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Dossier: Day 1 of Victorian Christmas Past (The Christmas Tree)

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Join the Brighton History Detective on a journey to Victorian Christmas Past, the origin of our Christmas present. Step back in time to each of the 12 days of Christmas Past with a special Victoriana Investigation by the Brighton History Detective®. She has revealed the details of her findings in a special portfolio, 12 Days of Christmas Past, each day revealing a new dossier of a treasured Victorian tradition. Here is Day 1.


Prince Albert and the Christmas Tree, Inspiring a Lasting Christmas Tradition


Many have credited Prince Albert with inventing the Christmas Tree custom. However, it probably more accurate to say he and Queen Victoria forever popularized the tradition, throughout England and the western world.




The Christmas Tree would be one of many Christmas traditions made popular by the Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, along with a little help from Charles Dickens and his book, A Christmas Carol. Dicken's beloved tale was published just six weeks prior to Christmas in 1843, and sold before Christmas. It has never been out of print since.



Their influence created a reimagination of the holiday, highlighted a romantic, family-centered, and festive event. It focused away from the “merry” and rowdy of the alcohol-induced medieval customs to a time filled with the generosity of spirit, through tree-decorating, sharing seasonal food and drink, and gift-giving.


Prince Albert's Surprise Christmas Trees, one for each member of the family


The Royal family's christmas trees displayed in the dining room of Osborne house (1873).


Each Christmas Eve, the Prince Albert surprised his bride, Queen Victoria, and each of their nine children, with a Christmas tree brought in from Germany that he decorated himself, with candles, sweets, and gingerbread. Each was displayed on its own table, laden with gifts for the intended tree honoree. Gifts were displayed un-wrapped, as wrapping paper was a 1915 Hallmark invention. (Some earlier printed paper was introduced in the west, as early as the 1900’s, where designs (matching those printed on Christmas cards) were printed on paper to use as gift wrap. Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree tradition from his native Germany, and was very excited to give his family the memories that had meant so much to him as a child. He described the joy in a letter he wrote to his step-mother, the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, 26 Dec., 1847:


"I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought."


Queen Victoria's “Dreamy” Christmas Tree



The Prince also gave a tree, each year, to his wife Queen Victoria, as the 1845 watercolor by Joseph Nash, has captured of the Blue Closet at Windsor Castle, entitled, “Queen Victoria's Christmas Tree, Windsor Castle.” The Queen appears to be especially touched by Prince Albert’s loving gesture, and impact of the long-lasting tradition for her family, described in an entry she wrote in her diary, dated Dec. 24, 1841.


“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!     



Each family member, including the Queen Mother, received his or her own individual Christmas Tree, a fond recollection for each, prompting capturing a lingering memory in photographs and painting commissions. One such commission pictured above, was painted by William Corden, "Queen Victoria's Christmas Tree." With so many tree honorees, many rooms of the palace, such as in the dining room photographed that follows, were filled with Christmas trees and presents.


The following painting captures a palace room, filled with some of the children's Christmas trees.




Trees for the Royal Household, Too


Rooms were lighted up for the royal household, too. One palace observer remarked, “The chandeliers being taken down and trees covered with bonbons and little wax

 colored lights, with some of the trees were made to appear as if partially covered in snow.”

Popularity of the custom extended outside the palace walls, as the Royal Couple also gave a number of trees to schools and army barracks.


Albert’s Christmas Tree ― Not the First



Both Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s childhood included Christmas tree traditions.

A 13-year-old Princess Victoria wrote in her diary on Christmas Eve in 1832, “To trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments were placed on tables in the Dining Room, around which presents were laid out.”

 

Queen Charlotte’s Fairyland Tree



Earlier, Queen Charlotte, wife King George III and queen (1761-1818), brought to the palace her native-Germany tradition of decking a single Yew-tree bough (or branch). Families would gather around a decorated Yew-tree bough on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts.


In 1800, as a special treat for a party planned for the children of all the principal families in Windsor, the Queen suddenly decided to pot up an entire yew tree (instead of the single customary Yew bough). The children arrived that day to a magical tree, decorated with fruit and baubles, all aglitter with tinsel and glass. The children were said to have believed themselves transported straight to fairyland and their happiness knew no bounds.


The ancient Custom of Tree Decorating



Some trace the origin of Christmas trees back to the ancient custom of decorating trees, as connected to the Pagan custom of tree worship (practiced in the German Mid-winter festival).

To the simple country folk, the leaves that seasonally fell from the oak trees, represented the tree’s spirit leaving its home inside the tree. To tempt the good spirits to return, they hung brightly-colored scraps and cloth and strings of pebbles from its branches. When the leaves returned, the country folk credited the tree decorating.

Early Christian missionaries, wanting to differentiate from the custom of worshiping trees, supported substituting the decorating of oak trees with the decorating of Evergreen trees, whose triangular shape symbolized the Christian Father, Son, & Holy Ghost.


Evergreens Symbolize Christ


Evergreens came to symbolize the Christ Child to Christians, who also died and rose again giving mankind eternal life shown in ever-green (ever-living) trees.

With the passage of time, trees and tree-decorating were brought indoors.

 

The Origin of the Candle-Lit Tree

 

One 1536 legend tells of the inspiration of thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of forest trees that encouraged candle-lit Christmas trees. Martin Luther, the German religious reformer, first brought a fir tree indoors, lighting it with candles as a reminder to his children (congregation) of the starry heavens from whence their Savior came.

 

Albert’s Tree Inspires a Lasting Christmas Tradition


In 1848, popular interest in the young Queen, and her family, generated The Illustrated London News to print the “Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle” illustration by J.L. Williams.

By 1860, there was scarcely a well-off family in England that did not follow with a Christmas tree in the parlour or hall. And, December parties held for pauper children, were all centered around gift-laden Christmas trees.

The tradition spread throughout Great Britain, and traveled the world and time to become one of Christmas’s most-cherished, celebration customs.

In letter of 1865, Queen Victoria wrote:


“I rejoiced to think that the Prince and myself are the cause of Christmas trees being so generally adopted in this country.”


More 12 Days of Christmas Past

Click here to view Day 2 of Victorian Christmas Past, (The Yule Log) From ancient 12-day log burnings to the Bûche de Noël—or yule log cake.



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