The Christmas tree began as a German tradition. And it might still be just a charming local custom, if not for two English queens who elevated it to a global phenomenon. This bonus holiday episode will tell you about Queen Charlotte, Queen Victoria, and their Christmas trees.
Before I get started on this Christmas special, I have an announcement. If you know me personally, you know that trendy is exactly what I am not. I’ve never been on TikTok, and I still haven’t figured out skinny jeans. So it’s maybe not a surprise that I am almost two years into podcasting and have only just now caught up to the trendy Indy podcasters who have a Patreon account. But now, if you click on the link in the show notes or on the website, you can buy me what could be your cheapest holiday gift of the season, and it comes with a return benefit for you. Depending on your level of support, you get a shout-out on the show, access to polls on topics for the next season, and access to a bonus mini episode to go with each and every series. Eventually. Once I catch up with the 8 series I’ve done so far. The one that is out there already is a timely one to go with Series 5, the Historical Mary. So if you offer your support you can get a little art history, about the very oldest image of Mary that we know of. And of course, at any level of support you get the satisfying knowledge that you, like powerful men and women before you, are supporting scholarship and the arts. So please, if you can, click on that link and make my holiday season sparkle.
Okay, back to this Christmas special! A bonus episode not in any series, this is Two Queens and Your Christmas Tree.
If you search the Internet for the origin of the Christmas tree, you will find a vast array of answers, which are united only by their total lack of documentation. A problem that was distressingly present in my in-print sources as well.
The evergreen as a symbol of life, hope, and constancy was self-evident to many cultures, particularly at midwinter when everything else was looking pretty dead. So, yes, the Romans used evergreens at their feast of Saturnalia, but they weren’t the only ones (Lester, 102), and I’m not at all sure that that has anything to do with the Christmas tree currently twinkling in my living room.
As we move into medieval and Renaissance times there are scattered references to decorating trees for Christmas or New Year’s in German-speaking lands, and my various sources have all seized on one or two of these and said Aha! the oldest reference. But besides the fact that I was unable to verify most of their references, there’s a lot of confusion about what actually counts as a Christmas tree.
For example, some people in the Germanic regions decorated a tree with apples, but it wasn’t about Christmas. It was to represent the story in Genesis about eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
And also because the word they used can mean tree, but also might just mean pole (Bernt, 3). And also because they might just be using branches, rather than a whole tree (Bernt, 6).
The point is the origins are obscure, but so many people in the Protestant and German-speaking area of Europe were doing something vaguely related to a Christmas tree that some municipalities had to pass laws saying stop cutting down all our trees! (Bernt, 6, 23) The great Martin Luther himself was said to have decorated a Christmas tree, though that’s more legend than it is fact.
By the 18th century Christianity had circumnavigated the globe, but the Christmas tree was not part of that. It was just a charming local custom, of the type that other people might know about, but certainly didn’t do themselves. But it didn’t stay that way.
There were two women who elevated it from quaint regional custom to global phenomenon and the first was Her Serene Highness Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Germany was not a united country at this point, but if you look at a current map, you’ll be looking in northern part of modern Germany.
As the youngest daughter of a minor duke, Charlotte really could not expect to make a particularly brilliant match. But George III, King of England, was on the marriage prowl, and when objections were raised to the other eligible young ladies he had considered first, his choice fell on her.
He had not actually met her, of course, and his informants could not say that she was beautiful, but she was charming and good-hearted, healthy and young (Hedley, 11). She was just 17 when she arrived in England for the first time on September 22, 1761. She was married just a few hours later.
If the first fear of a princess is that she won’t find a match, her second greatest fear is that she will. And he’ll be old, abusive, and firmly convinced that faithfulness is only for the weaker sex.
In this, Charlotte was also blessed, for George was young as well, only 22. He was also handsome and utterly entranced by her. Shortly after their marriage, he said “Every hour more and more convinces me of the treasure I have got” (Hedley, 47). It was a happy and loving relationship, proof that arranged marriages can actually work.
The first fear of a queen is that she won’t be able to produce the heir and the spare for her family. There again Charlotte was blessed. Within a year baby George was born, and he was followed by no fewer than 14 younger siblings. And they lived. In an era of massive child mortality, that was huge. Charlotte did not experience the grief of losing a child until her 13th child, and it was devastating, of course it was. But it might have come so much earlier. It did come so much earlier for a great many women.
As queen, Charlotte steered clear of politics, which was both George’s request and her own personal preference. Perhaps that is why in a 375-page biography of her, the word revolution appears only four times, even though her pen pal Marie Antoinette was a victim of the French Revolution, and an uppity American called Thomas Jefferson called her husband a Tyrant, unfit to be the ruler of a free people (Declaration of Independence). This was a trifle unfair because George Ill was not a tyrant. He was a constitutional monarch, bound to deal with Parliament, and the taxes that had so infuriated the Americans were actually Parliament’s doing. George III was not all that bad as monarchs go.
But whatever was going on in the outside world, Charlotte was busy with her family, and one of the things she did was celebrate Christmas with them. It was arguably true then (and in my opinion still true now), that Germans celebrate Christmas the best. And she was German. So she brought the customs of her childhood with her.
