The history of the royal Christmas tree: How Queen Victoria helped popularize the holiday tradition

By Barry Byrne

The history of the royal Christmas tree: How Queen Victoria helped popularize the holiday tradition


It’s the universal symbol of Christmas and a beloved tradition often attributed to Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, who was originally from Germany. But the magic of the English Christmas tree actually dates back further than that – to George III’s German-born wife Queen Charlotte (1744-1818).

Though the Christmas tree has pagan origins, religious reformer Martin Luther is said to have started the tradition of bringing a tree into the family home in the early 1500s. It's a tradition that German-born Charlotte, pictured, is is credited with starting in the Royal Family. Photo: ©

Charlotte took the ancient practice of hanging a “kissing bough” (made of holly and mistletoe and adorned with fruit, ribbons and candles) and giving it a German twist by adding yew. One Christmas, in 1800, when the queen was preparing to host a party for children at Windsor, she found herself without yew branches and improvised by putting a whole tree in a pot.

A partygoer would later describe the novelty thus: “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 [wrapped] in papers, fruits, and toys, mostly tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles.

An illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children helped popularize the Christmas tree across the United Kingdom when it was published in 1848. Photo: © Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

“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.”

The Royal Family continued with the tradition throughout Regency times. Princess Victoria, then 13, wrote in her diary on Dec. 24, 1832: “We went into the drawing room near the dining room. After Mamma had rung a bell three times, we went in. There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the tree.”

BRANCHING OUT

The Christmas-tree craze didn’t sweep the nation, however, until the Illustrated London News printed an engraving of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children gathered around their tree – an eight-foot fir festooned with decorations – at Windsor Castle in 1848. In the German tradition, the family opened their gifts on Christmas Eve.

“The seven children were taken to their tree, jumping and shouting with joy over their toys and other presents,” Victoria wrote during 1850. She popularized two other enduring English customs, too: feasting on roast turkey, and hiding coins in the Christmas pudding.

The Queen and Prince Philip decorated their Christmas tree during the 1969 BBC documentary about the Royal Family. Photo: © Fox Photos/Getty Images

One idea that didn’t catch on was placing the tree in an unusual location. In 1860, a visitor to Windsor described how the rooms “were lighted up with Christmas trees hung from the ceiling,” perhaps echoing the more ancient tradition of hanging festive boughs.

In 2011, though, the Royal Collection recreated a Victorian Christmas at Windsor Castle by suspending a tree from the ceiling in the Octagon Dining Room, where the chandelier is usually hung.

Nowadays, the Christmas tree still plays a very important part in the Royal Family’s festive rituals. One of the Queen’s most important Christmas traditions is to donate trees to all of the churches and schools in the Sandringham area. The trees are grown in Windsor Great Park, managed by her Crown Estate.

A Christmas tree donated by the Queen to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, 1950. Photo: © Fox Photos/Getty Images

Her Majesty also gifts beautiful trees to some of Britain’s most historic buildings, including St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

DID YOU KNOW?

Canadian Christmas trees predate English ones thanks to Baroness Riedesel, who hosted British and German officers in Sorel, Que. on Christmas Eve 1781. Her husband had led a unit of German soldiers sent to defend Canada in the Revolutionary War, but they were captured and imprisoned in New York state from 1777-80. The tree was a tribute to their native land.

This piece has been adapted from A Very Royal Christmas, HELLO! Canada's special Christmas issue, which is available on newsstands for $9.99! It’s perfect for everyone on your list. If you order online and want idelivered by Christmas... make sure you get your info in by Dec. 8!

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