The First Christmas Tree: Alison Barnes Sets the Record Straight on Who Was Really Responsible for Introducing This Popular Custom to Britain

By Barnes, Alison | History Today, December 2006 | Go to article overview

The First Christmas Tree: Alison Barnes Sets the Record Straight on Who Was Really Responsible for Introducing This Popular Custom to Britain


Barnes, Alison, History Today


PRINCE ALBERT, QUEEN VICTORIA'S CONSORT, is usually credited with having introduced the Christmas tree into England in 1840. However, the honour of establishing this tradition in the United Kingdom rightfully belongs to 'good Queen Charlotte', the German wife of George HI, who set up the first known English tree at Queen's Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.

Legend has it that Queen Charlotte's compatriot, Martin Luther, the religious reformer, invented the Christmas tree. One winter's night in 1536, so the story goes, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.

Certainly by 1605 decorated Christmas trees had made their appearance in Southern Germany. For in that year an anonymous writer recorded how at Yuletide the inhabitants of Strasburg 'set up fir trees in the parlours ... and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.'

In other parts of Germany box trees or yews were brought indoors at Christmas instead of firs. And in the duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, where Queen Charlotte grew up, it was the custom to deck out a single yew branch.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) visited Mecklenburg-Strelitz in December, 1798, and was much struck by the yew-branch ceremony that he witnessed there, the following account of which he wrote in a letter to his wife dated April 23rd, 1799: 'On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlours is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough ... and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces'.

When young Charlotte left Meckleuburg-Strelitz in 1761, and came over to England to marry King George, she brought with her many of the customs that she had practised as a child, including the setting up of a yew branch in the house at Christmas. But at the English Court the Queen transformed the essentially private yew-branch ritual of her homeland into a more public celebration that could be enjoyed by her family, their friends and all the members of the Royal Household.

Queen Charlotte placed her yew bough not in some poky little parlour, but in one of the largest rooms at Kew Palace or Windsor Castle. Assisted by her ladies-in-waiting, she herself dressed the bough. And when all the wax tapers had been lit, the whole Court gathered round and sang carols. The festivity ended with a distribution of gifts from the branch, which included such items as clothes, jewels, plate, toys and sweets.

These royal yew boughs caused quite a stir among the nobility, who had never seen anything like them before. But it was nothing to the sensation created in 1800, when the first real English Christmas tree appeared at court.

That year Queen Charlotte planned to hold a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor. And casting about in her mind for a special treat to give the youngsters, she suddenly decided that instead of the customary yew bough, she would pot up an entire yew tree, cover it with baubles and fruit, load it with presents and stand it in the middle of the drawing-room floor at Queen's Lodge. Such a tree, she considered, would make an enchanting spectacle for the little ones to gaze upon. …

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