Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, is now believed to have introduced the custom of displaying indoors decorated yew branches at Christmas from her native Mecklenberg-Strelitz in northern Germany, not her grandson Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. What exactly Charlotte’s Christmas “trees” looked like is harder to document. The nicely illustrated articles on-line show many versions of Victoria’s family gathered around a table-top tree in a brilliantly illuminated room, but none of Charlotte’s holiday decorations.
What might be a variation on the decorated yew bought appears in an early nineteenth-century German book of plates about domestic life, which was added to collection some time ago. The caption and note at the end for the 12th plate describes Christmas as a special time for children, who look forward to receiving presents. There are indeed gifts in evidence—someone will be receiving a new dress–but they are laid out on a table around which the family has gathered. The little ones have edged closer to the tree in the corner to admire it. Look closely, and you’ll see that the “tree” is actually several boughs arranged in a container resting on a stool.The book in which the plate appears is something of a mystery. It has no title page or names of the publisher or engraver on the plates and the dealer who sold it to Mr. Cotsen was unable to find any record of it. Luckily it was signed and dated 1813 by a girl, but it could be a little earlier. Cotsen has other German plate books illustrating scenes from children’s lives from this period and many are bound in wrappers of glazed colored paper, which serve as the title pages. If this book was issued in that format, one of its owners could have removed the wrappers and rebound it in the pretty paste paper boards. A big patch of paper covers up more writing on the pastedown endpaper. Perhaps if it were lifted, it would be possible to find more clues about who owned it and what its title might be.