Mrs. C says: What’s the crowning glory of the Christmas tree for you?
Ed Elf: Has to be an elf for me every time.
Mrs. C: Now you’re just being plain daft. An elf does not a tree-topper make. It has to be an angel or a star or a…
Ed Elf: Fairy! And fairies are very much part of elfin folklore. They’re basically one of us. So yes – an elf for me every time.
Mrs. C: I give up!
Angel Gabriel is at the very heart of the Nativity story – the bringer of wondrous news that Mary shall give birth to the Son of God. Angels and Christmas forever intertwined. Music, literature and art have reinforced this connection through the ages.
St Augustine wrote: “Angel is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is spirit; if you seek the name of their office it is angel; from what they are, spirit, from what they do, angel.”
The Angel Tree
The storied Angel Tree is in New York and takes pride of place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. It has eighteenth century Neapolitan figures re-enacting the events of Jesus Christ’s Nativity at its base, while skilfully crafted angels hang from the branches above. To see the tree in person is a humbling experience. There is a wonderful book entitled “The Angel Tree: A Christmas Celebration” by Linn Howard and Mary Jane Pool. The atmospheric photographs by Elliott Erwitt are accompanied by biblical text of the Christmas story. Loretta Hines Ward gave her collection of crèche figures, including the Adoration of Angels, to the museum in 1965. Her daughter Linn is the book’s co-author.
Stars atop the tree, like Angels, are that direct connection to the Nativity Story. The star shone bright over the stable in Bethlehem the night Jesus Christ was born and led the shepherds and the Magi to worship the Lord. Some theologians believed this fulfilled a prophecy – the Star Prophecy in the Book of Numbers:
“I see Him, but not now;
I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Sceptre shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab,
And destroy all the sons of tumult.”
Many scholars through the ages have tried to determine the nature of the Star of Bethlehem and it has been linked to Halley’s Comet (which was visible in 12BC), to a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn and even to a supernova from the Andromeda Galaxy. Artwork of the Adoration of the Magi usually depicts a star in some form, occasionally held by an angel. In the fresco by Italian Renaissance painter and architect Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337) the star resembles a comet. However, we can soak up such centuries of craft, knowledge and supposition and yet none the wiser be. Perhaps the Star of Bethlehem is best left in its magical, mysterious, magnificent place as captured in the carol “We Three Kings”:
“Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light”
Fairies, like angels, have an ethereal quality. In the English dictionary a fairy is described as ‘a small mythical being in human form with magical powers’. Their magic – and that of the season – has brought us their undeniable link.
Tinker Bell from JM Barrie’s “Peter Pan” is the most famous fairy in popular literature. It’s in that timeless book that the importance of believing in fairies is expressed thus: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that drops down dead.” Fairies are also crucial to William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, in which Oberon and Titania are the king and queen of fairyland.
Fairies may not find their way on to your tree in physical form, but they exist in light form because where would we be at Christmas without fairy lights? The tiny twinkling lights were given this name when they first became popular in the twentieth century, as if to suggest they were illuminating the tree with mystical magic.
If you do place a fairy on top of the tree, in preference to an angel or a star, she might be holding a wand. With some designs, the wand is the only clear difference between an angel and fairy tree topper. With other designs, it is clear to see the fairy creations have more of a woodland or elfin influence.
Other Tree Top Ornaments
Search online for Christmas tree toppers and you will discover a mad new world. Angels, stars, fairies, finials: to some people these are so last century.
We have found these characters proudly sitting atop a variety of trees: Father Christmas, a snowman, Yoda from Star Wars and an octopus. Yes, an octopus. Then again, some folk prefer giant bows, huge cup cakes, a top hat fit for Frosty himself, doves, angel wings or fantastically elaborate arrangements of greenery and glitter. Many opt for illuminated decorations as their crowning glory, others have a topper bearing the logo of their favourite football team. Imagination apparently knows no bounds at Christmas. Here’s what makes us happy on the tree topper front.