When you write a picture book biography, usually you start by studying a person’s life and looking for a theme that that captures the person’s essence. But not always. Sometimes, I start with an object or something that fascinates me – and search for the person that brought it to be.
That is the curious case of The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, Queen Charlotte’s Gift to England (illustrated by Luisa Uribe, published by Albert Whitman & Company).
I never set out to write about the wife of King George III, the British king during the American Revolution, who has become infinitely more famous after his featured role in Hamilton. Honestly, I didn’t even know King George was married, much less that he and his wife had 15 children together. But I was curious about the origin of the Christmas tree. How and when did that become a tradition?
Research led me to the story of this kind queen who dragged an entire tree into Windsor Castle and decorated it with lit candles, fruits, nuts and colored papers to delight a party of 100 children on Christmas in 1800, creating what would be an annual tradition that continues to this day.
Why did she do this? Working backwards from that event, I learned how she had grown up in Germany as a princess who cared about plants and children rather than fancy balls and jewels. When she married King George, the fancy ladies of the court made fun of her accent and her humble clothes that were not as fancy as theirs. She let her mother-in-law take charge of entertaining royal guests.
Instead, Queen Charlotte cared for children at court, patronized a hospital for mothers giving birth, expanded Kew Gardens, encouraged the arts – including young Mozart who named a composition for her, took a stand against slavery by boycotting sugar that grown by slaves on plantations, and became the first royal, along with her husband, to make charitable giving part of royal duties.
The only reason Queen Charlotte was not more famous for the Christmas tree is that it was not until there was a picture of her granddaughter, Queen Victoria, carrying on her grandmother’s tradition of the tree in a British and later American magazine, that her idea became more widely known. After that and ever since, Christmas trees have been lighting up the world.
They say books don’t grow on trees. But this one actually did.
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