If you love decorating and admiring Christmas trees, you have the British royal family to thank.
The Christmas tree, a popular German tradition by the early 1800s, was popularized in the United Kingdom in the 1840s after Queen Victoria‘s German-born husband, Prince Albert, famously brought in evergreen trees into the royal palaces and decorated them with ornaments and candles.
The history-making moment for the Christmas tree was in 1848 when The Illustrated London News published a drawing of Albert, Victoria and their young children gathered around a decorated tree in Windsor Castle. The widely-published drawing meant that the Christmas tree had arrived as a British tradition, and sparked many of Victoria’s subjects to seek out evergreens for their own homes.Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gathering around a Christmas treeTime Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
The royal family’s use of the Christmas tree even helped spread it across the pond to the United States, where the tree – which had originally been only really used by German immigrants – became a mainstream tradition after Godrey’s Lady’s Book copied the image in 1850.
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However, while Albert is often credited with popularizing the tree, he wasn’t the first royal to bring the German tradition to England. Victoria – who was herself of German origin on both her father’s side (through the Hanoverians) and her German-born mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld – was familiar with Christmas trees before Albert made them a family tradition. The then-13-year-old princess wrote about admiring decorated trees on Christmas Eve with her family back in 1832. Before that, George III’s German-born wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had brought decorated evergreens into the royal palaces, but the tradition did not spread beyond the royal family.Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in 1854Roger Fenton/Roger Fenton/Getty
While the Christmas tree is a relatively new tradition in the U.K., the concept of decorating homes with greenery like holly and ivy had been taking place since pre-Christian times. The tree’s rising popularity edged out another long-standing Christmas tradition – the Yule log, which is traditionally a giant log that was brought inside the home, decorated and burned for the 12 days of Christmas. (Interestingly enough, the Yule log itself is thought to originate from pre-Christian Germany.) After being replaced by the Christmas tree, the Yule log was eventually transformed into a cake to be enjoyed after Christmas dinner.
Nowadays, decorating a tree for Christmas is an expected part of the holiday season. The royal family traditionally gathers around a decorated tree on Christmas Eve during their annual celebration at Queen Elizabeth II‘s Sandringham Estate. Their other palaces are often decorated with various Christmas trees and they even sell royal-themed ornaments in their gift shops.