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A royal Christmas at Osborne House

Queen Victoria’s beloved residence at East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, was the place where she spent her final Christmas.

Built in the style of an Italianate villa, Osborne House was purchased in March 1845 and was bought together with its estate of approximately 1,000 acres. The original house was demolished and a new foundation stone laid on 23 June 1845, the design having been done by Prince Albert together with the architect Thomas Cubitt, who had handled the east front of Buckingham Palace. Today’s visitor is given a privileged glimpse into the private world of Queen Victoria and her family through its rooms and gardens. The latter containing a Swiss Cottage for the royal children – loosely based on a smaller such cottage built by Queen Victoria’s half-sister Princess Feodora of Leiningen for her children at Baden-Baden – with their vegetable gardens together with garden tools, painted on with the initials of each royal child.

The idea of a Victorian Christmas undoubtedly owes much to the work of Charles Dickens, but Queen Victoria also did much to shape our concept of the quintessentially English Christmas and the traditions we have come to accept today. The custom of the Christmas tree is traditionally associated with Prince Albert. The Prince Consort is credited with having popularised the custom in England, echoing his childhood Christmases in Germany. In so doing, he was continuing the tradition of Queen Charlotte, Queen Victoria’s German paternal grandmother, who had put up a Christmas tree for a children’s party as early as 1800. Queen Victoria had known them in her childhood, mentioning two on tables in her journal when she was only thirteen. Queen Adelaide, the German consort of William IV, also set them up in the Brighton Pavilion at the Christmas parties she organised there for children. By the nineteenth century, the tradition of the Yule tree would appear to have become fairly widespread within the German-speaking world, the Christmas tree having come to Vienna in 1816 with Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg.

Following his marriage to Queen Victoria in February 1840, Prince Albert encouraged the tradition of the fir-tree, writing in 1847 that he wished to replicate the experiences that he and his brother Ernest had shared in Coburg as boys, wanting his children to participate in similar activities to continue this time-honoured tradition. The following year, an engraving of the Christmas trees at Windsor Castle was printed in the Illustrated London News, showing the royal couple together with their children under the trees. The artist Joseph Nash painted a Christmas tree in the Queen’s blue Closet surrounded by gifts on tables in the year 1845. The painter James Roberts made two beautiful watercolours in 1850 of the Queen’s Christmas trees at Windsor Castle. One is flanked by works of art clearly intended as gifts, with presents spread beneath one single tree; the second watercolour showed two trees at the Castle – one for the Queen’s children, the other tree for her mother, the Duchess of Kent – lit with coloured wax tapers with toys and sweets underneath. In 1857, Prince Albert’s German librarian, Dr Ernst Becker made a photograph of the Queen’s tree at Windsor, among the gifts beneath which include a parasol, a shawl, pictures and ornaments. When the Queen’s trees were set up in the Sitting Room, the chandeliers were removed from the ceilings and amid the candles, toffee was hung upon the branches. The notion of having tables loaded with gifts on a festival or special occasion was not unusual within Queen Victoria’s family – her birthday table at Osborne House was the subject of a watercolour by the same artist, James Roberts.

Other winter pastimes within Queen Victoria’s family such as sledging and skating were encouraged – Prince Albert sometimes skating on the frozen lake at Frogmore, or driving Queen Victoria in her sleigh in the park. Queen Victoria’s red velvet-lined winter sleigh still exists, made by the carriage-makers Hooper & Co. and was exhibited in St. George’s Hall at Windsor Castle as part of the Castle’s Christmas celebrations in 2009, together with a fir tree from Windsor Great Park. Delightful anecdotes survive of Prince Albert reliving his Coburg childhood together with his children, for example, playing ice hockey and building snowmen taller than himself.

At Osborne House, tableaux vivants were given in the New Year, a tradition that was later revived after Prince Albert’s death. The pattern however in the Prince’s lifetime – established by the Court by around 1850 – defined four distinct periods for prolonged stays at Osborne House: March, May, part of July and August, followed by late November and December, typically returning to Windsor Castle for Christmas. However, five days after Prince Albert’s death in December 1861, the Queen left Windsor for Osborne House, a grieving widow – not able to celebrate the private family event of Christmas according to Prince Albert’s German traditions, in the Castle where she had so recently lost him. The Christmas of 1861 was a gloomy one at Osborne – the vases were filled with yew and ferns and busts of Prince Albert decorated with sprigs of holly and ivy. Gifts were handed out in the Dining Room, which became the “present-room” at this time. In the lifetime of Prince Albert, each family member was entitled to their table of gifts and the decorations and tables would remain there until Twelfth Night. Traditionally, gifts were given according to the old German custom, on Christmas Eve. The Dining Room at Osborne was then – as it is today – dominated by the famous Franz Xavier Winterhalter portrait of Queen Victoria’s family. In 1873, three trees were set up in the Dining Room and the gifts photographed on the tables.

A popular tradition at Osborne House in the later years of her reign was when the Queen gathered her staff in the Durbar Room to distribute her royal gifts, as each stood in line to receive them. The Durbar Room was added as part of the Durbar Wing in 1890 and took on the function of both Dining Room and Performance Room when the tableaux vivants were revived. The Durbar Room is distinctly Indian in design, a reference to the fact that Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India on 1 May 1876. In the Oak Room at Windsor Castle, a similar tradition was observed – a second tree being set up with Christmas presents for the Household staff spread beneath and a card to accompany each gift. Menu cards from the 1890’s of Christmases at Osborne survive, the one for 1896 including baron of beef, woodcock pie, brawn, wild boar’s head and game pie on the side tables alone.

Queen Victoria would, in fact, spend the last Christmas of her life at Osborne House. On Christmas Eve 1900 Queen Victoria went to the Durbar Room to see the Christmas tree set up there. However, her eyesight was by now so diminished that she couldn’t even see the candles properly. Queen Victoria died at Osborne on 22 January 1901.

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