Miss Georgina Townshend wrote of a visit to the Queen’s lodge at Windsor Castle:
The Queen entertained the children here, Christmas-evening with a German fashion. A fir tree about as high again as any of us, lighted all over with small tapers, several little wax dolls among the branches in different places, and strings of almonds and raisins alternately tied from one to the other, with skipping ropes for the boys, and each bigger girl had muslin for a frock, a muslin handkerchief, a fan, and a sash, all prettily done up in the handkerchief, and a pretty necklace and earrings besides. As soon as all the things were delivered out by the Queens Princesses, the candles on the tree were put out, and the children set to work to help themselves, which they did very heartily.(Woolley, 419)
Queen Charlotte’s Christmas trees did not become a British sensation overnight. But after Queen Charlotte, a certain type of British person knew about them, the type that got invited to royal parties.
If you are thinking that Charlotte’s life sounds too fairy-tale good to be true, then I will say that it wasn’t too good to be true, but it was maybe too good to last. No one escapes a long life without their share of trouble. And certainly Charlotte did not.
She and George had loved each other deeply. He never took a mistress and nineteen years into their marriage, he wrote to their son:
I can with truth say that in nineteen years I have never had the smallest reason but to thank Heaven for having directed my choice . . . to her; indeed I could not bear up did I not find her a feeling friend to whom I can unbosom my griefs.Hedley, 124
The trouble that came was in the form of George’s mysterious illness. He had very frightening episodes of mental illness. Charlotte wrote “the veins in his face were swelled, the sound of his voice was dreadful; he often spoke until he was exhausted, and the moment he could recover his breath began again, while the foam ran out of his mouth” (Hedley, 146).
But then he would come to himself and be fine after all until the next episode. Doctors of the day were at a total loss, which is not surprising. Modern-day doctors have looked at his symptoms and retroactively diagnosed him with either the blood disease porphyria or perhaps bipolar disorder, they don’t agree. But there was certainly no effective treatment in the 18th century. And in the face of extreme mental illness, love was not enough. By the time of Charlotte’s death in 1818, they were living apart, and he was so far gone he may never have understood that she had died. He died himself a year later.
All tragedy aside, the Christmas tree was still a largely German custom, plus the British aristocracy, thanks to Queen Charlotte. Christmas trees had made it to America too, but really only in places that had large numbers of German immigrants, like various communities in Pennsylvania. The majority of Americans had never seen any reason to get one themselves.
It would take a second queen to change that.
George III was succeeded by his son George IV, who had relationship troubles with practically everyone, including his wife and all his ministers. His only child died before him, so after his death, the throne passed to his brother, William IV. William IV wasn’t as obnoxious as his brother, but his surviving children were all illegitimate. Which meant the throne should have gone to the next son of Charlotte, who was Edward. But Edward was already dead. However, he did have one surviving legitimate child, and her name was Victoria.
Like her grandmother before her, Victoria had not been born expecting to be queen. Her father died when she was still very small, and she was under the domineering control of her mother and her mother’s confidante for all of her adolescence. A great deal can and has been said about the amazing Victoria, but for now it will suffice to say that when she was queen, she distanced herself from her tormenters and began making her own decisions. Unlike her grandfather, she didn’t send any representatives to scout out possible German princes to marry. She perused them herself. And at age 17, she chose one: Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. As queen, she proposed. And he said yes.
It is fair to say that before Victoria, the monarchy was having trouble. George III’s insanity, the loss of the American colonies, the scandalous regency and reign of George IV, it had all taken a toll.
Victoria was young, beautiful, moral, financially sensible. A real breath of fresh air, and her subjects loved her. Her non-subjects also loved her. For a country that was proud of having chucked off the monarchy, the Americans were extreme fans of everything Victoria did. If TikTok had existed, she would have been the biggest trendsetter on it.
We are still living with trends she set. Her wedding dress was white, and ever since brides have worn white. She had a tiered cake at her wedding with royal icing, and the wedding cake industry was born.
And in the 1840s, Prince Albert directed the royal Christmas festivities, which included a Christmas tree. He is often given credit for introducing it to England, which, you now know, is not true. He did grow up with Christmas trees in Germany, but so did Victoria in the English royal family. She was familiar with the concept. On Christmas Eve, 1841, she wrote in her diary:
Christmas, I always look upon as a most dear happy time, also for Albert, who enjoyed it naturally still more in his happy home, which mine, certainly, as a child, was not. It is a pleasure to have this blessed festival associated with one’s happiest days. The very smell of the Christmas Trees of pleasant memories. To think, we have already 2 Children now, & one who already enjoys the sight, — it seems like a dream.”-quoted in Bilton
The difference between Charlotte’s tree and Victoria’s tree was that we now had a professional press, and a large middle class who sure wished they were the kind of people who got invited to royal parties. Engravings of the royal family standing around their Christmas tree were published in The Illustrated London News and then copied into the American Godey’s Lady’s Book, which just so happened to be the most widely circulated publication in the US at the time.
