ornament for every year as does Paige. As you might guess, the ketchup one is Mary’s, I used to have to buy industrial size ketchup bottles just to keep up with her! Paige went through a pepperoni pizza phase, so there ya go! My Violet kitty has stolen the God’s Eye ornament Mary made in preschool from our tree 4 times already this year! 2 years ago, I found the last ornament she hid in June! I have a Santa outfit I ‘ve dressed my kitties in over the years, much to their chagrin. Grumpy Cat is an amateur compared to those faces!
    I would beg to differ a bit about apples being out of season though. Many people stored apples, onions and potatoes almost all winter in their root cellars. Apples were often the only fresh fruit available. My grandmother’s journals indicate she would buy a couple of oranges as a Christmas treat (the orange in the stocking tradition) but homegrown apples were usually still around at Christmas. Wish you were near, I would love to share Grandma’s journals with you. They go back at least to the 1930s and were also her accounting books. Sold the calf for this much, spent 10 cents for lemons…births (even mine!), deaths, snowstorms, all in her pencilled hand. I think you would appreciate them for the picture they paint of life on their tiny farm near the railroad tracks. Keep telling us your fabulous stories!!😀

    • Hahahaha – that’s so funny about the kitties and your ornaments. We have a Ninja Turtles tiny ornament set and one year Kitty got a hold of it. Poor Leonardo was missing for TWO YEARS before we finally found him randomly, and stuffed way back under the stove! Little stinkers those cats – good thing we love them. And that’s a good point about the root cellars! – I’m sure that’s how many people got through the winter season and still had fruits and vegetables. I bet it took a lot more work at least to have fresh fruit around – not like today when all we have to do is walk into the local grocery store! I’d love to see those journals sometime, I bet they are quite a treasure trove of history and memories 🙂

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