How Britain’s celebrate Christmas today is largely a product of the Victorian era. It was in the nineteenth century that we began to indulge in mince pies, trees, cards, crackers and turkeys. And during this time the ultimate trend setters were the royal family, many of who had grown up in Germany (or to be more exact the states that would eventually become Germany).
Let’s take as an example the Christmas tree and the person who introduced it to Britain. Alison Barnes recounts in an article for History Today how Queen Charlotte III was the Northern German born wife of King George III launched this trend in 1800:
That year Queen Charlotte planned to hold a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor. And casting about in her mind for a special treat to give the youngsters, she suddenly decided that instead of the customary yew bough, she would pot up an entire yew tree, cover it with baubles and fruit, load it with presents and stand it in the middle of the drawing-room floor at Queen’s Lodge. Such a tree, she considered, would make an enchanting spectacle for the little ones to gaze upon. It certainly did. When the children arrived at the house on the evening of Christmas Day and beheld that magical tree, all aglitter with tinsel and glass, they believed themselves transported straight to fairyland and their happiness knew no bounds.
Christmas trees now became all the rage in English upper-class circles, where they formed the focal point at countless children’s gatherings. As in Germany, any handy evergreen tree might be uprooted for the purpose; yews, box trees, pines or firs. But they were invariably candle-lit, adorned with trinkets and surrounded by piles of presents. Trees placed on table tops usually also had either a Noah’s Ark or a model farm and numerous gaily-painted wooden animals set out among the presents beneath the branches to add extra allurement to the scene. From family archives we learn, for example, that in December 1802, George, 2nd Lord Kenyon, was buying ‘candles for the tree’ that he placed in his drawing room at No. 35 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. That in 1804 Frederick, fifth Earl of Bristol, had ‘a Christmas tree’ for his children at Ickworth Lodge, Suffolk. And that in 1807 William Cavendish-Bentinck, Duke of Portland, the then prime minister, set up a Christmas tree at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, ‘for a juvenile party’.
By the time Queen Charlotte died in 1818, the Christmas-tree tradition was firmly established in society, and it continued to flourish throughout the 1820s and 30s. The fullest description of these early English Yuletide trees is to be found in the diary of Charles Greville, the witty, cultured Clerk of the Privy Council, who in 1829 spent his Christmas holidays at Panshanger, Hertfordshire, home to Peter, 5th Earl Cowper, and his wife Lady Emily.
When in December, 1840, Prince Albert imported several spruce firs from his native Coburg, they were no novelty to the aristocracy, therefore. But it was not until periodicals such as the Illustrated London News, Cassell’s Magazine and The Graphic began to depict and minutely to describe the royal Christmas trees every year from 1845 until the late 1850s, that the custom of setting up such trees in their own homes caught on with the masses in England.
By 1860, however, there was scarcely a well-off family in the land that did not sport a Christmas tree in parlour or hall. And all the December parties held for pauper children at this date featured gift-laden Christmas trees as their main attraction. The spruce fir was now generally accepted as the festive tree par excellence, but the branches of these firs were no longer cut into artificial tiers or layers as in Germany, but were allowed to remain intact, with candles and ornaments arranged randomly over them, as at the present day.