A Royal Christmas

Don't blame Prince Albert when looking at Christmas traditions in Britain. They look quite German, but that's all your fault. It all started with the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent import of German George, or King George I. And other foreigners are present, too. Just think pantomime, turkey, and Santa Claus.

The reason for the German elements lies with the Royal family. The Hanoverian line excelled at importing German princesses and with them all kinds of traditions to England. That included the Christmas tree and its decoration. In his book A Royal Christmas published by Elliott & Thompson, Jeremy Archer traces the Royal family's influence on how Christmas is celebrated in the United Kingdom. 

American readers will find the book fascinating, too, as they will recognize many 'American' traditions. Many a tradition thought of as American is German in origin. The book contains no big revelations, but it collects all the snippets of information found in various books and biographies into a coherent Royal Christmas narrative.

Many make Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha the culprit for introducing German Christmas traditions to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria. That assumption is wrong; but he should be credited with being the first professional public relations manager for the Royal family. He didn't bring these traditions, he made them public. It was part of his drive to humanize the face of the monarchy. Making Prince Albert the German Christmas importer was just another publicity stunt to bolster the pretense that the British Royal family was British. That family is German, and then how.

German George was Prince Elector of Hanover and Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg before he took over from Queen Anne as King George I. He was already married to a German Princess when he moved to London. Marrying German Princesses was the rule for all his male successors until Victoria took over; that amounts to 120 years of German family life before Prince Albert ever set foot on this island. In fact, Elizabeth the Queen Mother was the first non-German Consort since German George took the throne. What then about Edward VII's queen consort Alexandra of Denmark? She was German, too. The Danish Royal family is called Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg a junior branch of the House of Oldenburg. That impossible name was also the name of Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh was born with though he changed it to Mountbatten later.

Once you have absorbed that, German Christmas traditions are not all that surprising anymore. Queen Charlotte, consort to George III, would spend most of the month of December each year cutting out paper decorations, ordering special Christmas confectionery, and choosing a yew tree to embellish Windsor Castle. And as with all German families, presents were given away and opened on Christmas Eve.

Princess Victoria found presents under not one but two Christmas trees on Christmas Eve. Prince Albert made the festivities a lot more fun with family games. For Queen Victoria, Christmas became a painful time. This dampened the holiday spirit for the whole family. The retiring widow didn't turn inwards, though, but started reaching out to her subjects on all continents. The men serving in the Boer war received specially designed chocolate to remind them of home while many of their families were invited to Windsor Castle for tea. 

Concentrating on the earlier history, Jeremy Archer spends little time on 20th century developments. He shows how the public traditions started by Prince Albert were refined on and adapted by the Royal family. He builds a proper timeline starting with German George leading to the Queen's speech on Christmas Day. And now you know why she has time to do the speech on Christmas Day, because gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve.

On the whole, the book is an amusing encyclopedia of Christmas traditions; it might inspire you to research some of your local traditions, too.

Further reading