The Christmas tree was lit among great festive celebration this week at the Abbey as staff and visitors joined around it to enjoy Evensong.
The tradition of decorating the home with evergreens at Christmas was long established in Britain, but the custom of decorating an entire small tree was unknown until 1800. George III‘s German-born wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced a Christmas tree at a party she gave for children. Initially the custom did not spread much beyond the royal family. As a child Queen Victoria had a tree placed in her room every Christmas. 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…”
After Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert, the custom became more widespread as wealthier middle-class families followed the fashion. The custom grew momentum in 1844 when an illustrated book, The Christmas Tree, which described their use and origins in detail, went on sale. Another boost was given in 1848 when The Illustrated London News depicted the royal family around the main tree at Windsor Castle on its cover.
Their use in entertainment, public events and in hospitals made them increasingly familiar over the following decades. In 1906 a charity was set up specifically to ensure even poor children in London slums ‘who had never seen a Christmas tree’ would enjoy one that year! Anti-German sentiment after World War I briefly reduced their popularity but the effect was short-lived and by the mid-1920s the use of Christmas trees had spread throughout all echelons of society.
A restriction on the importation of foreign trees into Britain in 1933 led to the rapid growth of a new industry as the growing of Christmas trees became commercially viable. By 2013 the number of trees grown in Britain for the Christmas market was approximately 8 million and they are now one of the key traditions of the Christmas season.