On December 20, 2007, Queen Elizabeth II, aged 81 years and 8 months, became the oldest living monarch in English history. She dethroned – so to speak – the previous record holder, Queen Victoria, who lived to be 81 years, 7 months and 29 days.
But Elizabeth, who has reigned for 58 years and 316 days, has a bit to go to break Victoria’s record of reigning for 62 years and six months.
She will also have to do something spectacular to match Queen Victoria’s contribution to popular culture. Victoria and Albert pretty much created the modern middle-class Christmas. If Dickens taught everyone how to behave at Christmas, then the Royal Family demonstrated what it should look like.
Christmas trees had come to England a generation before, when George III married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – Victoria had seen them at the palace. But they were the province of aristocrats and royalty. The first Christmas tree in France, for instance, was put up by the Duchesse d’Orleans.
In 1848, the Illustrated London News ran a woodcut showing the royals at Windsor Castle with their Christmas tree. It was wildly popular (royals have always been good for circulation) and suddenly, the upwardly-mobile middle class began celebrating with a tree.
Two years later, Godey’s Lady’s Book copied the image, removing Albert’s mustache and Victoria’s tiara so the couple looked like Americans. GLB was the Good Housekeeping of its time. By 1870, pretty much everybody in the US celebrated with a tree.
The practice of putting up a tree at Christmas has been traced to Estonia. In the 15th century, the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, a Tallinn guild of unmarried merchants, was apparently in the habit of putting up a tree in the town square and on the big day, dancing around it with ‘a flock of maidens’ and then setting it on fire. Good times. The practice caught on with other guilds and in Bremen in the 16th century, guilds decked a tree with dates, nuts, fruit and pretzels, and allowed their children to gather the treats on Christmas day.
The crazy thing is, if you are a regular viewer of ‘The Amazing Race,’ you might actually have seen the House of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads two seasons ago – teams were wandering around it with candelabra looking for manuscript pages. Really, everything is connected.