Published: 17-03-2010, 18:06

Paradise Tree

Few people today would recognize a fir tree decorated only with red apples and white, circular wafers as a paradise tree. The paradise tree developed as a prop for the paradise play a medieval European mystery play performed around Christmas time. Indeed, with its early historical connection to the CHRISTMAS SEASON, the paradise tree may well have been the forerunner of the CHRISTMAS TREE.

In medieval western EUROPE, mystery or miracle plays taught biblical stories and Christian ideas to a largely illiterate populace (see also NATIVITY PLAY). At first, only clergy acted in these plays, which were spoken in Latin and presented inside churches. As audiences grew, performances were moved to the front steps of the church or to large open plazas. With this movement out of sacred space, lay people began to take part in the plays, and the dialogue slipped into local languages. What’s more, frivolous, humorous, and ribald incidents were added to the basic plot. Church officials frowned on these changes, but the plays only increased in popularity. Small groups of actors traveled from town to town satisfying the popular demand for this form of entertainment.

Mystery plays often rooted themselves in the seasons and feast days of the Church calendar. The paradise play, which recounted the story of ADAM AND EVE, attached itself to the Advent season. Although the play featured the story of the Creation and the disobedience of Adam and Eve, it closed with the promise of the coming of a Savior. This made it appropriate for the celebration of Advent and Christmas. Moreover, the medieval Church declared December 24 the feast day of Adam and Eve. Around the twelfth century this date became the traditional one for the performance of the paradise play.

The paradise tree served as the central prop for the paradise play. It represented the two important trees of the Garden of Eden: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Originally, only apples adorned the paradise tree. These symbolized the fall of humanity described in the Adam and Eve story. Perhaps because most other trees were barren and lifeless during December, the actors chose to hang the apples from an evergreen tree rather than from an apple tree. In the fifteenth century round, white communion wafers were added to the paradise tree. These wafers stood for the promise of reconciliation with God made possible through JESUS Christ. Sometimes cherries also served as tree ORNAMENTS, symbolizing faith and reminding audiences of MARY and the ANNUNCIATION (see also CHERRY TREE). A circle of lit candles usually surrounded the paradise tree during performances. The play was performed within this circle.
Church authorities banned miracle plays in the fifteenth century, but these popular plays continued to be performed for at least another century. Before disappearing completely they bequeathed the custom of the paradise tree to the peoples of FRANCE and the Rhine River region of GERMANY. Some Germans adopted a new name for the tree, calling it a Christbaum, or “Christ tree.” Over time white pastry dough ornaments cut into the shape of hearts, ANGELS, stars, and BELLS replaced the communion wafers. Ornaments representing humans, lions, dogs, birds, and other animals were made out of brown dough. Blooming paper roses might also embellish the tree, a symbol of the birth of Jesus (see also CHRISTMAS ROSE; CHRISTMAS SYMBOLS). During the nineteenth century some German people still put figurines representing Adam, Eve, and the serpent under their trees at Christmas time. In some sections of Bavaria the Christmas evergreen, decorated with lights, apples and tinsel, is still called a paradise tree.