Custom survived: The Christmas Tree

Standard

“Children knew nothing about Santa Claus or about Christmas Trees – those are German innovations which should be left to Germans…instead of the German tree we had the old fashioned English Mistletoe Bough.”

1890 J. S Fletcher A picturesque picture of Yorkshire

Well everyone can have an opinion but clearly J.S Fletcher was wrong…I am sitting composing this in the flickering light of mine, picture below, but on reflection cutting down, dragging in and setting up a tree in one’s house is such an odd tradition – but it is one that 8 million do each year. Indeed, in an odd way, the Christmas Tree is the most religiously neutral of Christmas paraphernalia…and for over a hundred years people have been putting up with the smell of pine and pine needles embedding in the feet, carpet, cracks of the floorboards (delete as appropriate)…the mistletoe bough was relatively simple..

Branching out from Germany

The origin of the Christmas Tree is often attributed to Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort. However, although he may have popularised it he did not introduce it. Its origins did not come as J. S. Fletcher noted came from Germany but from the Medieval region which is now Estonia and Latvia. It really only just gained popularity in Germany when George III’s wife Charlotte introduced a tree at a children’s party in 1800 it what is believed to be the first one. In a way it would be one of the most notable examples of a transcribed custom becoming a native and now surviving custom. Charles Grenville grandson of a duke was staying at Panshanger in Hertfordshire when the wide of the Russian Ambassador Princess Lieven had in 1829:

“got up a little fete such as is customary all over Germany. Three large trees in large pots were put unto 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 a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various articles  – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was only for the children, in Germany it extends to persons of all ages.”

Incredibly little has changed since except now the trees tend to be dead rather than living in pots and much larger one would assume. It was evidently popular in the Royal family as Victoria recalls in her journal for 1832 at Christmas Eve that 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. All the presents being placed round the trees.”

By the 1840s, the custom had spread to the wealthy middle-class families  followed the fashion. An 1842 newspaper advert for the Times recalls:

“GERMAN CHRISTMAS TREES. The nobility and gentry are respectfully informed that these handsome JUVENILE CHRISTMAS PRESENTS are supplied and elegantly fitted up.”

The 1844 The Christmas Tree: published by Darton and Clark also recorded:

“The ceremony of the Christmas tree, so well known throughout Germany, bids fair to be welcomed among us, with the other festivities of the season, especially now the Queen, within her own little circle, has set the fashion, by introducing it on the Christmas Eve in her own regal palace.”

Cant see the wood from the tree

Setting up a Christmas Tree is a bit of an adventure. Once you’d been around measuring up and looking at examples. And despite the fact they all are basically the same, you still go to several suppliers. Its then packaged up and the first challenge is to get it in the car, all the seats down and its head sticking out of the front passenger window!  Next challenge getting it into the house and manipulated into the drawing room. I managed to get the tree in through the door, after sawing off the base of course to supposedly keep it fresher for longer – it didn’t seem to work. Then it was a case of then inserting the mighty log in the base….now that was a  real challenge as it swayed back and fro. Was it in. Yes. No. Let’s see…oh its fallen…another go and yes finally. Next open it up. Snip snip snip…pong the branches spring out pushing me backwards but fortunately the windows survive.

The undressed tree

Then comes dressing the tree. The first dressings were wax candles – slightly impractical as much as I like to keep to tradition – electric lights are more sensible The first Georgian trees were dressed  with “roses made of coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, sweetmeats”. I had a choice of baubles, ornaments, candy canes and my least favourite tinsel and after about what seemed an hour it was dressed…last state the star. I got the ladder but as I got closer I realised a problem. The ladder was tall enough but I could not safely reach the top..so no star!

Firm roots for a custom

By the mid 1840s, adverts were regularly appearing in the Newspapers such as in The Times, 23 December 1844 called it “A new pleasure for Christmas.” By 1847 Prince Albert wrote:

“I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest 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.”

The tradition slowly spread through the aristocracy for example a letter to William Fox Talbot on the 2nd of January from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire recorded:

“Constance is extremely busy preparing the Bohemian  Xmas Tree. It is made from Caroline’s description of those she saw in Germany.”

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The dressed tree

By January 1848,  the custom was well-enough known for The Times to compare the January budget of 1848 with gifts handed out beneath “the Christmas tree”: From this point onwards it appears that the tree spread from the wealthy families to all families and by 1906  The Poor Children’s Yuletide Association. According to the Times had

“sent 71 trees ‘bearing thousands of toys’ to the poorest districts of London.”

And by 1926 it was stated that:

“’Poor families in Lewisham and similar districts are just as particular about the shape of their trees as people in Belgravia…’ ‘Shapely Christmas Trees.”

However, it looked like this establishing custom would be cut down before it fully grew its roots. Again the Times wishing its readers  “A Merry Christmas”: The Times in, 27 December 1918, stated:

“the so-called “Christmas tree” was out of favour. Large stocks of young firs were to be seen at Covent Garden on Christmas Eve, but found few buyers. It was remembered that the ‘Christmas tree’ has enemy associations.”

But fortunately this association was soon forgotten for in 1919 again the Times noted that a charity fair in aid of injured soldiers featured ‘a huge Christmas-tree’ at St. Dunstan’s Christmas Fair. By 1937 British farmers had started to invest money in Christmas Tree Plantations and it has not looked back since. Indeed despite another conflict with Germany the tree did not wain in popularity presumably because its Germanic associations had been largely forgotten. Indeed, in 1947 as the Norwegians remind us it is Norse – not German tradition – a fact they annually remind us every Christmas in Trafalgar square. The 20 metre high towering Norway Spruce which adorns Trafalgar Square has been an annual thanksgiving gift from the Norwegian government as it states each year:

“This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.A tree has been given annually since 1947.”

And after all as we annually gather around our Christmas Tree the message that Norway gives every year is more than reticent…peace to all at Christmas.

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