Stories of the Christmas Tree in France

Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Christmas tree in France did not gain popularity until the late 1800s. It probably wouldn’t have been popular at all if it had not been for royalty. It is claimed that in the late 1830s the Duchess Helene of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (wife to the eldest son of Louis Philippe I, Ferdinand Philippe of Orléans who after her marriage became a French Crown Princess) was the first in France to celebrate with a Christmas tree. She did so at the Palace of Tuileries, and despite the Duchess introducing the Christmas tree in Paris, thirty years later it was still difficult to find one.

“When, in 1860, Christmas was celebrated for the first time in the German St. Joseph’s School … the gentlemen who had arranged the fête went to every market to get a fir-tree. At last they succeeded in finding a very small one, about three feet high … In 1869 fir-trees could be got at most of the markets in Paris.”[1]

Public Domain.

Frenchmen also prepared their Christmas trees entirely differently from the Germans who sawed off the roots and affixed it to a wooden cross. One writer noted:

“The Frenchman takes the tree out with the roots, wraps straw around them, and thus puts it into the room, often planting it in the garden after it has done its duty as an ornament of Yuletide.”[2]

The first Christmas trees in France were decorated with candles, pine cones, and edible items, such as fruit, bonbons, or cakes. When a drought occurred in 1858 in Northern Vosges, there was no fruit for decorating the tree, which caused one glassblower to develop an ingenious alternative. The glassblower lived in the village of Goetzenbruck and using his glassblowing skills, he created a shiny round Christmas globe as a decoration.

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café,” published in the Illustrated London News of 17 September 1870. Public Domain.

The acceptance by royalty of the Christmas tree and glass globes helped the Christmas tree tradition to spread. During the Christmas season when the Franco-Prussian War (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871) was underway, there were several stories about Christmas trees. For instance, one gentleman described seeing a Christmas tree at a French château where soldiers were stationed and wrote, “I saw one large palm-tree strung with toys, and fruit, and sweetmeats, and illuminated where it stood, in a garden.’[3] The same gentleman also noted that at the headquarters at Sevran, Christmas trees were plentiful:

“Having accepted an invitation from the officers to send Christmas evening with them, I found on my arrival that a portion of the entertainment was to be the distribution of present hanging on Christmas trees in a farmhouse … It was a large building, and it was lighted up from basement to roof. Soldiers throng every room, and in two of the apartments there were Christmas-trees. … Sevran must have been visible at a distance of many miles, for through every window in the village there was the light of dozens of little coloured candles which burnt on the Christmas-trees.”[4]

Another mention about the Christmas tree during the Franco-Prussian War arrived in a letter from Dresden dated 30 December 1870:

“Certainly never has Christmas festival been solemnized with a more fitting or more deeply impressive consecration than that which the German and French soldiers held together in the hospital here. In the small room of the pious sisters, the soldiers stood around the flaming Christmas tree.”[5]

An American woman visiting Versailles in 1870 also wrote about the how the Christmas tree was part of the holiday celebration there. Her letter was dated 26 December 1870:

“There were eight Christmas-trees, all arranged on long tables in the Salle Louis XVIII. They were very pretty.”[6]

The wife of well-known statesman named Madame Floquet has also been claimed to have helped make the Christmas tree popular in France. Madame Floquet loved Christmas trees and she or her mother always had one in at their Christmas parties. One celebration in 1872 included a Christmas tree that they prominently displayed in the Alcazar Saloon:

“[The tree was] a good-sized fir from the Vosges mountains, torn up by the roots, … and particular attention was called to the fact that a quantity of the native soil of Alsace still clung to it. Around this tree, richly laden with toys and bon-bons, were congregated 2,000 children of Alsace and Lorraine exiles, accompanied, in most cases, by their parents or relations. Every child received something from the tree.”[7]

Another interesting story related to the Christmas tree in France in the 1800s had more to do with the gifts underneath it than the tree itself.

“It is recorded, that at a Christmas tree gathering, a lady, the Countess of Reuss, received an ebony casket clasped with silver. On unlocking this mysterious gift, a guillotine sprang up, on the principle of a ‘Jack in the box;’ beneath it lay the extended figure of Prim. A gallows also presented itself, with the facsimile figure of her husband suspended on it. An inscription lay at the bottom of the box: ‘One or the other.’”[8]

Napoléon, Prince Imperial at age 14, 1870. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Napoleon III likely wasn’t thinking about the guillotine or the gallows when he embraced the tradition of the Christmas tree. He placed one both inside the Palace of Tuileries and outside in the garden during the festive holiday season, and, in 1869, he also planned a children’s Christmas party for his son Napoléon, Prince Imperial. A newspaper reported on the finely decorated Christmas tree waiting for its guests:

“All was ready, and the prince thought he should like to see the tree; so he entered the room, and lo! he found an uninvited guest already there – a favourite monkey belonging to some one in the palace had got into the room, treated himself to all the prizes, eaten all the ‘goodies,’ and finally, having set fire to the tree was sitting down enjoying the fun.”[9]

References:

  • [1] Folklore Society, Publications v. 30 (London, 1892), p. 167.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Cassell’s History of the War Between France and Germany, 1870-1871 v. 2 (London: Casell, Petter & Galpin, 1873), p. 93.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] The Nation v. 12 (New York: J.H. Richards, 1871), p. 59.
  • [6] Ibid., 60
  • [7] Manchester Evening News, “A Great Christmas Tree,” December 28, 1872, p. 4.
  • [8] Ellen Barlee, Life of the Prince Imperial of France (London: Griffith and Farran, 1880), p. 73.
  • [9] Western Daily Press, “The Tuileries on Christmas-Eve,” December 29, 1869, p. 4.

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