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A friend of mine grew up in England and she recounted a pious Christmas tradition they had in England when she was a little girl while decorating their Christmas Trees. This tradition was in use where she lived in the 1950s.

On Christmas Eve, when people were decorating their Christmas Trees, they would place an angel on top of the tree. The angel decoration or tree topper was a little unique. The angel had bread in one hand and coal in the other. The symbolism was of Christian origin. It symbolized our need to always remember the poor and destitute at Christmas time: the poor needed bread to eat and coal to burn in order to keep warm.

Does anyone know where I can find some information about this Angel Christmas Tree topper tradition?

  • Related, but in no way an answer: English Traditions. "More traditionally, on the stroke of midnight, people open the back door (to let the old year out) and ask the first dark haired man to be seen to come through the front door carrying salt, coal and bread. This means that the following year everyone in the house will have enough to eat (bread), enough money (salt) and be warm enough (coal)." – Ken Graham Mar 22 '18 at 12:41
  • Do you recall where in England your friend lived? – davidlol Jun 22 '18 at 13:10
  • @davidlol My friend is from the southern Essex region of England. She believes the tradition is from the northern regions of England that had many coal mines in the area and at a time when people were generally not well off. Hope this is helpful. – Ken Graham Jun 23 '18 at 1:00
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This is pure speculation but may be of some relevance, and cannot fit in a comment.

OP's friend grew up in Essex, but thinks the Christmas Tree Angel with bread and coal may be a custom originating in Northern England. This suggests it was not common in Essex, but may have been brought down by a family member or other person originating from the North. It is not a widely known custom, but may have been localised.

One possibility is that it was akin to the use of bread and coal as symbolic New Year gifts, used in First Footing, still quite common and certainly well known. It could be an adaptation of this.

However OP's friend thinks it was to do with remembering the poor and destitute.

Historically, many parishes in England had bread and coal funds, intended to provide bread and coal to the poor. Some distributed just before Christmas, others as and when need arose. The practice of distributing just before Christmas was sometimes called St Thomas's dole, from the fact it was given out on St Thomas Day, December 21st.

Bread and coal were regarded as basic necessities, not as symbols.

These funds were often provided by bequests from individuals leaving a sum of money the interest on which was to be used each year. Others would be funded by an annual collection from those in the parish who could afford it and chose to contribute, and some parishes had the power to charge a compulsory rate on householders or landowners in times of particular hardship.

A favourite way for Victorian and Edwardian ladies to raise money for causes was by making things which were then sold at a "Sale of Work", to other ladies. I speculate that Christmas tree angels bearing bread and coal may have originated in this way, as a way to raise money for bread and coal.

The capital element of these funds was eroded by inflation and the needs generally taken care of by national welfare policies.

This refers to numerous bequests in one parish being combined into a Bread and Coal Fund. This describes a much larger distribution in a northern industrial town, Stoke on Trent, with coal and bread in large piles along each side of the market place.

  • See my answer that includes the Parliamentary Papers that describes the bread and coal fund for the poor. – SLM Jun 29 '18 at 14:01
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This is an interesting question. I’d wager that most readers initially make a contrast between the bread and coal in the angel’s hands as representing rewards for good and evil. We know about the bread of the Covenant at the Last Supper. And no doubt most of us have heard about getting a lump of coal or two in your stocking if you were a bad boy or girl. Alternatively, as the OP stated, the two items may also represent a tradition between the well-to-do (bread) and the poor (coal).

There is a another historic symbolism of the bread and coal that is somewhat different. The two items of bread and coal may essentially represent the same singular idea; that is, one of redemption.

CHRISTMAS TREE

The origins of Christmas trees are widely known and are not important to the question. As to an angel tree topper, its first use apparently sources to the United Kingdom’s Victorian Era from about 1837 to 1901.

