Start A Petition
Group Discussions
The First Christmas Tree
4 years ago

By Alison Barnes

A Christmas tree for German soldiers in a temporary hospital in 1871
A Christmas tree for German soldiers in a temporary hospital in 1871

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, is usually credited with having introduced the Christmas tree into England in 1840. However, the honour of establishing this tradition in the United Kingdom rightfully belongs to ‘good Queen Charlotte’, the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.

Legend has it that Queen Charlotte’s compatriot, Martin Luther, the religious reformer, invented the Christmas tree. One winter’s night in 1536, so the story goes, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.

Certainly by 1605 decorated Christmas trees had made their appearance in Southern Germany. For in that year an anonymous writer recorded how at Yuletide the inhabitants of Strasburg ‘set up fir trees in the parlours ... and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.’

In other parts of Germany box trees or yews were brought indoors at Christmas instead of firs. And in the duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, where Queen Charlotte grew up, it was the custom to deck out a single yew branch.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) visited Mecklenburg-Strelitz in December, 1798, and was much struck by the yew-branch ceremony that he witnessed there, the following account of which he wrote in a letter to his wife dated April 23rd, 1799:  ‘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’.

When young Charlotte left Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761, and came over to England to marry King George, she brought with her many of the customs that she had practised as a child, including the setting up of a yew branch in the house at Christmas. But at the English Court the Queen transformed the essentially private yew-branch ritual of her homeland into a more public celebration that could be enjoyed by her family, their friends and all the members of the Royal Household.

Queen Charlotte placed her yew bough not in some poky little parlour, but in one of the largest rooms at Kew Palace or Windsor Castle. Assisted by her ladies-in-waiting, she herself dressed the bough. And when all the wax tapers had been lit, the whole Court gathered round and sang carols. The festivity ended with a distribution of gifts from the branch, which included such items as clothes, jewels, plate, toys and sweets.

These royal yew boughs caused quite a stir among the nobility, who had never seen anything like them before. But it was nothing to the sensation created in 1800, when the first real English Christmas tree appeared at court.

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.

Dr John Watkins, one of Queen Charlotte’s biographers, who attended the party, provides us with a vivid description of this captivating tree ‘from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles’. He adds that ‘after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted’.


4 years ago

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.

Greville’s fellow house guests were Princess Dorothea von Lieven, wife of the German Ambassador, Lord John Russell, Frederick Lamb, M. de la Rochefoucauld and M. de Montrond, all of whom were brilliant conversationalists. Greville makes no mention of any of the bons mots that he must have heard at every meal, however, or of the indoor games and the riding, skating and shooting that always took place at Panshanger at Christmas. No. The only things that really seem to have impressed him were 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’, he tells us, ‘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’.

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.

Whatever their type or mode of decoration, Christmas trees have always delighted both children and adults alike. But perhaps no tree ever gave greater pleasure than that first magnificent Yuletide tree set up so thoughtfully by Queen Charlotte for the enjoyment of the infants of Windsor.

4 years ago

My question to the members of PD is this, when do you put up your Christmas Tree and are there any special traditions that you and your family have regarding your tree?  What type of tree, real or artificial; living and cut?

And what type of lights do you use; are there any special ornaments?  Do you do a theme tree?

Is there anything special you and your family do while decorating the tree?

It would be interesting to see how each of you prepare your Christmas tree.  So thank you to any that will participate.

4 years ago

We always had a real tree with an assortment of decorations.  We put the tree up on Christmas Eve.   My mother prepared a huge meal back to back on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day.  We kept the tree up until January 16th.   I changed over to an artificial tree 12 years ago with white lights instead of the multi colored lights.    I've moved along with changes but held onto traditional decorations.   

4 years ago

Albert, cost us some money and mess over years, we always have a real tree, all decorations and lights on christmas eve, then take it down on the 12th night been the 6th January,  


on the stroke of midnight, I open the back door (to let the old year out) and then Linda will asked me to come in the front, this done as it must seen the first dark haired man to come through the front door carrying salt, coal and bread. This means that the following year everyone in the house will have enough to eat (bread), enough money (salt) and be warm enough (coal).

this they say, bring good luck for the next 12 months.


I am not saying it will work to get Obama out of White House, but you could try it,

4 years ago

Ray we took our tree down around the 6th of January....I wrote above the 16th ...

I'm going to follow your tradition to get Obama out of our WH....

4 years ago

lol That's a tradition I can get behind.

We'd still have a real tree if it wasn't for allergies the past few years. We used to put our German glass ornaments on the tree until, after losing a few to badly behaved cats, we just put a string of lights on the tree & a star on top.  I'm thinking of getting a small artificial tree & putting it in a room that the cats aren't allowed in then put the German ornaments on it.  The tree used to come down on Jan. 6th, but lately, with the artificial tree, we've tended to keep it up longer.   We put a glass pickle ornament on the tree.  According to German tradition, the first child to find the pickle ornament, which parents hide deep within the trees boughs, gets an extra gift from St. Nick.  Our daughter is an only child, so there was no competition.  She just had to find it.

Did anyone ever have their children put their shoes by the fireplace, front or bedroom door for St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6th so St. Nick can put small presents in them? Bad children get coal. (This is where our Christmas stockings started from.) We did that up until our daughter left home for college.  

My parents used to put up the tree when my brothers were little after they went to bed on Christmas Eve (that was before the silver one made its appearance) 

4 years ago

Growing up we always had a real tree as I did when the children were growing up; we would put it up two Sunday's before Christmas and take it down New Year's Day.  As a child we used multicolored lights and glass balls.  When I married I used mini-white lights and assorted ornaments and each year I would give each of my children a new ornament to add to their personal collection but they shared them on the tree and they would give me a Hallmark ornament from the year's collection.  I had the commemoritive ornament for It's A Wonderful Life and it had a bell that rung.  I became a real lighthouse collector and so they would get me a miniature lighthouse ornament if they could find it.  I also love Santa and Snowmen so there were all kinds of different ornaments of them.  

We always had dinner on Chrismas eve that was what we referred to as a crab feed.  We would purchase 3 or 4 dungeness crabs, cleaned and cracked (already steamed) and I would fix a nice green salad, my own cocktail sauce, and for those that didn't like the crab there were shrimp.  I usually fixed some Manhattan-style clam chowder, too.  And of course homemade rolls.  We would enjoy our crab (or shrimp) and then when dinner was done and dishes done, we would go in the living room and watch White Christmas first and then The Christmas Carol (version with Alaistar Sims which is my favorite) and have popcorn and hot chocolate and homemade cookies.  After the movie the children would put out a plate with 2 cookies and a glass of milk for Santa and head for bed.  Christmas morning they would wake and at the end of their beds were their Christmas stockings and they would get to enjoy them (nuts, individually wrapped hard candy, candy canes, new toothbrush and then when young it was a new box of crayons, coloring book, activity book, they boys would get a new tie and my daughter would get hair ribbons and barettes and other personal care things as well.  As they got older there would be mechanical pencils and lead, pens, and things they needed for school and then a razor and shaving cream for the boys and skin care items for my daughter, etc. but still the candy, candy canes and nuts and almost forgot, there were always a couple of Clementines in each stocking, too, or tangarines.

After the stockings (giving the adults time to get dressed) they would gather around the tree to have gifts from Santa.  Then it was time to play or relax.  That also signaled time for me to get the prep work done for Christmas dinner which we would have around 4 PM.  After dinner we would play board games and spend time enjoying the family (all the grandparents, aunts and uncles on my side of the family and cousins would be there for dinner and the evening).

New Year's Eve we would have more of an appetizer night and see if we could stay up until Midnight.  New Year's Day we watched football and dinner was usually ham dinner.  We would take the tree down and then my parents and in-laws would come over for dinner; quieter time.  d

Keeping in mind that we normally had snow, there was also the fun time playing outside; building a snowman, making snow angels, playing fox and geese or other games in the snow.  Even the adults would get out and play and work off dinner.  Then back inside and time for hot chocolate and cookies and playing board games or working on a jigsaw puzzle; usually both going at the same time.  

I will also incorporate your tradition, Ray and see if we can get Obama out of the WH.  Great idea, is it not Diane.  Ray, that is such an interesting custom and I really like it.

4 years ago

Sandy, there is that silver tree again...LOL.  I forgot that we always did the Advent Ring and the candles, for the 4 weeks before Christmas and then the children had their advent calendars; one for each and one year I would wrap little gifts (love the dollar store) and then the next it would be pieces of candy (good way to use up Halloween candy).  

