Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, almost single-handedly brought the tradition of the Christmas tree to the British Isles, and, from there, it spread to the rest of the English-speaking world, as just one of his many innovations that he introduced after his marriage to the British queen.
Prior to that time, the Christmas tree had been known only in the Germanic world for the most part.
Historians believe the practice of decorating a tree may date back to the earliest Christian times in that country, when the English missionary St. Boniface chopped down a tree that was sacred to pagans to show that the world in fact did not end as they had believed it would. This was after it was felled.
Religious scholars also think the tree was seen as a symbol that there would always be new growth in the spring, just as Christ was resurrected after His death.
Worshipping trees common in pagan times in Europe
Worshipping trees had long been common among the pagan Europeans. This survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens for New Year’s Day to scare away the devil and setting up a tree for the birds during Christmas time.
During the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, houses were decorated with wreaths of evergreen plants along with other customs that are now associated with Christmas.
The story of Saint Boniface cutting down Donar’s Oak illustrates the pagan practices that were still common as late as the 8th century among the Germans. A later folk version of the story adds the detail that an evergreen tree grew in place of the felled oak, telling them about how its triangular shape reminds humanity of the Trinity, and how it points toward heaven.
However it may have happened, Germans for many centuries adorned evergreen trees in the middle of the winter and brought them into their homes, perhaps as a way to not only revere their beauty but to keep their vibrant greenery around them in the midst of this brutally cold season.
Prince Albert made entire room at Windsor Palace into Christmas wonderland
Prince Albert, who grew up in Coburg, Germany, was a brilliant thinker in his own right. He not only created the Crystal Palace exposition space as a prototype of the World’s Fair. He also was one of the first backers of the railway system in England, which revolutionized transportation and was an ardent supporter of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
Thinking outside the box was always part of his nature, so it may be unsurprising that the Prince was not shy about insisting that his favorite part of the Christmas celebration—the German Christmas tree—become an established part of the annual festivities at the palace after his marriage to Queen Victoria.
As soon as they were married, Prince Albert instituted the annual tradition of having Christmas trees, just as he had done in his childhood in Germany, when the decorating of trees had once given so much happiness to him and his brother Ernst. In 1847 he wrote: “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernst and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas trees is not less than ours used to be.”
Going all out, Prince Albert took over an entire room in Windsor Palace with Christmas trees with one suspended from the ceiling in the center of the room and smaller trees on tables surrounding it, one for each member of the family.
Like those in the German-speaking part of the world, their trees were traditionally decorated with roses made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, and special decorations made of pressed sugar. Like the Moravian Christians, who were the first to illuminate their Christmas trees with candles, Albert and Victoria also lit their Christmas trees with the warm lights that flickered and gave off a cozy glow to the entire room at that darkest time of year.
Christmas trees in recorded history
A Bremen, Germany guild chronicle of 1570 is the first time that the tradition of the Christmas tree was attested to in print. The chronicle notes that a small tree decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels, and paper flowers” was erected in the Guild House for the benefit of the guild members’ children, who collected the delicacies on Christmas Day.
In 1584, the pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow, in his “Chronica der Provinz Lyfflandt,” wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce in market squares, where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame.”
After the Protestant Reformation, such trees—never, fortunately, set on fire—were seen in the houses of upper-class Protestant families as a counterpart to the Catholic Christmas creche tradition, which was started by St. Francis of Assisi. This transition from the guild hall to bourgeois family homes in the Protestant areas of Germany ultimately led to the modern tradition as it developed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although the tradition of decorating churches and homes with evergreens at Christmas was already long established, it was the German-born Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III, who was the first to have a Christmas tree in England at a party she gave for children in 1800.
The custom did not at first spread much beyond the royal family, but Queen Victoria had a tree in her room every Christmas growing up, so she was happy to adopt her beloved husband’s custom wholeheartedly after their marriage.
In her journal entry for Christmas Eve in 1832, the delighted thirteen-year-old princess had written: “After dinner…we then went into the drawing room near the dining room…There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees, hung with lights and sugar ornaments.”
Just a year after the royal marriage in 1840, the tradition of having Christmas trees had already became widespread, as wealthier middle-class families followed court fashion. In 1842, a newspaper advertisement for Christmas trees shows not only their smart cachet and German origins but their association with children and gift-giving as well.
An illustrated book, The Christmas Tree, describing their use and origins in detail, was published in December of 1844. A further boost to the trend was given in 1848 when The Illustrated London News in a report that was picked up by other papers described the trees in Windsor Castle in detail and showed the main tree, surrounded by the royal family, on its cover.
In fewer than ten years, their use in wealthier homes in Great Britain was widespread.
North American tradition predated Prince Albert’s Christmas trees
The custom of decorating Christmas trees had been introduced to North America in the winter of 1781 by Hessian soldiers stationed in the Province of Québec to garrison the colony against American attack. General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, the Baroness von Riedesel, held a Christmas party for officers at Sorel, Quebec, delighting their guests with a fir tree that was decorated with candles and fruits.
The Christmas tree became known in the United States of America in the early nineteenth century, with the first image of a Christmas tree published in 1836 as the frontispiece to the book “The Stranger’s Gift” by Hermann Bokum.
The first mention of a Christmas tree in American literature was in a story in the 1836 edition of the illustrated gift book “The Token and Atlantic Souvenir,” titled “New Year’s Day”, by Catherine Maria Sedgwick, in which she told the story of a German maid decorating her mistress’ tree.
Engraving of royal family’s Christmas tree becomes iconic image
But it was the cachet of the British royal family that secured the Christmas tree’s place forever in the hearts of Americans. The engraving of the family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle which had been initially published in The Illustrated London News in 1848 was copied in the United States at Christmastime 1850 in the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Immediately, the Christmas tree became an essential part of the celebration of the holiday in North America. Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, “In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850–60 than Godey’s Lady’s Book.”
Still, the connection to Germany led several US cities where there were many German immigrants to claim the title of having the first Christmas tree in the country. Windsor Locks, Connecticut maintains that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree during the Revolutionary War in 1777 while he was imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House.
The title of having the first Christmas tree in the U.S. is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers were said to have erected a Christmas tree in 1816. In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania recorded having a Christmas tree in 1821, leading Lancaster to also lay claim as the home of the first Christmas tree in the US.
The giving of Christmas trees from one city to another
The beautiful tradition of donating Christmas trees from one city to another has also often been associated with expressing gratitude for assistance given in dire emergencies.
London’s Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is donated every year by the city of Oslo, Norway as a token of appreciation for British support of the Norwegian resistance during the Second World War.
In Boston, the city’s Christmas tree is a gift from the province of Nova Scotia every year in thanks for the donation of a train’s worth of desperately-needed supplies and rescuers after the 1917 ammunition ship explosion that leveled the port of Halifax.
In the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, the main Christmas tree is an annual gift from the city of Bergen, Norway in thanks for the part played by soldiers from Newcastle in liberating Bergen from Nazi occupation.
Norway also annually gifts a Christmas tree to Washington, D.C. as a symbol of friendship between the two countries and as an expression of gratitude from the Norwegian people for the help they received from the US during World War II.