Queen Charlotte’s Christmas Tree ~ O Tannenbaum
It is universally agreed that having a decorated tree inside the house as a focal point of the Christmas season became a standard in the western world thanks to Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. Indeed, the Prince — who hailed from Schloss Rosenau near Coburg in Germany — encouraged the import of his homeland’s Yuletide traditions… and due to the immense adoration of the royal couple among the metropolitan aristocracy of Victorian England, the Christmas tree was happily embraced by the masses. The mistake is in assuming he was the first to erect a Christmas tree in England.
The Christmas Tree tradition rightfully is credited to the Georgian Era Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.
On September 8 in 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 fifteen children, and while filled with a myriad of noteworthy challenges and tragedies, was a marriage of deep love and happiness. From the beginning of her life in England, the young queen introduced many of the traditions from her motherland, particularly the host of unique customs related to the joyous Christmas season.
For some two-hundred years in Germany, winter evergreens in the form of boughs, wreaths, and even whole trees had been brought into homes where they were decorated with ribbons, colorful baubles, and tiny lit candles. This concept dates to 1536 when, so the story goes, religious reformer Martin Luther was captivated by the stars glittering like jewels through the branches of snow-blanketed trees in the pine forest near his home in Wittenberg. Luther initiated the practice of hewn trees decorated and lit at Christmas, hoping this would remind his children of the heavens and their Savior God. By 1600, decorated Christmas boughs and trees were popular all over Germany.
In December of 1798, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited Mecklenburg-Strelitz and wrote the following account to his wife:
“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 fixed in the bough … and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out 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; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces.”
As evidenced by the quote above, in Mecklenburg-Strelitz where Queen Charlotte was born, the tradition was to decorate a large yew bough as opposed to an entire cut tree. For several years after relocating to England, the new queen and mother carried on the custom with big yew boughs placed in prominent rooms at Kew Palace and Windsor Castle, decorating them herself with the aid of her ladies-in-waiting. The family would light the wax tapers and gather round to sing carols and give gifts.
The unusual activity caused a stir amongst the nobility, but was nothing compared to the sensation created when Queen Charlotte ordered the placement of an entire yew tree at Queen’s Lodge at Windsor in December, 1800.
The occasion was a massive Christmas party for all the children of principal families in Windsor, and to include the poorest families. As a treat, literally, Queen Charlotte had the enormous tree decorated with fruit and sweets to be plucked and eaten. These nestled alongside small presents and traditional decorations of glass and crystal.
Dr. John Watkins, one of Queen Charlotte’s biographers, was in attendance. He 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.”
Christmas Trees instantly became the rage in upper-class circles. Perhaps not to the sweeping degree as would happen with Queen Victoria’s influence, but there are dozens of documented references from the early decades of the 1800s to yew, pine, and fir trees adorned and lit for Christmas. Always they were a focal point and surrounded by colorfully wrapped presents. 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 1830s.
In 1829, Charles Greville, the Clerk of the Privy Council, spent the Christmas holiday in Hertfordshire with Lord and Lady Cowper. In his diary he noted very little about his stay, which must have been replete with activities and gossip considering the luminaries who were his fellow house guests. He does, however, write a detailed account of the exquisite little spruce firs that Princess Lieven set up on Christmas Day to amuse the Cowpers’ youngest children William, Charles and Frances.
“Three trees in great pots were put upon a long table covered with pink linen; each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles – blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various other articles – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was very pretty.”
Forty years later, Prince Albert was merely following in the footsteps of his Georgian predecessor. He imported several spruce firs from his native Coburg in 1840, but this wasn’t a novelty to the aristocracy. What changed was the attention from newspapers over the following decade. Periodicals covered the royal Christmas trees every year, thoroughly in the minutest description, until everyone in England knew of the custom and delightfully added a decorated tree to their holiday celebration.
Tannenbaum is a German word which literally translates as “fir tree” and by itself has nothing to do with a Christmas tree. The German song O Tannenbaum is based on a 16th century Silesian folk song by Melchoir Franck, which was an homage to the fir tree. In 1819, August Zarnack added to the lyrics, creating a song about a tragic, faithless lover.
The version most familiar as the Christmas carol came from Ernst Anschütz in 1824, although he wasn’t referring to a Christmas tree either! However, his lyrics emphasize the noble, consistently evergreen quality of the fir tree, particularly as a hope and light during the dark cold of winter. Because of these lyrics and the increasing popularity of evergreen trees for Christmas, O Tannenbaum quickly became associated with the holiday season, even to the point of English versions sung as O Christmas Tree.
The Celtic Women from 2013, singing O Tannenbaum with both German and English portions. Beautiful!