According to the Bible’s Book of Genesis, God created the first man and woman and invited them to live in a heavenly place called the Garden of Eden. This couple, known as Adam and Eve, lived there in bliss until they took the advice of a serpent and disobeyed God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As punishment for their disobedience, God expelled them from the Garden, thus compelling them to work for their living, suffer pain, and eventually die. Medieval Christians honored Adam and Eve as the father and mother of all people and commemorated their story on December 24, the day before Christmas.
Eastern Christians, that is, those Christians whose traditions of belief and worship developed in the Middle East, eastern Europe, and north Africa, were the first to honor Adam and Eve as saints. Their cult spread from eastern lands to western Europe during the Middle Ages, becoming quite popular in Europe by the year 1000. Although the Roman Catholic Church never formally adopted the pair as saints, it did not oppose their veneration. Commemorating the lives of Adam and Eve on December 24 promoted comparison of Adam and Eve with Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Medieval theologians were fond of making such comparisons, the point of which was to reveal how Jesus and Mary, through their obedience to God’s will, rescued humanity from the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Indeed, the Bible itself refers to Jesus as the “second Adam” (Romans 5:14). Whereas humanity inherited biological life from the first Adam, it would imbibe spiritual life from Jesus, the second Adam (1 Corinthians 15: 22, 45, 49). Some theologians took this to mean that Jesus’ coming could restore humankind to a state of grace lost when Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden. In like manner, Mary would undo the effects of Eve’s disobedience. When the angel Gabriel visited Mary and delivered the message that she would bear a divine son, Mary replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, also Annunciation.) Medieval commentators relished the fact that in Latin, Eve’s name, Eva, read backwards spelled Ave, meaning“hail.” Ave Maria, or “Hail Mary” were the first words that the angel Gabriel spoke to the Virgin Mary. The spelling of these two shortwords seemed to them to symbolize God’s plan to reverse the consequences of Eve’s deed by bring a savior into the world through theVirgin Mary.
Medieval Christians celebrated Adam and Eve’s feast day with a kind of mystery play referred to as the paradise play. This little folk drama retold the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It ended with thepromise of the coming of a savior who would reconcile humanity with God. The paradise play was often staged around a single prop called a paradise tree. Actors adorned an evergreen tree with apples and sometimes also with communion wafers. Decked out in this way it served to represent the two mystical trees in the Garden of Eden: the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life.Although the church officially banned the performance of mystery plays in the fifteenth century, the people of France and Germany’s Rhine river region kept on decorating paradise trees for Christmas. Some writers believe that the paradise tree evolved into what we now know as the Christmas tree. Indeed, as late as the nineteenth century people in some parts of Germany customarily placed figurines representing Adam, Eve, and the serpent under their Christmas trees. In some sections of Bavaria, people still hang apples upon their evergreens at Christmas time and refer to the decorated trees as paradise trees.
As the Middle Ages receded into history, so too did the western European feast of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve have retained a bit more of their ancient importance among certain Eastern Christians. The Greek Orthodox Church still honors Adam and Eve on the Sunday before Christmas.