Baubles and Apples!

Do you know why we traditionally decorate a Christmas tree with red baubles? I’ve done some research, lots of research, to trace the origins of this tradition for you. After all, a tree in the house is still a gardener’s subject!

To my great surprise, I discovered that there isn’t just one plant involved in this famous tree, but two! Imagine, then, that fir trees were originally decorated with… apples! There’ll be plenty to talk about around your tree on the 25th!

Photo : eatcrazyfresh

The Fuzzy Origins of Christmas

It’s very, very difficult to trace the history of “religious” traditions that aren’t really religious at all. As people were not always literate enough to leave written records of their beliefs, historical writings often come from the Church. Oral tradition and hearsay are another source of information, and the truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between. The facts in this article are therefore the result of research in which sources continually contradict each other!

But here’s the truest Christmas revelation you’ll get in this article: nothing, absolutely nothing, about Christmas is Catholic in origin…!

Photo : Doralin Tunas

What? But Audrey… Jesus was born on December 25th, wasn’t he? Midnight mass? St. Nicholas? The star on the tree?… No?

No, it’s not! In fact, the Christmas we know today is the result of adaptations of many traditions and beliefs from all over the world. For example, the solstices have always been very important in many cultures. The winter solstice occurs between December 21 and 23, depending on the year. It’s the shortest day of the year, the one when the sun is least present, but also the first day of renewal, the beginning of the lengthening of days, the return of light, and so on.

So it was very convenient for the Church to put a feast day where there was already a feast! (Jesus is said to have been born somewhere in the spring, for the curious! But that’s not today’s topic).

By adopting certain customs and adapting them as needed, it’s suddenly not so odd to say that our Christmas is “borrowed” from past cultures. Why am I telling you all this? To come to the Tree. The Tree with a capital T! The one (or ones!) used to celebrate the aforementioned winter solstice.

Photo: Xuân Th?ng Tr?n 

My Beautiful Fir Tree, King of the Forest… Come Here So I Can Burn You!

Among the dozens of vague origins of the Christmas fir tree, the most likely is… a big campfire! It was traditional among the Germans to burn a very large tree trunk for several days at the time of the winter solstice as an offering to the harvest gods. This tree was often an oak, as it burns for a long time.

But then, in the 7th century, a certain Saint-Boniface, a German evangelist, tried, according to legend, to demonstrate to the pagan peoples that the oak was not a sacred tree. To do so, he felled one. Yeah…

I’m taking a break here… For real, Mr. Boniface: frankly! You can’t do business like that! Imagine if a grinch decided to savagely cut down a huge Christmas tree in a shopping mall! What the heck! You can’t destroy people’s joy! Do you need a friend?

As it fell, the oak destroyed everything on which it fell, with the exception of a fir sapling. Seeing this “miracle”, Boniface exclaimed that this tree would henceforth be known as “the tree of the Infant Jesus”. And so the fir tree became… THE fir tree!

It’s worth noting, however, that fir wood is very flexible by nature. Mr. Tree Terror, that’s a bit of a miracle! Photo : Wikipedia

Why Put Up a Garland When You Have… a Sheaf of Wheat!

Now that we know where the fir tree comes from, let’s go back even further to find out where the tradition of decorating a tree originated, between 1000 and 2000 BC.

Even back then, the winter solstice was celebrated by the Celts as the festival of rebirth, fertility and life. According to their lunar calendar, each month had its own tree, and in December it was the spruce that took pride of place. To celebrate this festival of renewal, the tree of the month was decorated with sheaves of wheat, fruit and flowers.

Spruce is still used as a Christmas tree in regions where there is no “real” fir. It goes by many names: Norway spruce, false fir, weeping pine, etc. Photo: Wikipedia

The two traditions, that of decorating a tree and that of using a fir tree, merged somewhere between the 11th and 14th centuries to give the Christmas tree, almost as we know it today: a fir tree, covered in fruit, cakes and sweets. A little later, walnut shells filled with oil were even added to illuminate it! (Be careful not to set it alight… although that would have brought it back to its origins, hehe!)

Photo : Artem Saranin

From Fruit to Blown Glass

As apples are a fruit with a long shelf life, a good yield, a good size and are produced locally, it’s no mystery that this is the fruit that has made its mark on Christmas trees. The red ball was born! (Imagine if it had been pineapple or blueberry… or pickle!).

But then, in 1858, a terrible drought hit Moselle, France. This led to a shortage of apples. How awful! How could we honor the tree without this ornament?

A resourceful glassblower came up with the genius idea of blowing red glass apples, which became, you guessed it… the famous Christmas bauble!

Photo :

Are you more traditional in your decorations with red baubles, or more the multicolored kind with children’s crafts? At the end of the day, it’s all about bringing the joy, happiness and magic of Christmas into your home, so do it your way! Traditions are made to evolve!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

6 comments on “Baubles and Apples!

  1. Thank you for this, Audrey…. informative and entertaining. For anyone interested in more about the origins of religious rituals and beliefs, there’s James Frazer’s _The Golden Bough_. The original is 12 volumes, but there is a condensed version!

  2. Suzanne Armstrong

    Of course the apple is supposed to remind us that Christ came to save us from Original Sin. The apple reminds us of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. But perhaps that was another clever monk trying to convert an old custom to the new religion.
    Fascinating to hear the origins of the blown glass version instead of actual fruit.
    Thanks as always for a great entry.

  3. Beth Larson

    Thanks! Very interesting information.

  4. Mary Louise Milton

    As always Audrey, you make me laugh. A lovely way too start the day!

  5. Christine Lemieux

    Very interesting!

  6. Joseph Griffin

    Thanks for this bauble of holiday cheer.

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