You know Nancy Churnin already because of The William Hoy Story. The subtitle of her newest book, The Queen and the First Christmas Tree is “Queen Charlotte’s Gift to England.”
Queen Charlotte? How could I not have known that there was once a Queen Charlotte? She must have been a queen consort, not a reigning queen, or I’d have known who she was? So who was she?
A quick check of Wikipedia answered that question. Queen Charlotte was the wife of the infamous King George III. You undoubtedly know him from your American History class, or perhaps from the musical Hamilton.
And, of course, as a king, George had to have heirs. To have heirs, he had to have a wife. The wife he chose was a German princess, Charlotte of Mecklenburg.
Charlotte was an odd sort of princess to become the English queen. Her education had focused on domestic skills. She preferred puttering in her garden to power politics and courtly intrigues. And she didn’t speak English. But that was exactly what King George wanted.
So Princess Charlotte was dispatched to England, where she married King George six hours after she arrived in London.
Where does the Christmas tree come into the story?
Three threads from Queen Charlotte’s life came together to create the first Christmas tree in England.
When Queen Charlotte was still a princess, Christmas trees weren’t yet common even in Germany. In Mecklenberg, nobody had ever seen a Christmas tree. Instead of trees, people brought yew branches into their homes, and decorated them with paper flowers, candles, and sweets. Charlotte had grown up with that custom, and she brought it to her new home.
She also brought her love of gardening to her new home. Her husband, the king, gave her a cottage in Kew Gardens, where she could spend as much time as she liked away from court and among the trees and flowers that she loved.
Charlotte brought something else to her role as queen. She brought the idea that, as queen, her duties included care for the poor. Because she loved children, she chose child welfare as her main charitable cause. She founded hospitals and maternity centers, and she welcomed orphans to her court.
A new tradition for a new century
In the year 1800, Queen Charlotte’s love for her childhood traditions, her love for trees and gardens, and her love for poor children all came together. Charlotte decided to celebrate the first Christmas of the new century by inviting 100 poor children to Windsor Palace for a party. And of course, the decorations would include a yew branch, decorated with paper flowers, candles, and sweets.
But when she saw the branch on the table, decorated and surrounded by toys, it hardly seemed special enough for the celebration. She decided that, instead of a yew branch, what she needed was a yew tree.
Because she was queen, it was easy enough to make that happen. The gardeners cut down a tree and brought it inside. More paper flowers and candles and sweets were brought in to adorn it. And when the children arrived, the tree had just the effect Queen Charlotte had wanted. They were astonished, filled with joy and delight. As children are to this day.
Luisa Uribe’s art
Luisa Uribe is one of my new favorite picture book illustrators. She only illustrated The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, of course. She also illustrated Maria Gianferrari’s wonderful Operation Rescue Dog,which is currently in my stack of books to review, and What a Wonderful Word, which I just ordered yesterday because it’s about words and because Uribe illustrated it. I didn’t think I needed more reasons than that.
But we’ll talk about the other books in other reviews.
The Queen and the First Christmas Tree is a history book, and a holiday book. But most of all, it’s a princess book. And to create the look of a princess book, Uribe adopts the look and feel of Disney’s Cinderella.
The young Princess Charlotte, with her mussed up hair and her smudged dress, captures something of the look of Cinderella. The mature Queen Charlotte, on the other hand, looks very much like Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Only she wears a Christmas red cloak instead of a blue cloak.
Uribe’s use of translucent water colors for the illustrations adds to the charming, retro princess look. It’s just absolutely delightful.
Uribe also made an interesting choice to include diverse characters in the book. Not named characters. Not important characters. But when the children at court helped Queen Charlotte decorate the yew branch, there are children of color working alongside white children to make the decorations. That may seem odd to some adults. But in fact, there were some 10,000 Black people in London in the late eighteenth century. So it seems reasonable to think that some of the servants in the royal household would have been Black.
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