Saturday, November 20, 2010

Did Jane Austen have a Christmas tree?

Regency novels often avoid the inclusion of Christmas trees as the general belief is that Christmas trees only came to England with Prince Albert in the 1840s. However, Emma Austen Leigh, who was a niece of Jane Austen, kept a record of her Christmas gifts from 1813 – 1821, and the entry for 1818 is significant:

1818 By the tree (my bold italics)
Mamma – A thermometer
Aunt – An amethyst cross

This started me on a quest to discover details of the earliest Christmas tree in England. Here are the results of my research, but if anyone knows of any earlier trees, please leave a comment!

Working backwards from 1846, when this picture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the London Illustrated Mail popularized the Christmas tree, we come to Christmas Eve 1832. The 13-year-old Princess Victoria wrote in her journal: "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..."

But the Christmas tree can be traced to an earlier date, to the reign of Queen Caroline (1781-1812). A. J. Kempe, in The Loseley Manuscript, wrote: “We remember a German of the household of the late Queen Caroline at Windsor making what he termed a Christmas tree for a juvenile party at Christmas. The tree was the branch of an evergreen fixed on a board. Its boughs bent under the weight of gilt oranges, almonds etc and under it was a neat model of a farmhouse surrounded by figures of animals. The forming of a Christmas tree is, we believe, a common custom in Germany.”

Helen Rappoport, in Queen Victoria, A Biographical Companion, also talks of a Christmas tree being branches of a tree, rather than an entire tree, remarking that Queen Charlotte set up branches of yew tree decorated with candles and sweetmeats at Windsor in 1800.

It’s possible, then, that the early trees were only branches, although they were still called trees. However, this mention in 1789 – the first I can find, unless the incident "in the reign of Queen Caroline" noted above fell between 1781 and 1789 – leads me to believe that fully grown trees were known of by then, and treated as we now treat our Christmas trees:

"This Christmas (1789) Mr. Papendiek proposed an illuminated tree, according to the German fashion, but the Blagroves being at home for their fortnight, and the party at Mrs. Roach's for the holidays, I objected to it. Our eldest girl, Charlotte, being only six the 30th of this November, I thought our children too young to be amused at so much expense and trouble." - From Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte (Wife of George III 1738-1820), being the Journals of Mrs. Papendiek.

Bringing a few branches into the house would hardly seem to consititute “so much expense and trouble” and so it seems to me likely that she was referring to a whole tree, or perhaps the top of a tall tree.

In my story in A Darcy Christmas, I left out any mention of a Christmas tree, but the next time I write a Regency Christmas story, I think I will include one!

Which brings me back to my first question, Did Jane Austen have a Christmas tree? And the answer, I think, is "possibly". We have no direct evidence that she did, but because we have evidence that they were known of in her family, I think it not unlikely.

Amanda Grange


Pam Mingle said...

Thanks for investigating the history of the Christmas tree. One might imagine the Austens celebrating with performances, charades, and Jane reading her latest story. If her flamboyant aunt and cousin were present, perhaps there was a tree!

Fenella Miller said...

I always thought it was ont until after the Regency that trees appeared - how clever of you to disocver thi is wrong.

Jan Jones said...

Fascinating, Amanda. Something else showing the danger of too much reliance on just a few sources.