This article has been prepared with the assistance of our Chesham correspondent Neil Rees.

It is now a well-established tradition that the focus of the Christmas festivities is a Christmas tree, decorated with tinsel, coloured lights and baubles, with a star or angel at the top. The family’s presents are then arranged around the base, waiting to be opened on the big day.

Have you ever thought how and when this custom began?

St Boniface and Symbolism of the Christmas Tree

The traditional story of the Christmas tree goes back to St Boniface, who was an Anglo-Saxon missionary to the Germanic peoples in the 8th century. St Boniface was born about AD 680, reputedly in Crediton in Devon.

His father was a Saxon nobleman and his mother a local British Celt. He studied as a Benedictine monk in Exeter and Southampton. In AD 716 he left Wessex and went as a missionary to Frisia, which was the coastal area now in northern Germany and the Netherlands.

The story goes that he used the growth of a small fir tree to tell the Christian message. He is supposed to have explained that the new fir tree represented new life, its evergreen leaves symbolised the everlasting love of God, the branches represented the cross which Jesus died on, and its three-sided triangular shape represented the Trinity, and it pointed up to heaven. As this story spread, the fir tree became the focal point of Christmas festivities in northern Germany and the Netherlands.

The story of St Boniface has recently come to the notice of people in Devon. In 2019 it was proposed to make St Boniface the patron saint of Devon, and in October 2021 a new 14-mile walking trail called St Boniface Way was created which goes from the parish church in Crediton to Exeter Cathedral.

The tradition in Britain

It was in the Georgian period, in the eighteenth century when the Kings of Great Britain were also Kings of Hanover, that many Germans came to London and brought this custom over with them. In 1800 King George III’s German wife Queen Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz introduced the tradition of a Christmas tree to the British royal family.

The Christmas tree was then popularised by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Coburg. Both had been brought up with Christmas trees from childhood. From 1841 it began to be reported in newspapers that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle for the royal children. The tradition was then widely adopted from 1848, after an image of the royal family around their Christmas tree was published in the Christmas supplement to the Illustrated London News.

Local newspapers then started to report about events which included Christmas trees.

Christmas Trees in High Wycombe

The first newspaper reference to a Christmas tree in High Wycombe was at Christmastime in 1859 when (to quote the Bucks Free Press) “a number of the young ladies of the town have a benevolent scheme in contemplation for the children of the workmen on the Railroad. This scheme was fully developed in the British School-room on Thursday afternoon.... The room was tastefully decorated with evergreens ......while on the centre of the top table a beautiful Christmas Tree displayed numerous attractions for the little ones.” These “attractions” were later distributed to the eighty or so children who were at the party.

Some explanation of this account is necessary. Thus “the young ladies of the town” would have referred to the daughters of some of the more prosperous local families, probably indicating that these young ladies would have been familiar with Christmas trees through them being a recent tradition in their homes. The “British School-room” was in White Hart St, opposite Bull Lane, and the “Railroad” would have been the railway line from High Wycombe to Princes Risborough which was under construction at that time.

In Chesham

The other large town in South Buckinghamshire at that time was of course Chesham and the first newspaper report of a Christmas tree there was in relation to Christmas 1859, although the event was not held until early January 1860. This was a tea-party for the children, about eighty in number, of the Band of Hope, which was held in the Temperance Hall. The main attraction was again a Christmas Tree “the ornaments of which had been presented for their especial gratification.... As the tree was lighted up and the gaslights lowered to give it effect, it presented a most brilliant spectacle. As this is the first of its kind ever provided in public the children appeared highly delighted and clapped their hands”.

Apparently the presents on the tree had all been numbered and “as each child’s number was called and the distribution made the greatest merriment was occasioned, some of the girls getting presents for boys and vice versa. This was especially observable when a rather big boy received a pretty little doll nicely dressed and the look of the boy, which was of surprise and drollery combined, should be seen to be understood!”.

In local villages

The earliest newspaper reference to a Christmas tree in South Bucks seems to be Christmastime 1858 at Little Marlow. This took place on December 28, known as Innocent’s Day, and the occasion was a school feast to celebrate the appointment of a new Vicar. A total of 134 children, including those from Flackwell Heath, were “plentifully regaled with tea and cake” in the school-room before adjourning to the vicarage. Here “a great surprise had been prepared for them in the shape of a goodly Christmas tree”. This had been provided by Sir George Nugent of Westhorpe Park. “After gazing upon its wonders each of the children received a portion of its treasures”.

“A great treat was given in the village of Wooburn” in early January 1859. This took place in the National School-room, “in the centre of which was a large Christmas tree, beautifully decorated, and the building was thronged with people of all classes”. Between 200 and 300 poor people received gifts of warm clothing “and children of the Sunday School had their hands filled with books, and useful articles, from beneath the fruitful tree”.

From these early beginnings in the mid-eighteenth century the custom of the Christmas tree has become a regular feature of our celebrations at Christmastime. This is not just in our homes, but in the streets of our towns and villages, and the decorations have become evermore grand as illustrated by the two pictures.

If you have reminiscences of Christmas, particularly including pictures, which you would like to share please send them to me at

I would like to end this article by wishing all our readers a very Happy Christmas and New Year. I hope you and your loved ones keep safe and well.