“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.”
– Opening lines to Ernst Anschütz’s 1824 version of the German song ‘O Tannenbaum’ (O Christmas Tree, or ‘O Fir Tree’), variations of which go back to at least the 16th century.
Prince Albert, the consort to Queen Victoria, is often credited with introducing the Christmas tree to Britain. During Queen Victoria’s reign, the royal family had consciously decided to create a guiding example of morality and a strong family unit, commissioning works of art to give the public a glimpse behind the palace gates and discover more about their lives. One of these artworks, an engraving published in 1848 depicting the Queen, the Prince, and their children personally decorating a tree, captured the public’s imagination. Over time, the act of decorating a tree in the days leading to Christmas was to become a central part of family celebrations.
Engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children at Windsor Castle. The royal family can be seen admiring their Christmas tree. Copyright Illustration London News Ltd/Mary Evans.
The origins of the Christmas tree in Britain, however, go further back in time, and the concept of decorating a tree to celebrate the Christian holiday is said to have been introduced to Britain by Queen Charlotte, the German wife of King George III.
In 1761, The Queen had arrived in England from Mecklenburg-Strelitz as a young Princess to marry the newly succeeded King, bringing with her the customs of her home. In December 1800, she had a tree put up in the Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, as part of a children’s Christmas party.
There is no documentary evidence that she decorated a tree before this date, however it was recorded that for this party her tree was lit with candles and decorated with fruit and sweetmeats. Toys adorned its branches and each child was given ‘a portion of the sweets [the tree] bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted.’ [source]
Despite the Queen promoting this now popular pastime, it predates her reign by hundreds of years. It is thought that St Boniface, an English Benedictine monk, who made it his life’s mission to convert the Germanic peoples to Christianity, introduced evergreens to them in the 8th century, dedicating the fir tree to the Christ Child, and thereby replacing their pagan oak tree of Odin [source].
Centuries later in 1536, Martin Luther, the religious reformer, reputedly erected a candle-lit fir tree in his home in Germany after witnessing a starry night through the branches of trees in a pine forest near his home. He hoped it would remind his children of the heavens where Christ had come from.
One hundred years on, inhabitants of southern Germany had begun to introduce fir trees to their homes, decorating them with colourful paper, sweets and other ornaments. [source]
This custom had reached a few upper middle class homes in Britain by the 1830s. In a letter held by National Records of Scotland (NRS), written on 25th December 1838, Augusta Mackenzie wrote to her sister Mary Stewart Mackenzie to describe a novelty that was on display at a party; a ‘German [Christmas] tree.’ It was, she said:
‘a small fir tree in a tub placed on a table the branches heavy with presents one for every person present with the name of the individual attached to it & little tapers placed all over…at the foot of [the tree] were laid other presents that were not fitted for hanging up; the room was otherwise fully lighted… & when all was ready the whole company were ushered in, so very pretty it looked & a very happy merry evening all had.’ (NRS, GD46/15/89)
Detail from the letter written by Augusta Mackenzie, 25th December 1838, GD46/15/89. Reproduced by kind permission of Mr Andrew Matheson.
NRS holds other references to Christmas trees in our archive collections. In 1892, a letterpress printed poster, (NRS, GD224/1018/19), advertised an exhibition of Christmas Trees in St. Cuthbert’s Chapel and School in Hawick. It reads: ‘Christmas trees will be covered with a large number of pretty and useful articles which will be drawn off the Trees and handed to purchasers of the higher priced tickets on Saturday evening.’
In this fun illustration, a decorated tree can also be seen illuminating the room for a cats’ Christmas dance in 1890.
A Cats’ Christmas Dance, 1890. National Records of Scotland, RHP142876
Today, trees, whether real or artificial, are still a central part of celebrating Christmas for many people.
We hope you enjoy decorating yours and wish you a wonderful festive period!