The Illustrated London News published a picture of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family around a Christmas tree topped with an angel, and by its influence the Christmas angel became the most common tree-topper. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree-topper

If you enlarge the picture of the angel on top, you find it dressed in red and white. It appears to hold somethings in its hand and one could easily hazard a guess that it is bread (right) and coal (left).

Why an angel in the first place? The idea is consistently one of a herald, a messenger. What is the message? The answer, the symbolism is in the bread and coal.

When did the angel first appear with two items in its hands? The answer is more of a mystery, but one that is inferred from when it first appeared.

HEAVEN or HELL

Before looking at the bread and coal as the same metaphor, there are traditions that the two are very different states of mankind or even of Christians! Keep in mind that apparently the angelic tree topper appeared about the same times as our sources.

Charles Spurgeon an English preacher (1834-1892) contrasts a type of bread and coal as in the same house, though different implications.

I believe that most of God's children sometimes get down in the dumps. There is a coal cellar to God's house as well as a banqueting hall and, although I should like to always live in the banqueting hall, I have many a time been down in the coal cel-lar—and I have learned more, there, than I have learned upstairs! Spurgeon, Sermons 45

This idea of partaking of either bread (good) or coals (bad) may be traceable far back in time to Pseudo-Dionysius circa CE 600.

This sacrifice [of Christ’s death], here celebrated, we commemorate to Thee, O Lord, and the sufferings which Thou didst endure on the Cross for us. Be propitious, O Good, and Lover of men, in that hour full, of fear and trembling, to this congregation of those adoring Thee, and to all sons of the holy Church, bought by Thy precious blood. May coals of fire be kept from those who are tinged with Thy blood, and sealed by Thy sacraments in Thy holy Name, as formerly the Babylonian flame from the youths of the house of Hanania; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/dionysius/works.i.v.ii.html

It is also interesting that Parliamentary Papers from that Victorian time period mentions tickets issued to the poor who could redeem them for both bread and coal. With this, we find that the two items are essential symbols of life. This too may have influenced our traditions. See page 850. https://books.google.com/books?id=mMNDAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA850&lpg=PA850&dq

Lastly, in keeping with the idea that the two items represent symbols for good, we may cite from the bible where Elijah is running from Jezebel.

And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. 1Kings 19:5-6

In this story we have the traditional evergreen, the angel, bread (cake) and coals.

REDEMPTION

In all of these traditions, the one constant is the angel heralding and holding or providing two items. Were the items it held a contrast of bread for good and coal for bad or were they symbols of the same reality; that is, bread and coal as necessities for life?

The angel of course represents the heralding angel. Hark, the herald angel sings, glory to the newborn king. The bread of heaven had come to earth.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Luke 2:10-12

For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. John 6:33

Hark Emmanuel, God with us. But hark too our reaction. Mine lips are deceitful and evil, I am a sinner, how can I receive this gift of life? Religious traditions answer in different ways from universal salvation to working for salvation. Again, this is unimportant to the question. For this angel tradition though, there is only one answer. The angel offers bread and uses the coal to one who acknowledges his/her sins.

Then said I [the prophet Isaiah], Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Isa. 6:5-7

We have seen angel toppers clothed in either white or red to explain that symbolism. Keep in mind that these were Protestant preachers. So although he does not tie this with an angel topper necessarily, Scottish preacher George Adam Smith (1856-1942) will put it, bread represents redemption, but so too the coal as the means.

[Isaiah’s vision] for so simple a process of atonement leaves out the most characteristic details of the Jewish ritual of sacrifice, while it anticipates in an unmistakeable manner the essence of the Christian sacrament. In a scene of expiation laid under the old covenant, we are struck by the absence of oblation or sacrificial act on the part of the sinner himself. There is here no victim slain, no blood sprinkled; an altar is only parenthetically suggested, and even then in its simplest form, of a hearth on which the Divine fire is continually burning. The glowing stone, not live coal as in the English version, was no part of the temple furniture, but the ordinary means of conveying heat or applying fire in the various purposes of household life. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/smith_ga/expositorisa1.v.iv.html

The stone/coal was applied, not something taken or achieved.

