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Royal Christmas history of trees, turkeys and puddings

Each year the Queen gives Christmas puddings to her entire staff.

Queen Elizabeth II and Shylah Gordon, aged 8, attach a bauble to a Christmas tree during her visit to Coram, the UK’s oldest children’s charity, to open the Queen Elizabeth II Centre at its base in central London.
Queen Elizabeth II and Shylah Gordon, aged 8, attach a bauble to a Christmas tree during her visit to Coram, the UK’s oldest children’s charity, to open the Queen Elizabeth II Centre at its base in central London.

The royal family are at the heart of many Christmas Day traditions – from decorating a festive tree to serving up a roast turkey.

It is Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of George III, who is credited with introducing the Christmas tree to the UK.

Queen Charlotte, painted by Johan Zoffany (PA)

She is known to have a decorated an evergreen tree for her royal family as early as the 1790s, using candles, paper flowers and sweets as was the custom in Germany.

But the habit did not spread much beyond the royal family at that time.

The Christmas tree was actually popularised by Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert, who presented large numbers of trees to schools and Army barracks.

A 20ft Norman Fir Christmas tree being decorated in St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle, Berkshire (Steve Parsons/PA)

In 1848, a print showing the royal couple with their children around a tree was published in the Illustrated London News.

After this, the popularity of decorated fir trees escalated throughout society.

Even now, the Queen continues Prince Albert’s tradition by sending Christmas trees each year to Westminster Abbey, Wellington Barracks, St Paul’s Cathedral, St Giles Cathedral and Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh, Crathie Church and local schools and churches in the Sandringham area.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (PA)

The Queen and her family enjoy a traditional roast turkey for their festive lunch.

Henry II, who ruled from 1154 to 1189, ate boar’s head, pickled in brine and stuffed, braised and roasted, at his banquets, according to the Royal Collection book A Royal Christmas, which explores how the royals have celebrated Christmas through the ages.

Royal turkey first appeared at the Christmas feast table of Henry VIII in the 1540s and became a Noel dish.

Portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein (Lauren Hurley/PA)

But its rise in popularity across the country in the late 19th century is down to Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII, for whom it was a personal favourite.

King George IV was partial to a plum broth on Christmas Day, made using large quantities of port, brandy, madeira, sherry and claret, as well as beef and veal, while medieval monarchs dined on roast swan and gilded peacocks.

George IV used to give his staff plum broth and mince pies at Christmas and on New Year’s Day, while Queen Victoria presented her household with plum puddings.

Each year, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh give 1,500 Christmas puddings to members of staff, including those in the Court Post Office and police serving at the palaces.

The Queen gives 1,500 Christmas puddings to members of staff (Peter Byrne/PA)

Traditionally the puddings are from royal grocer Fortnum & Mason, but last year they were reportedly from the Tesco Finest brand.

According to A Royal Christmas, until the 19th century, gifts were actually exchanged on New Year’s Day, in a tradition dating back to the 13th century.

A Royal Christmas (Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018/PA)

The monarch would be given presents by their subjects, and then would reciprocate.

The Queen also gives gifts to her staff, personally handing out the presents, usually vouchers, to long-serving members of the household.

The monarch and Philip send around 750 Christmas cards every year, which will usually feature a family photo.

The cards are signed ‘Elizabeth R’ and ‘Philip’, and include their official cyphers.

Family, friends, and members of the Royal Household are the recipients, but British and Commonwealth Prime Ministers, Governor-Generals and High Commissioners may also be sent one.

The duke has a further 200 cards delivered to different regiments and organisations close to him.

The first Christmas card was sent by educator and inventor Henry Cole in 1843 – a friend of Prince Albert’s, and the royal family’s love of Christmas meant they quickly adopted the idea.



From Belfast Telegraph