Sandy’s Garden ... The Tree of Life

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The Christmas cards have been taken down, the baubles carefully removed from the Christmas tree and, hopefully, returned to their original boxes to be stored for the next 50 weeks.

The celebratory miniature coloured lights have been taken off the bushes in the garden, the fascia boards, the window surrounds and the Christmas tree itself, the questions asked about how on earth the cables could possibly have become so hopelessly entangled, the promises made to replace these lights next year to save all the hassle and aggression of getting them to work again. Carols from King’s is fast fading from the memory, the pledge made on Christmas Eve to start going back to church regularly has been forgotten … together with other new year resolutions … and life has returned to humdrum normality. But in my mind, one persistent question about the festive season lingers with almost oppressive persistence. What inspired the symbolism of the words of this, the opening verse of probably my most favourite carol and certainly the carol whose haunting tune never fails to excite me emotionally? “The tree of life my soul hath seen, / Laden with fruit and always green: / The trees of nature fruitless be / Compared with Christ the apple tree.”

The history of these words is relatively easy to discover. First published in ‘The Spiritual Magazine’ in 1761 and collected into the book ‘Divine, Moral, and Historical Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse’ that same year, the author was then identified only by the initials ‘R.H.’ In the course of the next few years, further poems appeared in ‘The Spiritual Magazine’ from the pen of ‘R.H.’ from the village of Long Buckby near Daventry in Northamptonshire, in addition to one written by Richard Hutchins, a Calvinist Baptist minister who served his congregation in that self-same village between around 1759 and, perhaps, 1765. I think there can be no doubt that the Reverend Hutchins is the author of the wonderful words which became the carol, ‘Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree.’ The poem was first used as a hymn in an American hymnary in 1784, in the snappily-entitled ‘Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs: for the use of Religious Assemblies and Private Christians’ and subsequently became popular in the United States to the point where many people assumed that the author was American. It has been set to music by a number of composers, including the American Jeremiah Ingalls (1764–1838) and contemporary British composer John Rutter, although the tune which haunts me is that by the English composer, writer and musicologist Elizabeth Poston, who lived between 1905 and 1987.

But whence came Richard Hutchins unexpected link between Jesus Christ and an apple tree? There is the possibility that the Book of Genesis gave him the idea, for it may have been an apple which Eve tempted Adam to eat. I learn … for I am no biblical scholar … that, in chapter 13 of his Gospel, Luke describes Jesus as the ‘tree of life’, a comparison which is also found elsewhere in the New Testament. It is also possible that Rev. Hutchins was emulating other poets of his time and altered the words of a traditional song … perhaps one used in the ancient tradition of wassailing (wishing good health to) apple trees … to give them a Christian slant. He would have been very familiar with the villagers’ custom of wassailing their apple trees on Christmas Eve, a possibility which fits in neatly with the words becoming those of a Christmas carol. Then again, mankind has been fascinated by trees since the beginning of recorded time, relying on them for food, for shelter, for building materials, for shade from an oppressive sun and shelter from the storm as well as a multitude of other uses. Perhaps the author had no particular prompting and had simply had better luck than I, whose only attempt to add an apple tree to my garden’s delights ended in failure.