Thursday, December 7, 2017

Queen Charlotte's Christmas Tree

by Catherine Curzon

As a historian of Georgian royalty, I have to get that family from Hanover into all of my holiday celebrations. Of course, mad kings and mistresses aren’t always appropriate for Christmas but trees certainly are.

Most people believe that we have Prince Albert and Queen Victoria to thank for the tradition of Christmas trees in England, but that isn’t actually the case. In fact, for that particular tradition we should look back into the Georgian era, and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. On 8th September 1761, George III married the 17-year-old Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace. Their marriage was long, produced 15 children, and was filled with challenges, but when George was well, the couple were happy.

Charlotte put up the first known English tree at her home at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800. It was a tradition that she brought with her from her home in Germany, where trees were a popular bit of festive decor. Legend has it that they were popularised by Martin Luther in 1536 who was strolling in a pine forest in Wittenberg one night when he glanced up through the canopy at the stars twinkling above him. Inspired, he hurried home and brought a fir red into his house, which he lit with candles. Luther hoped that this would remind his children of the heavens and, by extension, God.

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
by Nathiel Dance-Holland
Throughout the 17th century, trees of various types that were illuminated by candlelight became popular across Southern Germany whilst in Charlotte’s homeland of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a single, mighty yew branch being decorated rather than a whole tree. Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited the country in 1799 and wrote of the traditions there. Among them, he noted, was the Yew branch.

"There is a Christmas custom here which pleased and interested me. The children make little presents to their parents, and to each other; and the parents to the children. For three or four months before Christmas the girls are all busy; and the boys save up their pocket money, to make or purchase these presents. What the present is to be is cautiously kept secret, and the girls have a world of contrivances to conceal it -- such as working when they are out on visits, and the others are not with them; getting up in the morning before daylight; and the like. then, 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 fastened in the bough, but so as not to catch it till they are nearly burnt out, and coloured paper hangs and flutters from the twings. Under this bough, the children lay out in great order 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, and then bring out the rest one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces.

An ancient yew
Where I witnessed this scene there were eight or nine children, and the eldest daughter and the mother wept aloud for joy and tenderness; and the tears ran down the face of the father, and he clasped all his children so tight to his breast, it seemed as if he did it to stifle the sob that was rising within him. I was very much affected.

The shadow of the bough and its appendages on the wall, and arching over on the ceiling, made a pretty picture, and then the raptures of the very little ones, when at last the twings and their needles began to take fire and snap! -- Oh, it was a delight for them! On the next day, in the great parlour, the parents lay out on the table the presents for the children; a scene of more sober joy success, as on this day, after an old custom, the mother says privately to each of her daughters, and the father to his sons, that which he has observed most praiseworthy, and that which was most faulty in their conduct.

Formerly, and still in all the smaller towns and villages throughout North Germany, these presents were sent by all the parents to some one fellow, who in high buskins, a white robe, a mask, and an enormous flax wig, personate Knecht Rupert, the servant Rupert. On Christmas night he goes round to every house, and says that Jesus christ his master sent him thither, the parents and elder children receive him with great pomp of reverence, while the little ones are most terribly frightened.

Coleridge by Washington Allston
He then inquires for the children, and, according to the character which he hears from the parent, he gives them the intended presents, as if they came out of heaven from Jesus Christ. Or, if they should have been bad children, he gives the parents a rod, and in the name of his master recommends them to use it frequently. About seven or eight years old the children are let into the secret, and it is curious to observe how faithfully they keep it."

Charlotte was devoted to her homeland and when she came to England as a bride, she brought many traditions with her. Among them was the traditional Christmas yew branch. Yet as a queen, even a private one, Charlotte didn’t content herself to a quiet corner of the castle. Instead, she used it as a way to bring the royal household, from family to friends to courtiers, together.

She and her ladies-in-waiting positioned and decorated the bough in the centre of the Queen’s House’s largest room. As evening fell and the tapers were lit, the court assembled around the yew and sang carols. Then, by the light of the tree, they exchanged opulent gifts to celebrate Christmas.

This was the first, but not the last notable Christmas foliage of the Georgian era.

In 1800, Queen Charlotte was planning a Christmas Day party for the children of the most important and wealthy families in Windsor - I should say that the poor weren't forgotten either, and the 60 poorest families were given an enormous Christmas lunch too. This time, however, there would be no yew bow, but a whole tree. From it were hung the traditional decorations as well as small gifts for the children from the royal family. The children were enchanted by the sight before them, for they had never seen anything like it before. It glittered with glass and crystal and the scent of fruit and spice filled the drawing room, capturing the heart and imagination of all who saw it.

Windsor Castle
Dr John Watkins, one of the adults present, wrote:
"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."
Thanks to the queen, the fashionable world raced to put up their Christmas trees and no one who fancied themselves anyone went without. Across high society trees were soon glittering in the most opulent drawing rooms in Britain.

So, when the adoring Prince Albert first put up his tree, he really was following in the footsteps of the glorious Georgians. Far from being first to the show, he was actually one of the last!


References

"Yew Tree - 'Taxus baccata'" Grow Wild. https://www.growwilduk.com/blog/2015/12/15/yew-tree-taxus-baccata
Anonymous. The Magazine Antiques, Volume 108. Straight Enterprises, 1975.
Anonymous. Country Life, Volume 186. Country Life, 1992.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Craig, William Marshall. Memoir of Her Majesty Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz, Queen of Great Britain. Henry Fisher, 1818.
Curzon, Catherine. Queens of Great Britain. Pen & Sword, 2017.
Delves Broughton, Vernon (ed.). Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte. Richard Bentley, 1887.
Fitzgerald, Percy. The Good Queen Charlotte. Downey & Co, 1899.
Hadlow, Janice. The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians. William Collins, 2014.
Desmond, Ray. Kew. Random House, 1998.
Foley, Daniel. The Christmas Tree. Chilton, 1960.
Groom, Suzanne & Prosser, Lee. Kew Palace. Merrell, 2006.
Harrison, Michael. The Story of Christmas. Odhams Press, 1951.
Hedley, Owen. Queen Charlotte. J Murray, 1975.
Holt, Edward. The Public and Domestic Life of George the Third, Volume I. Sherwood, Neely and Jones, 1820
Nash, Joseph. The Mansions of England in the Olden Time. TM Lean, 1869.
Pimlott, John & Pimlott, Ben. The Englishman's Christmas. Harvester Press, 1978.
Sfetcu, Nicolae. About Christmas. Sfetcu, 2014.

All images from Wikipedia.
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Catherine Curzon is a royal historian. She is the author of Life in the Georgian Court, Kings of Georgian Britain, and Queens of Georgian Britain. She has written extensively for publications including HistoryExtra.com, the official website of BBC History Magazine, Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and Jane Austen’s Regency World. Catherine has spoken at venues and events including the Stamford Georgian Festival, the Jane Austen Festival, Lichfield Guildhall, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and Dr Johnson’s House. In addition, she has appeared with An Evening with Jane Austen at Kenwood House, Godmersham Park, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, the Jane Austen Festival, Bath, and the Stamford Georgian Festival.

Her novels, The Crown Spire, The Star of Versailles, and The Mistress of Blackstairs, are available now.

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Connect with Catherine through her website (http://madamegilflurt.com), Facebook, Twitter (@MadameGilflurt), Google Plus, Pinterest, and Instagram.

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