In the final blog of 2021, Fang Zong, Chinese Culture Gallery Project Assistant, shares her insights about the increasingly popular Chinese tradition of giving apples on Christmas Eve. An earlier version of this post originally featured in the Museum’s 2020 Advent Calendar.
Manchester Museum’s collections include plenty of apples. As well as the Botany collection (see above), the Archaeology collection is also home to many apples including a terracotta apple, and a bronze apple in the hand of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty, pleasure, love and procreation (see below).
From a translation of the carol, Christmas Eve is known in China as ‘Silent Night’, and Giving apples at Silent Night, Ping An Ye So Ping Guo, 平安夜送苹果, is an interesting custom that can be seen amongst youngsters in China nowadays.
This all stems from the fact that Chinese people love homonyms – words that sound the same but have different meanings (see this article for a fascinating consideration of why this might be so significant in Chinese languages), particularly when those words are linked to positive ideas, such as good luck, good health, happiness and good fortune.
Pin An, 平安, means ‘safe and healthy’, and the Chinese apple Ping Guo, 苹果, includes the same sound, Ping. So, apple in Chinese has the metaphorical meaning of the hope to be ‘safe and healthy’ – surprisingly similar to the old British saying that ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’!
Gift-giving is fraught with homophonic taboos; it is all right to give apples, because their name sounds like “peace” but not pears, whose name overlaps with “separation.”Is the Chinese Language a Superstition Machine? By Julie Sedivy (April 12, 2018)
Chinese apples symbolise peace and harmony, so are also called ‘Fruits of Peace’. They often feature designs that send love and care, health or Santa wishing you Merry Christmas. Giving apples at Silent Night is a good integration of Chinese and Western cultures – conveying festive blessings.
I remember when I was a child, small but sweet crab apples were a treat. And when I first started my museum job, Dr Rachel Webster, the Curator of Botany at Manchester Museum, gave us a talk focusing on crab apple trees, like the one opposite the museum, and the important roles they play.
The native crab apple is one of the ancestors of the cultivated apple and it can live for up to 100 years. A tree of value to wildlife as well as humans; the leaves are food for the caterpillars of many moths. The flowers provide an important source of early pollen and nectar for insects, particularly bees, and the fruit is eaten by birds…University of Manchester, Tree Trail: Crab Apple
From giving apples on Silent Night to apple trees providing for local wildlife, apples have crossed the boundaries of history and culture, caring for people and the places they live.
Merry Christmas and I hope you all enjoy Christmas apples with love and care!