The use of Yew in Christmas decorations predates the arrival of the German Christmas fir tree tradition in Britain. The wife of King George III, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818), brought the tradition from her native Germany. Yew was decorated at Windsor Castle in 1800 by Queen Charlotte herself for children of notable families in the town.
Queen Charlotte’s role
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert did not introduce our now familiar Christmas trees until 1840. Queen Charlotte adopted her native land’s custom of decorating a Yew bough with sweets, almonds, raisins, fruit and toys. The tradition used a branch from the tree rather than the whole tree. We recognise Queen Charlotte as a keen amateur botanist strongly associated with Kew Gardens, but her role in Britain’s Christmas decorations and traditions seems to have been largely forgotten. The Windsor Castle Yew of 1800 appears to have been a complete tree and was well-lit by candlelight. Christmas carols were sung around it. Visitors were dazzled by the unfamiliar spectacle that is now familiar to us.
German legend attributes the Christmas tree to Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German theologian who began the Protestant Reformation. It is claimed that on a winter’s night in 1536, Martin Luther was walking through a pine forest near Wittenberg. He looked up and saw stars twinkling through the tree branches. The spectacle inspired him to set up a candle-lit tree in his home. It served as a reminder to his children that the Saviour came from the starry heavens above.
A 1605 account describes decorated Christmas fir trees in Southern Germany. Other regions of Germany used Box and Yew instead of conifers. It was thus a long-standing German tradition that Queen Charlotte brought to Britain before Prince Albert popularised the custom in Victorian homes.
Native, Dioecious Tree
The Yew, Taxus baccata, is native to Britain. Yews are dioecious, i.e. there are separate male and female trees. Approximately, one to two percent of Yews are bisexual trees. Bisexual trees usually bear only a single branch of the other gender. I went to check on the report of a bisexual tree in the Bishop’s Palace Gardens in Wells, Somerset this year. It is said to be an unusual graft between the two sexes. Unfortunately, it was hard to tell during my visit because of the profusion of berries on the female branches (see photo above left). Hagender reports that a Yew’s gender is often recorded according to the timing of a visit. It gets designated as male if male flowers are visible in spring or female if seen in fruit in autumn.
Yew in Churchyards
A Yew is a common sight in churchyards. Yew trees are extraordinarily long-lived. The most famous example is the 2,000-3,000 year-old Fortingall Yew in Perthshire. The exact age of a Yew is difficult to define as the inner rings rot and the tree has an extraordinary power to regenerate. The girth is left as the only indicator. Somerset’s Ashbrittle Yew predates its 15th century Church. The mound beneath the tree is said to date back to the Bronze Age and be the burial site of a chief who lived before Roman times.
Pagan to Christian Times
St Augustine was sent to Britain to convert the Pagans in 597 AD. Gregory the Great advised sensitivity towards Pagan religious sites to avoid alienating the locals. Pagan sites and customs were absorbed into Christian religious practices. The Pagan veneration of the Yew took on a new form in Christianity. Whereas the Yew had long been associated with death and doom, its evergreen leaves and huge lifespan came to represent eternal life and immortality.
Yews were also planted superstitiously over the burial sites of plague victims. I discovered that there is just such a site at Westbury-sub-Mendip in Somerset. Burial under a Yew denied magic and ghosts any power over the living world.
Yew is also popular for hedging and topiary. The Irish Yew, Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’ is commonly used in this way. This mutant Yew has a more upright stance and its needles grow around the twig rather than in rows.
The Ancient Yew Group website contains much fascinating information about these long-lived trees. If botanical interest is limited during the winter, it is well-worth seeking out these incredible trees in your local churchyard. I did just that in my local area and discovered the following Yews.
References and Further Reading
- Ancient Yew Group (2012-2019). Introduction.
- Ancient Yew Group (2021): Yew/Yews at Wells – Bishops Palace England.
- Barnes, Alison (2006): The First Christmas Tree. History Today. Volume 56, Issue 12. December 2006.
- Grow Wild (?): Yew Tree – ‘Taxus baccata’. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
- Hageneder, Fred (2013): Yew. Reaktion Books. London.
- Hodgson, Debora (2016): The Christmas tree story. RHS Gardening. Blog. 25 November 2016.
- Miles, Archie (2006): The Trees that made Britain. BBC Books.
- Milner, Edward (2011): Trees of Britain and Ireland. Natural History Museum, London.
- Royal Collection Trust (?): The Christmas Tree. A Royal Christmas. Christmas in the Royal Collection.
- Stokes, Jon & Rodger, Donald (2004): The Heritage Trees of Britain & Northern Ireland. Constable. London.
- Timms, Elizabeth Jane (2020): How Queen Charlotte and Queen Victoria & Albert introduced the Christmas Tree. 9 December 2020.
- Woodland Trust (): Irish Yew.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.
All above photos © Karen Andrews.