If you have seen the beautiful and epic Masterpiece Theatre series “Victoria,” you will have seen Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert get credit for bringing the cultural tradition of the Christmas tree to England in 1840. From England, it spread to the mainstream US in 1889 when then First Lady Caroline Harrison put one up in the White House. (She also had a dog named Dash, just like Queen Victoria. Copycat much?) I’m sure German immigrants were already doing this in the country, it just didn’t go mainstream. But Prince Albert was NOT the bringer of this tradition! Nein.
The Tannenbaum is acknowledged to be rooted in German traditions, and the first known Christmas tree is up for debate. However, my favorite story is the one where it was erected in a town square in Freiburg in 1419 by the town bakers (because bakers are the best!). It had nuts, fruits, and baked goods for children to eat on New Year’s day (“don’t eat the decorations, children, let everyone enjoy them. I don’t care if you’re hungry.”).
So when the British monarch King George III married the Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761, he had to know they were getting a Christmas tree.
Now picture being alive in England in 1800. There’s no electricity, no running water. It was very cold those years—the Thames in London froze solid and they conducted a Frost Fair on the ice. The American Revolution was only 14 years prior. You probably knew men who had fought in it. Napoleon has just overthrown the French monarchy (remember the beheadings? Yes, you do) and declared himself First Consul of the Republic. Parliament has just declared Ireland and England to be one political animal, the United Kingdom. (Why? You hate the Irish.) The Industrial Revolution is in full swing. Children as young as five years old are put to work, losing hands and fingers. There are clubs founded in children’s Sunday Schools to pay for each others’ funerals.
Now imagine being invited by the Queen of England to Windsor Castle (to where they lived in the Upper Lodge, AKA Queen’s Lodge—Prince Andrew and Fergie live there now, so you can’t visit. Or maybe YOU can. I can’t. Not that I’ve been banned, but because they haven’t invited me).
Can. You. Imagine? (No, no you can’t. The disparity of wealth at this time was gigantic. I mean yes, there are no flushing toilets to be found anywhere, for anyone, so everyone pees in a bucket, but still. To walk into a room covered in candlelight, because it gets dark so early in the afternoon in December, to see a massive yew tree (though the German tradition is a fir tree, but you don’t know that) covered in candy and presents? It must have been extravagant and magical.
“At the beginning of October the royal family left the coast for Windsor, where Her Majesty kept the Christmas-day following in a very pleasing manner. Sixty poor families had a substantial dinner given them; and in the evening the children of the principal families in the neighbourhood were invited to an entertainment at the Lodge. Here, among other amusing objects for the gratification of the juvenile visitors, in the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins, in papers, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged and the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets which it bore, together with a toy and then all returned home quite delighted.” (from the Memoirs of her Most Excellent Majesty Sophia Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain).
The primary difference here is that candy and toys were actually hung on the tree (so were raisins, and everyone knows that raisins are the worst). Part of the game and interactive spirit of the Christmas tree was to find your gift in the branches.
The Honorable Amelia Murray wrote in her Recollections from 1803 to 1837:
“…Queen Charlotte always had one dressed up in the room of Madame Rerkendorff, her German attendant; it was hung with presents for the children, who were invited to see it, and I well remember the pleasure it was to hunt for one’s own name, which was sure to be attached to one or more of the pretty gifts.”
It makes me want to hide presents in the tree. And be thankful that I have indoor plumbing. My kingdom for a flushable toilet.
For some more serious reading about Georgians:
Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay.