CHARLOTTE, N.C., December 11, 2017: The wonderful thing about the story behind our popular and beloved Christmas Tree tradition is that it comes down to us through so many layers of history. That’s certainly something to reflect upon this holiday season.
To go back to the genesis of the Christmas Tree, we must return to a long-ago frigid winter night in 1536. It was during this time that Martin Luther, that noted religious reformer, found himself walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenburg, Germany.
As Luther gazed up toward the heavens during his walk, he was mesmerized by the twinkling lights of millions of stars shining like tiny diamonds through the branches of the trees. So awed was Luther by these sparkling jewels of winter illumination that upon his return, he set up a fir tree filled with candles in his home. His intent was to remind children of the wondrous night when Christ was born.
There is however, a unique sidebar to this tale. That’s because 2017 was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest when he nailed his famous 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenburg.
Now comes the twist. Most people credit Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for beginning the Christmas Tree tradition in England in 1840. While it is true that a member of royalty did introduce Christmas trees to the island nation, that introduction actually happened much earlier. The honor for this goes to Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She was 17-years old when she married George III in the Chapel Royal at St. James Palace in London in 1761.
(Americans are, of course, familiar with George III. After all, he was England’s king in 1776 when we declared our independence from England and from his rule as well.)
The marriage between George and Charlotte endured more than its share of challenges. Among them was George’s battle with a rare recurring genetic illness called porphyria, which can afflict its victims with an unpleasant array of physical, mental and neurological symptoms. The king’s porphyria manifested for the last time in 1811 when the king became progressively insane and blind, which persisted until his death in 1820.
Despite it all, the couple was said to be extremely happy during those periods when George was healthy, producing 15 children in the process.
During Christmas of 1800 Queen Charlotte set up the first known English Christmas Tree at Queen’s Lodge in Windsor. Recalling the now-forgotten tradition begun by fellow German countryman Martin Luther, it was Charlotte who actually revived the idea that originated in her native homeland.
But historically, there are still other layers of this story. In December, 1798, the well-known English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He became fascinated by a seasonal ceremony involving the yew-branch in that region. The details of that ritual, which was another forerunner to what has become our own Christmas Tree tradition, caused Coleridge to write the following account to his wife in April, 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 Queen Charlotte renewed her version of these traditions at the English Court, she made some changes in the process. Most significant was her transformation of what had primarily been a private ritual in Germany into a more public celebration to be enjoyed by her family, their friends and all the members of the Royal Household.
With assistance from her ladies-in-waiting, Charlotte, herself, oversaw the ambitious project. To ensure the decorations that adorned the tree had the proper impact, the decorated tree and its surrounding, festive trappings were displayed in one of the largest rooms in the palace.
After all the candles on the tree had been lit, the entire Court gathered around it to sing seasonal carols. Before long, word of the royal Christmas Tree pageant spread among the populace, leading to its adoption and continued popularity not only at Court but among the populace as well each Christmas season.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the more upscale members of British society soon established a Christmas Tree competition of sorts, setting up their glittering, decorated trees in the most opulent drawing rooms in the country.
In 1840, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, enthusiastically endorsed and continued the trending popularity of the Christmas tree. This is likely the reason why Victoria and Albert are usually associated with and credited for introducing the tradition to England.
Yet history tells us that the English part of the story began four-decades earlier with Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg, who was married to the king under whose reign the United States was born. That, of course, established another popular American tradition: Fireworks on the Fourth of July!
But that’s a story for another column.
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News.
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