I’m not sure I can think of a more iconic symbol of the season than the Christmas tree. Whether you go to your local tree lot or, in the words of Clark Griswold, head “out into the country in the old front-wheel drive sleigh to embrace the frosty majesty of the winter landscape and select that most important of Christmas symbols” or horrors, trot out an artificial tree that does its duty year after year, as long as you celebrate Christmas, you probably wouldn’t pass on a decorated piece of greenery in your home.
As strange as it might be to contemplate, though, Christmas trees were not always a mainstay of the winter holidays in the English-speaking world. In German-speaking countries, they’ve been a mainstay of the winter holidays since at least the 16th century. George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced the custom to England in the early 19th century, but the notion of bringing a decorated tree into the house didn’t become a widespread practice until Queen Victoria’s reign.
In North America, the first Christmas tree appeared in Canada in 1781.
The town of Sorel lies at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Richelieu rivers, about 60 miles downstream from Montreal. Founded in 1642, it is the fourth oldest town in Quebec, after Quebec City, Trois-Rivieres and Montreal.
During the American Revolution, 3000 or so soldiers from Brunswick were garrisoned in the town to guard against possible American invasion. The Americans had already tried to bring Canada into their rebellion early on, and the town’s strategic location at the outlet of Lake Champlain made it a potential target.
So, too, did the loyalists who streamed in as the tides of war began to turn against the British.
To celebrate the season of 1781, the general’s wife, Baroness von Riedesel, decided to hold a party for the British and German officers on December 25. The centerpiece of her party was a fir tree, cut in the forest and brought to their newly built house. She set her tree in the corner of the dining room and decorated it with fruit and candles. In keeping with German tradition, many of the decorations would have been edible.
I imagine such a spectacle was a delight for the soldiers, and the von Riedesels alike. Construction on the house was still going on in November. The family was surprised at the speed at which the work advanced, enough for the general to note in his diary that they were able to partake of Christmas pudding in their new house when several weeks earlier, trees had just been felled for wood.
Which of us would have the guts to hose a Christmas party in a house that was just finished? And what if the construction was delayed?
The house where the von Riedesels lived still exists today. It served as a summer house
for Queen Victoria’s father the Duke of Kent and later as a country residence for Canada’s Governor General, and it’s still known as La Maison des Gouverneurs (governor’s house).