I’ll place the picture on the website, but it shows a very pleasant domestic scene, mother, father, and children with an older unidentified woman in the background. The tree looks quite tall, but only because it is placed on a table. It is decorated with candles and baubles and has an angel on the top. Underneath are dolls, including some on horseback. It is hard to tell from the picture, but the baubles were technically edible. They were made of boiled and shaped sugar, flavored with caraway and aniseed. While still hot and sticky, a wire was inserted into the sugar, so that when dry, it could be hung on the tree (Bilton).
What’s interesting is that in the British version of the engraving, Victoria has a crown. In the American version, no crown. I guess it’s more democratic that way.
That picture was circulated all over the United States and beyond in December 1850. And in 1851, a Catskill farmer hauled two ox driven sleds of evergreens to New York City, and he sold them all (Rouse, 7).
Because if Queen Victoria did Christmas trees, it was a great idea!
Not that there weren’t naysayers. Some Catholics grumbled about this Protestant idea. Hmmph. The New York Times ran an editorial against it too, which said:
The German Christmas tree — a rootless and lifeless corpse — was never worthy of the day, and no one can say how far the spirit of rationalism which begins with the denial of Santa Claus, the supernatural filler of stockings, and ends with the denial of all things supernatural, has been fostered by the German Christmas trees, which have been adopted so widely in this country. … The Christmas tree, dropping melted wax upon the carpet, filling all nervous people with a dread of fire; banishing the juvenile delight of opening the well-filled stocking in the dim morning light, and diffusing the poison of rationalism thinly disguised as the perfume of hemlock, should have no place in our beloved land.New York Times, The Christmas Stocking
Sounds like a real Ebenezer Scrooge writing, but when I tracked down the entire editorial instead of just this clip quoted elsewhere, it’s not quite a Scrooge-like as all that. The unsigned writer was down on the trees because he (or she, it’s unsigned), felt they had replaced a different and beloved tradition: the Christmas stocking.
To which I—and society at large—have said, why not just have both?
In any case, Christmas trees were here to stay. Victoria’s age was one of massive expansion of British influence. The sun literally never set on her empire. The British took their language, their culture, and their Christmas trees to Australia, India, many places in Africa, and more.
What has changed since Charlotte’s time is the nature of the decorations. For Charlotte, there were small gifts in the branches and the decorations were largely edible. The activity the kids were so excited about was to strip it bare, gorging themselves as they went. The wax tapers were, admittedly, a fire hazard that couldn’t be enjoyed for very long. So often the tree went up on Christmas Eve and came down on Christmas Day.
By the end of the 19th century, some trees had electric lights and inedible decorations, which meant you could enjoy for the whole Christmas season, much to the delight of the marketers. Victoria, by the way, was still alive to see this. And magazines like Good Housekeeping were advising women to put the presents on the floor underneath because they were now too big, too heavy, and too numerous to go in the tree (Brunner, 70).
In the 20th century, the Christmas tree spread its branches into places that had never been either German or British.
The Soviet Union did not celebrate Christmas, or any religious holiday for that matter, ergo no Christmas tree. But people liked the tree, so it became a New Year tree.
At the opposite end of the religious extremes, another holdout was the Vatican. No Lutheran trees here, thank you very much! But even they have been conquered by the beauty and the symbolism of a softly lit evergreen tree at Christmas time. The Vatican had their very first in 1982 (Vatican Christmas Tree).
Of course there are still plenty of homes around the world that do not have a Christmas tree, for the simple reason that they don’t celebrate Christmas. But if you are among those who gathered with family to put one up this season, just know that you are participating in a very old tradition celebrated by peasant women and queens alike.
Bilton, Sam. “How Did Queen Victoria and Prince Albert Popularise Christmas?” English Heritage, 2 Dec. 2016, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/inspire-me/blog/blog-posts/how-did-queen-victoria-and-prince-albert-popularise-christmas/. Accessed 7 Nov. 2022.Works Cited
Brunner, Bernd. “Branching Out.” The Smart Set, 11 Dec. 2015, http://www.thesmartset.com/branching-out/. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.
—. Inventing the Christmas Tree. New Haven Yale University Press, 2012.
Hedley, Olwen. Queen Charlotte. United Kingdom: J. Murray, 1975.
Lester, Meera. Why Does Santa Wear Red? Simon and Schuster, 1 Sept. 2007.
Rouse, Judy M. History, Legends & Folklore of Christmas. Writers Club Press, 2001.
“The Christmas Stocking.” New York Times, 26 Dec. 1883, p. 4.
“Vatican Christmas Tree 2022 | 113-Year-Old Tree from Andalo.” Www.thevaticantickets.com, 2022, http://www.thevaticantickets.com/vatican-christmas-tree/. Accessed 7 Nov. 2022.
Woolley, Mary, and William Wallingford Knollys. Memoirs and Correspondence of Field-Marshal Viscount Combermere, from His Family Papers, by Mary Viscountess Combermere and W.W. Knollys. Vol. 2, Hurst and Blackett (London), 1866.