Monsieur le Grinch, or how the King’s brother possibly delayed the exchange of Christmas presents for centuries…

Christmas, as we know it now with all its tinsel and presents, did not always involve presents. While in other parts of the world gifting presents, at least for children, was a not too common practice, but one done by those with the means, Monsieur, the King’s brother, might be unintentionally to blame for the fact that this practice came to France with quite a few centuries delay.

On November 16 in 1671, Philippe de France married Élisabeth-Charlotte du Palatinat, perhaps better known under her German nickname of Liselotte von der Pfalz. It was his second marriage and his bride came, compared to the glamour of the French Court, from a different planet tradition-wise. Not only did she love Sauerkraut and had quite a big-mouth, she also tried to introduce a bit of German culture to him. Christmas trees were already part of the German culture, for those who could afford it, and also in the parts of Germany bordering France, which either belonged to France or Germany depending on the current balance of powers in Europe.

Élisabeth-Charlotte du Palatinat and Philippe de France, Duc et Duchesse d’Orléans
Élisabeth-Charlotte du Palatinat and Philippe de France, Duc et Duchesse d’Orléans

In France, the Christmas tree first appeared in Alsace in 1521 and is called “sapin de noël” or “arbre de noël”. It was in the town of Sélestat, between Colmar and Strasbourg, in which the first Christmas tree appeared. Or, at least, it is in Sélestat that a Christmas tree was mentioned for the first time in history in a record dated 21 December 1521. A Nativity scene made of colourful clay figures was displayed in catholic households during Christmas time, some leaders of the Reformation refused to display such and instead encouraged the display of a Christmas tree, because it does not depict Jesus or any other biblical characters, thus making it a bit of a protestant thing to have. Martin Luther even suggested that the Christmas tree could be a symbol of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
Those trees were usually decorated with nuts, apples, paper roses, candy, if one could afford it, and quickly spread in the protestant households and protestant parts of Europe, along with the areas bordering France. In France itself however, the new tree hype was not a thing at all. Occasional trees could be spotted, but the catholic majority stood firm with their Nativity scenes. It would stay like this until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Maria Leszczyńska, the Polish wife of Louis XV, tried to bring the tradition to Versailles with little success, after her Helen Louise of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, German daughter-in-law of Louis-Philippe, had not more success, until immigrants fleeing from the regions of Lorraine and Alsace during the Franco-Prussian War, made the Christmas tree a proper thing in France.

Liselotte mentions a Christmas tree herself in her correspondence along with an attempt to persuade her husband to pick up the tradition of the Christkindl, something she had much joy with during her youth. In some parts of the German-speaking world, the Christkind is the traditional Christmas gift-bringer and once more it is a protestant thing, while the Catholics had Saint Nicholas. Martin Luther explicitly discourages the use of the figure of Saint Nicholas, at the Protestant Reformation in 16th-17th-century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, and the date of giving gifts changed from December 6 to Christmas Eve.

In 1708 she writes of her memories of the gift bringing Christkind and tables decorated with dolls, garments, silver accessories, candies, nuts, apples and small decorative trees with candles attached to the leaves. Years before she wrote this, she suggested to have tables decorated just like that, for her and Monsieur’s children, because she loved this tradition so much as child and would love to see the same joy in the eyes of her children. Monsieur was rather skeptical and thus dismissed his wife’s idea, claiming she just looked for a new way to spent his money and anyway, small gifts were already exchanged at New Year’s, so why should one to it on Christmas too? Nonsense.

If Monsieur had allowed his wife to bring this tradition to court, it would have most likely been picked up by others at court, and thus would have spread far earlier than the 19th Century in France, when it actually did.


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