xmas_ornamentI was roaming around the Internet recently, looking for information on Christmas trees for a potential blog post, when I ran across something I was totally not expecting.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”

Alternatively, it is identified with the “tree of paradise” of medieval mystery plays that were given on 24 December, the commemoration and name day of Adam and Eve in various countries. In such plays, a tree decorated with apples (to represent the forbidden fruit) and wafers (to represent the Eucharist and redemption) was used as a setting for the play. Like the Christmas crib, the Paradise tree was later placed in homes. The apples were replaced by round objects such as shiny red balls.

I hadn’t heard of the wreaths and garlands histories before, but what really caught my eye was the hanging of apples on the branches of the Christmas tree.

It’s interesting to me that something so ubiquitous in my life had as it’s origin symbology of which I was not aware.

Now knowing the ornaments are replacements for the apples, and that apples represent the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge from the Garden of Eden, this puts an interesting spin on my entire Christmas history.

My family has always had the red ornaments on our trees, and my maternal grandparents, for most of my childhood, had a large artificial tree made to appear heavily flocked with snow.  This tree is a prominent Christmas memory for me, and one thing I recall the most is my grandmother would only hang red orb ornaments on it.  It was beautiful, but somewhat stark.  The bright red globes hanging on the white branches made for an impressive contrast, and looking back, I recognize that it always seemed a bit out of place to me, surrounded with other decorations in the house, and in comparison to the trees my mother would put up.  It was like my grandmother was taking part in the holiday, but would always be set apart from the traditional.  (or perhaps I’m putting too much on my grandmother.  Since Grandpa was the one who made all the decisions in the family, it might very well be that HE decided on the tree, and it was up to Grandma to decorate it.  They’re both gone now, so I can’t find out.)

At any rate, Adam and Eve, the Garden, the fruit of knowledge, apples, and red Christmas tree ornaments.  So much of our culture is infused with symbols and meanings that date back centuries, and for many of them we (or maybe just I. Did you know about this?) are not aware of their history.

I wonder what other symbols and imagery I take for granted have similar meanings?