CONCLUSION

With these things in mind from the same period, we thus find traces of the different ongoing traditions of an angelic tree topper clothed in white or red or both who holds bread in one hand and coal in the other.

Those traditions offer different understandings that range from contrasting bread for good and coal for bad to finding both bread and coal as symbols of good or the necessity of life. Lastly, we find the heralding angel who announces Christ the bread of life and the coal of simple application. For this tradition, the angel with bread and coal is not a contrast of people or symbols, but a compliment of Christian reality foreshadowed and fulfilled.

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My answer does not deserve the proffered reward, but I offer it because it gives potential insight into the history of the tradition you mention.

While searching for clues to this tradition, I came across the following in The Fathers of the Church, Mediaeval Continuation, Lanfranc of Canterbury on the Body and Blood of the Lord, Guitmund of Aversa on the Truth of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist (translated by Mark G. Vaillancourt, Vol. 10, The Catholic University of America Press) (Source).

DIFFICULTY OF UNWORTHY COMMUNICANTS ADDRESSED

  1. Of these two, one affirms that some of the bread and wine is changed [transmutari] into the flesh and blood of the Lord, but some, because of unworthy communicants, remains unchanged. The other proposition, however, affirms that all of the bread and wine of the altar is converted into the flesh and blood of the Lord, but when unworthy persons come to Communion, it reverts back again into bread and wine. Those who affirm either one of these ideas, then, are unwilling to have unworthy men capable of participating in the flesh and blood of the Lord. With them, therefore, although the error is different, the cause is nevertheless the same. For they both defend their error with the same arguments: that is, they say that Christ declared: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him." Yet the unworthy do not remain in Christ, nor does Christ remain in them. For they are not able "to serve two masters," nor at the same time to be a member of Christ and of the devil. They say, then, that they do not eat the flesh of Christ, or drink his blood. And they even strive to claim the example, found in the Vitae patrum, of a certain old man who had a vision of an angel withdrawing the body of the Lord from unworthy recipients, to whom, upon approaching for the purpose of receiving Communion, the angel gives coal in place of Communion. If then, they say, such people do not receive the flesh and blood of the Lord, it must be the case that what they receive has either not changed [mutatum], or it has reverted back into its prior nature. And their reasoning up to this point must, with God's help, be refuted now.

  2. And, in fact, of the first example it should be noted that it offers them nothing; in fact it greatly repudiates their opinion. For if bread to be offered to the unworthy should remain unchanged, what does the coal given to them, rather than bread, mean? But if all the unworthy are feeding on coal, are not all the worthy truly feeding on the flesh and blood of the Lord? Therefore, nothing of the bread remains unchanged. Rather, if the flesh and blood were changed into coal for the unworthy as these approached, then they were not changed into bread and wine; for coal is neither bread nor wine. Therefore, in this example, their opinion (as I have said) is more damaged than illustrated. For us, however, this example is in no way seen as contradictory. For in his eyes, it could be that the appearances of flesh and blood, in which Communion was offered to the just, are withdrawn from the unjust, and, for the purpose of showing their iniquity, the same flesh and blood are offered to them in the appearance of coal. For certainly it does not happen this way (as I have already said), but so that the evil of the sins to be corrected would be revealed through the angel to the old monk who was present, the flesh and blood could be withdrawn by the angel in truth, and coal brought in from elsewhere in a moment and administered. Therefore, either one of these scenarios could have come about in a way that is consonant with our faith.

The discussion refers to a story in Vitae patrum about a vision of an angel offering either bread or coal, representative of the worthy or unworthy participating in Communion.

This differs from the description you give of the symbolic meaning of the bread and coal, but I wonder if this is not a part of the trail that leads to the tradition you cite.

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