Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The German Christmas Tree

Introduction of the German Christmas tree to the English court is generally attributed to Queen Victoria. But it was around from at least the early 1700s. In a footnote on p.75 of The Loseley Manuscripts, the editor wrote:

We remember a German of the household of the late Queen Caroline, making what he termed a Christmas tree for the juvenile party at that festive season. The tree was a branch of some evergreen fastened on a board. Its boughs bent under the weight of gilt oranges, almonds, &c. and under it was a neat model of a farmhouse, surrounded by figures of animals, &c. and all due accompaniments. The forming Christmas trees is, we believe, a common custom in Germany: evidently a remain of the pageants constructed at that season in ancient days.

Note: The Queen Caroline referred to here is likely Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II and queen from 1727-1737. Caroline of Brunswick was married to the Prince of Wales in 1795 (George IV) and was queen from January 1820 until her death in August, 1821. However, she was estranged from her husband and lived abroad from 1814 until she died.

Charlotte Papendiek, assistant wardrobe keeper and reader to Queen Charlotte (George III) observed in her 1789 journal:

This Christmas Mr. Papendiek proposed an illuminated tree, according to the German Fashion, but...I objected to it. Our eldest daughter, Charlotte, being only six the 30th of this November, I thought our children too young to be amused at so much expense and trouble. Mr. Papendiek was vexed--yet I do hope and trust the children were made happy.

In his Memoirs of Her Most Excellent Majesty, Sophia-Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain, John Watkins observed that at the beginning of October,1800:

...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 place 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 around 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.

Amelia Murray wrote in her recollections of her mother, Lady Anne Murray (lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, and later, Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria):

Christmas-trees are now common. In the early part of this century they were seldom seen, but Queen Charlotte always had one dressed up in the room of Madame Berkendorff 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.

Georgina Townsend, housekeeper at Windsor Castle for 35 years (she died in 1835 at the age of 75) wrote that Queen Charlotte:

The Queen entertained the children here, Christmas Evening, in German fashion, A fir tree, about as high as any of us, lighted all over with small tapers, several little wax dolls among the branches in different places, and strings of walnuts 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 by the Queen and Princesses, the candles on the tree were put out, and the children set to work to help themselves.

Years before she married her beloved Prince Albert, 13-year old Princess Victoria wrote in her diary on Christmas Eve, 1832:

After dinner we went upstairs. I then saw Flora, the dog which Sir John was going to give Mamma. Aunt Sophia came also. We then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room. After Mamma had rung a bell three times we went in. There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the tree. I had one table for myself and the Conroy family had the other.

The Loseley Manuscripts, edited by Alfred John Kempe; 1836: footnote p. 75

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