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How Charlotte’s namesake brought Christmas trees to the English-speaking world

·3 min read

This is the season when countless Charlotte homes display decked-out evergreens, a centuries-old holiday tradition.

But even in the Queen City, few remember how the tree became synonymous with Christmas -- or how Charlotte’s namesake spread its popularity to the English-speaking world.

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz married Britain’s King George III in 1761 and quickly became a popular figure throughout the kingdom.

Within a few years of her ascension, English settlers named Mecklenburg County after their queen’s birthplace, then adopted her first name for the growing township at its center.

“Charlotte was a speck of dust, this was the edge of the British world,” Charlotte Museum of History development director Lauren Wallace said.

While there’s no evidence that overseas settlers kept up with the details of palace life, they were eager to see a spirit of adventure and trepidation in their new rulers.

At that time, “the people here are very proud of being British,” Wallace said. “When Charlotte and George come to power people are excited because they see it as a moment for change, innovation... they’re young, they have a lot of energy.”

Across the Atlantic, the young queen was exerting her influence in a different way: instilling some of her homeland’s traditions in her new court.

Christmas trees have a few origin stories, most of them rooted in the Baltic states or Queen Charlotte’s native Germany. Some link the evergreen decor to pagan yuletide traditions, while others say that Martin Luther decorated a bough to remember a spiritual walk through the forest.

Either way, by the 1700s many German families celebrated Christmas with a branch in their homes, decorated with trinkets and candles. In Mecklenburg-Strelitz, where Queen Charlotte grew up, the custom was to use a yew branch.

“A great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fastened to the bough… and coloured paper hands and flutters from the twigs,” English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the tradition. “Under the bough, the children lay out in great order the presents.”

When Charlotte arrived in England, the 17-year-old queen followed her family’s custom of setting up a yew branch in her new home at Christmas, gathering the English court to sing carols and distribute gifts around it.

But the real revolution came in 1800, when the queen set up the first full Christmas tree recorded in England, historians said. That year, she displayed an entire yew tree, debuting it at a holiday party she threw for some of the area’s poorer families.

“In the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys most tastefully arranged and the whole illuminated by small wax candles,” attendee John Watkins wrote.

People attending walked around and admired the tree; children received sweets and a toy. “Then all returned home quite delighted,” he added.

The spectacle sparked a seasonal fad among England’s elite, who began decorating with entire evergreen trees on floors and tables. By the time Charlotte died in 1818, many British gentry had adopted the tradition.

Charlotte’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria, wrote in her diary in 1832 about getting a personal Christmas tree in 1832, and continued the tradition after her coronation. Illustrations of her family on Christmas 1848 show them gathered around an ornament-laden tree set on top of a table at Windsor.

Fashion magazines published etchings of the scene, further advertising the festive centerpiece and pushing the fad across the ocean into the United States. There’s little to indicate that Charlotte-area Americans would’ve participated in the trend before then, Wallace said.

Illustrations of the royals gathered around their tree “lent a human dimension to a custom rapidly being adopted by middle-class American families,” historian Karal Ann Marling wrote, sealing the trend as both fashionable and deeply rooted through the Western world.

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