The Surprising Royal History Behind the Christmas Tree
If you love decorating and admiring Christmas trees, you have the British royal family to thank
If you love decorating and admiring Christmas trees, you have the British royal family to thank.
The Christmas tree, a popular German tradition by the early 1800s, was popularized in the United Kingdom in the 1840s after Queen Victoria‘s German-born husband, Prince Albert, famously brought in evergreen trees into the royal palaces and decorated them with ornaments and candles.
The history-making moment for the Christmas tree was in 1848 when The Illustrated London News published a drawing of Albert, Victoria and their young children gathered around a decorated tree in Windsor Castle. The widely-published drawing meant that the Christmas tree had arrived as a British tradition, and sparked many of Victoria’s subjects to seek out evergreens for their own homes.
The royal family’s use of the Christmas tree even helped spread it across the pond to the United States, where the tree – which had originally been only really used by German immigrants – became a mainstream tradition after Godey’s Lady’s Book copied the image in 1850.
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However, while Albert is often credited with popularizing the tree, he wasn’t the first royal to bring the German tradition to England. Victoria – who was herself of German origin on both her father’s side (through the Hanoverians) and her German-born mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld – was familiar with Christmas trees before Albert made them a family tradition. The then-13-year-old princess wrote about admiring decorated trees on Christmas Eve with her family back in 1832. Before that, George III’s German-born wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had brought decorated evergreens into the royal palaces, but the tradition did not spread beyond the royal family.
While the Christmas tree is a relatively new tradition in the U.K., the concept of decorating homes with greenery like holly and ivy had been taking place since pre-Christian times. The tree’s rising popularity edged out another long-standing Christmas tradition – the Yule log, which is traditionally a giant log that was brought inside the home, decorated and burned for the 12 days of Christmas. (Interestingly enough, the Yule log itself is thought to originate from pre-Christian Germany.) After being replaced by the Christmas tree, the Yule log was eventually transformed into a cake to be enjoyed after Christmas dinner.
Nowadays, decorating a tree for Christmas is an expected part of the holiday season. The royal family traditionally gathers around a decorated tree on Christmas Eve during their annual celebration at Queen Elizabeth II‘s Sandringham Estate. Their other palaces are often decorated with various Christmas trees and they even sell royal-themed ornaments in their gift shops.