Another thing we did as a family was "Secret Santa".  We would pick a neighbor (different one each year) and there is a little message for each day for the 12 days before Christmas.  Each day had something that you would give the neighbor with the message.  It might be a can of vegetables, a plate of homemade cookies, a box of chocolate candy, a Christmas ornament for their tree, and I can't remember off the top of my head the other gifts but the idea was to find a time when they were not home or when we could sneak over and leave the gift at their front door and get away before someone saw the person from the family delivering it each day.  Normally it would drive the neighbor crazy trying to figure out who was leaving it.  We got away with it for 8 years before the neighborhood figured out it was us.  It was a lot of fun.

4 years ago

Growing up we always had a real tree and we all helped decorate it.  I think I remember being 4 when I started.  It was usually put up about 2 weeks before and taken down about 2 weeks after.  Christmas Eve was our big dinner and when we opened gifts.  Many times we had friends join us so total there were usually at least 9 but sometimes 25 people for dinner!  My mom did all the cooking - it was her kitchen lol.  We kids broke bread for the turkey dressing and helped clean the house.  We had no traditions.

4 years ago

We still get an advent calendar for our daughter.  Used to have milk & cookies set out for Santa when she was little.  As far as food & drink go, the only thing we always have is stollen, fruitcake & hot eggnog. Everything else varies.  Although on New Year's Eve we have appetizer type foods, too, including pickled herring for good luck and a marzipan pig which we gave to our daughter for good luck in the New Year.

4 years ago

In the Britain each Country have different tradition on bring in the New Year, over the years this change, Brits still gather in London to welcome in the New Year, and Singing Auld Lang Syne



England celebrates the New Year from the evening of December 31st into January 1st. Traditionally it is not as widely celebrated as Christmas, but the year 2000 saw a large change. For instance people did not used to celebrate New Year with fireworks (they were reserved for Bonfire Night), but last year and this all across England people were setting off fireworks on the stroke of midnight.


More traditionally, on the stroke of midnight, people open the back door (to let the old year out) and ask the first dark haired man to be seen to come through the front door carrying salt, coal and bread. This means that the following year everyone in the house will have enough to eat (bread), enough money (salt) and be warm enough (coal).


I was brought up with the English tradition and Family tradition by my father and Mother, in addition also, my father kiss's my mum, as today I kiss Linda, to start the New Year of our marriage, this a Family Tradition that has been passed down from my great,great,great grandmother and father.


I do not agree with welcoming a New Year in with a Bang, and therefore stay with my old English Traditions, in addition, I love to hear the Peel of Bells welcoming in Chritmas Day and New Year Day.



In Scotland they always seem to celebrate New Year better than anywhere else. The celebration of New Year's Eve is called "Hogmanay". The word Hogmanay comes from a kind of oat cake that was traditionally given to children on New Year's Eve.


In Edinburgh the celebrations always include a massive party from Prince's Street to the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle. Unfortunately due to overcrowding in the past the event is now ticket only.


On New Year's Day (actually from the stroke of midnight) the tradition of first footing is observed. This is because the first person to set foot in a residence in a New Year is thought to profoundly affect the fortunes of everyone who lives there. Generally strangers are thought to bring good luck.


Depending on the area, it may be better to have a dark-haired or fair-haired stranger set foot in the house, but it does mean Scotland is a very welcoming place for strangers at New Year!



New Year's Eve is called "Nos Galan" in Welsh, and whilst they also believe in letting out the old year and letting in the newif the first visitor in the New Year is a woman and a man opens the door it's considered bad luck. In addition, if the first man to cross the threshold in the New Year is a red head, that is also bad luck.


People in Wales also believe that you should pay off all debts before the New Year begins. Tradition states that ending a year in debt means a whole new year of debt.


On New Year's Day "Dydd Calan" in Wales the children get up early to visit their neighbors and sing songs. They are given coins, mince pies, apples and other sweets for singing. This stops at midday.


it can also depend on where you live as to when you celebrate New Year in Wales.  Some areas still celebrate Dydd Calan on January 12th.


This post was modified from its original form on 14 Dec, 12:41
This thread is archived. To reply to it you must re-activate it.

New to Care2? Start Here.