Friday, 29 November 2019

The Origin of the Christmas Tree


Image result for victoria albert christmas tree 1848You are probably about to buy a dead tree and put it up in your living room. This is, if you ponder it, odd behaviour on your part. What's odder is that the tree you're buying is the Tree of Knowledge that was planted in the Garden of Eden and brought sin into the world, and the baubles you'll hang on it are the forbidden fruit. But the explanation is pretty simple.

Adam and Eve were a lot more popular in Medieval Christianity than they are today. There were even quite a lot of continuation stories - The Further Adventures of Adam and Eve, as it were - which was pretty common practice before the Reformation. The First Couple were even treated as semi-saints. They had a name-day like proper saints do, and that name day was December 24th.

This made a lot of sense theologically. Adam (via Eve) brought sin into the world, and Jesus (via Mary) brought salvation from sin. So the fall of man and the birth of Christ were a natural pairing, like blue cheese and sherry.

What Medieval people liked to do to celebrate religious events was to put on plays. Am-dram is fun, and it was a good way to tell a Bible story to a population that mostly couldn't read. Bible plays got so popular that in 1210 the Pope had to actually issue and edict banning priests from acting on stage as it was starting to look undignified.

Adam and Eve were a popular subject, so popular that "Paradise Plays" about the Garden of Eden was a whole sub-genre of the religious theatre. And very often they would be acted on Adam and Eve's name day: December 24th.

The set would be pretty minimalist, but if you're going to put on a play about people picking an apple from a tree and eating it, you do absolutely need to have a tree.

And they did. There's even a description of one in the script of a paradise play called Le Jeu d'Adam performed in Arras in Northern France (this is very lucky for historians as usually medieval play-scripts don't have stage directions).

Then shall a serpent, cunningly contrived, climb up the trunk of the forbidden tree; Eve shall put her ear up to it as if listening to its advice. Then Eve shall take the apple and offer it to Adam.

But, of course, trees are hard to come by in late December, and fruit trees are all leafless and bare. So the only solution was to cut down an evergreen, bring it indoors on Christmas Eve and hang it with fake fruit. This may sound familiar. That's what you're about to do. That's what your Christmas tree is: it's the Tree of Knowledge hung with the forbidden fruit.

There are records of paradise plays still being performed on Christmas Eve right into the 19th century, though they were very rare. There are even some parts of Germany where the Christmas tree is still called the paradeisbaum, though tannenbaum is now much more common.

All that remained was for Prince Albert and the royal family to make the Tree of Knowledge popular in Britain, which they did via a famous illustration in the Illustrated London News in 1848.

But this leaves two questions:

1) Who played the snake? It seems that somebody must have stood behind the tree with a long sock of something over their arm, tempting dear old Eve. It must have looked a little like the muppets.

2) At the beginning of the play, were Adam and Eve naked? And how can we obtain tickets? The disappointing answer is No. That same play, the Jeu d'Adam, has also has this stage direction:

Adam shall wear a red tunic, but Eve a woman's garment in white with a white silk scarf.

Thus making the plays utterly historically inaccurate.

All of the above (with some extra facts) and many many more explanations of Christmas traditions can be found in my book A Christmas Cornucopia: the hidden stories behind our Yuletide traditions, published by Penguin. It's filled with stories that allow you to be insufferably know-it-all about everything from now until the end of December.

It can be bought in all good bookshops or from Amazon here.

Also, Raymond Briggs said it was "Blooming brilliant!", which made me very proud.





1 comment:

  1. Fabulous! Another gem from the stable of wit and wonder. Please keep them coming!

    ReplyDelete