While it seems like our Christmastime traditions have always existed, in reality many of our festive celebrations are relatively recent inventions, introduced and popularized by the royal family.
The Christmas tree dates back to the time of George III when his German-born wife, Queen Charlotte, decorated the branches of a yew tree with holiday gifts. Later, in 1848 when The Illustrated London News published an engraving showing Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their family with their tree at Windsor Castle, the Christmas tree became part of popular holiday culture.
Many of our other yuletide rituals originated with Queen Victoria, who was influenced by German holiday customs. Since both Queen Victoria’s mother and husband were born and raised in Germany, their favorite traditions followed them after their marriages into the British royal family. As a child growing up in Coburg, Bavaria, Prince Albert enjoyed snowy winter activities, which he introduced to Victoria after their marriage. The couple and their many children enjoyed winter holidays building snowmen, riding in sleighs across snowy fields and skating on Frogmore pond.
Victoria and Albert also helped popularize the tradition of sending Christmas cards. Ever since 1840, the royal family has regularly sent holiday cards to their family, friends and acquaintances. Over time, the annual holiday cards have been used for many purposes, both intentional and unintentional. For example, during World War II the royal holiday card was used to rally support for the war effort by including a photograph showing King George VI and Queen Elizabeth standing in front of a bombed out section of Buckingham Palace.
The most noteworthy holiday tradition remains the annual Christmas broadcast. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the Christmas broadcast began in 1932 with George V’s first message. In preparation for his first broadcast, George V was given some basic lessons and did some voice tests prior to going live. It was fortunate that he had this prep time, because just prior to the actual broadcast, the King sat down heavily in his favorite wicker chair and burst through the seat! This year, the Queen’s Christmas broadcast will be the first ever broadcast in 3D.
The Queen and the royal family are known to observe the German tradition of Heiligabend Bescherung – or the exchange of presents on Christmas Eve. Tradition at Sandringham is that the family gathers at 4pm to put the finishing touches on the Christmas tree before exchanging gifts. Surprisingly, favorite gifts include anything jokey and the cheaper the better. The Daily Mail reports that Kate bought Harry a “grow your own girlfriend” kit, that Prince Charles still enjoys a white leather toilet seat given to him by his sister, Princess Anne, and, that Harry once gave the Queen a bath hat with the slogan “Ain’t life a bitch!”
While enjoying your holiday festivities this year, think of Queen Victoria and give thanks with this challenging quiz from the Guardian.