The Christmas tree was not widely used in Britain until the middle of the 19th century. On October 10, 1839, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha and his older brother Ernest visited Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle (Albert and Victoria were first cousins, Victoria's mother was Victoria Maria Louisa of Saxe-Coburg, sister of King Leopold of the Belgians). Albert and Victoria had met three years earlier in 1836 -- before Victoria ascended to the throne -- but nothing came from the meeting at that time. This meeting, however, was significantly different.
As a minor German prince, Albert could not propose marriage, but Queen Victoria could -- and did. The couple was married on February 11, 1840 at St. James Chapel in London, and honeymooned at Windsor Castle.
Albert brought with him to the marriage his love of the Christmas tree, which had not been a widespread custom in England at that time.
Victoria, however, was familiar with the custom, which had been introduced by her grandmother, Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, in 1800. The decoration and 'lighting up' of the Christmas tree was a central feature of Princess Victoria's childhood Christmases. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old Princess wrote: "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..." That tree had been erected at Kensington Palace by Queen Adelaide, consort of King William IV, .
The tree that Price Albert provided his family in 1841  at Windsor Castle was decorated with the finest of hand blown glass ornaments from Germany, and with candles and a variety of sweets, fruits and ginger bread.
In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: "I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest (his brother) 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 generous Prince Albert also presented large numbers of trees to schools and Army barracks at Christmas.
He would decorate the trees himself with sweets, wax dolls, strings of almonds and raisins, and candles, which were lit on Christmas Eve for the distribution of presents, relit on Christmas Day, after which the tree was then moved to another room until Twelfth Night (January 6). Traditionally, gifts were laid out on linen-covered tables beside the tree.
In December, 1848 , the Illustrated London News published an engraving of the Royal Family gathered around a Christmas tree. The scene helped popularize the tabletop Christmas tree in England. Since Queen Victoria was widely admired (unlike her ancestors, especially her grandfather, George III), her subjects copied the Christmas customs of the Royals, including the Christmas tree and ornaments.
The Queen's journal of 1850 describes the scene: 'We all assembled and my beloved Albert first took me to my tree and table, covered by such numberless gifts, really too much, too magnificent'. The presents which delighted Victoria that year included a water color by Corbould, oil paintings by Mrs. Richards and Horsley, four bronzes, and a bracelet designed by Prince Albert which included a miniature of their daughter Princess Louise.
A Christmas tree for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle in 1850 (Source: Royal Insight)
Another extract from Queen Victoria's journal of 24 December 1850 records:
The trees and other decorations were removed on Twelfth Night (January 6). To do so before or after was considered bad luck.
In the 1850s Charles Dickens described an English tree that was decorated with dolls, miniature furniture, tiny musical instruments, costume jewelry, toy guns and swords, fruit and candy. For Victorians, a good Christmas tree had to be six branches tall and be placed on a table covered with a white damask tablecloth. It was decorated with garlands, candies and paper flowers. Young Ladies spent hours at Christmas Crafts, quilling snowflakes and stars, sewing little pouches for secret gifts and paper baskets with sugared almonds in them. Small bead decorations, fine drawn out silver tinsel came from Germany together with beautiful Angels to sit at the top of the tree. Candles were often placed into wooden hoops for safety. Other decorations included apples, nuts, cookies, and colored popcorn.
Around this time, the Christmas tree was spreading into other parts of Europe. The Mediterranean countries were not too interested in the tree, preferring to display only a Creche scene. Italy had a wooden triangle platform tree called as 'CEPPO'. This had a Creche scene as well as decorations.
By 1871, the twin influences of the Royal Christmas Tree and Dickenís Christmas Carol had brought Christmas into full flower. In that year, St Stephens Day ("Boxing Day" in England -- December 26th to the rest of us) was included in the Bank Holiday Act.
Glass ornaments were being imported into Britain from Lauscha, in Thuringia, by the 1870's. It became a status symbol to have glass ornaments on the tree, the more one had, the better ones status! Still many homemade things were seen. The Empire was growing, and the popular tree topper was the Nation's Flag, sometimes there were flags of the Empire and flags of the allied countries. Trees got very patriotic; this theme would occur especially at times when countries have felt threatened, as during World War II and after the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.
1. The dates vary considerably among the sources that I've read, one as early as 1834. However, since Victoria and Albert did not marry until 1940, these earlier dates are impossible. Return
2. Another source gives the year of publication as 1846. However, William Studwell and others give the date of December 12, 1848. See Best- Loved Christmas Carols (2000), page 32. Two years later, an adapted version was printed in the United States in Godey's Lady's Book. Return
3. William Sandys, Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music (London: John Russell Smith, 1852), p. 151. The graphic was found on page 152a. Return
Note: An interesting discussion of the progression from the Early Victorian Tree through the Mid Victorian Tree to the Late (High) Victorian Tree can be found at the web site of the Queen Victoria Bed and Breakfast. See also Windsor Castle and the Christmas Tree. Finally, Royal Insight has a fascinating look at Christmas as celebrated by Queen Victoria: Queen Victoria's Christmas.