Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert both loved Christmas and it’s probably thanks to Prince Albert that the German tradition of decorating Christmas trees has become so widespread. In 1848, a magazine called The Illustrated London News published a picture of Victoria, Albert and their children celebrating Christmas at Windsor Castle. The Queen is pointing to a huge Christmas tree decorated with baubles and candles. Soon, families across Britain were copying the Royals and their German tradition of decorating Christmas trees. This year, over 170 years later, millions of Christmas trees will be twinkling across Britain, although many British people will be surprised to learn about their Germanic origins. In fact, a lot of British culture is far more Germanic than people think.
In the last season of the 1980s BBC comedy series Blackadder, set during World War One, one of the characters, Captain Darling, is accused of being a German spy. Darling, horrified by the accusation, says: “I’m as British as Queen Victoria.” To this, Captain Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson) replies ironically: “So your father’s German, you’re half German and you married a German?” And Blackadder’s right. Since 1714, when the German prince Georg Ludwig became King George I of Great Britain, the British Royal Family has had a lot of German blood in it. In 1917, however, when Britain was in the midst of World War One with Germany, King George V decided it would be a good idea to make the British Royal Family seem less German, so he changed their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.
you speak anglo-saxon
And then there’s the English language, which has been under German influence for much longer than the Royal Family. The word ‘English’ itself derives from the word ‘Angles’, the name of a tribe that arrived in England from Northern Germany in the fifth century. The Angles and migrants from other Germanic tribes —the Saxons, the Jutes and the Frisians— came to England in large numbers, looking for fertile land for farming. Collectively these Germanic peoples were known as Anglo-Saxons. They brought with them their pagan traditions and also, more importantly, their language. Although the religion of these Germanic tribes mostly disappeared during the 7th century, their language lived on and is also known as Anglo-Saxon or Old English. This language is the basis of the English that is now spoken by over 1.5 billion people across the world. Almost all of the hundred most common words in modern English derive from Anglo-Saxon. For example, the top ten most commonly used words today —‘the’, ‘of’, ‘and’, ‘a’, ‘to’, ‘in’, ‘is’, ‘you’, ‘that’, ‘it’— all come from Anglo-Saxon.
The language (or collection of dialects) that these Germanic peoples brought with them to England was written, as well as spoken, but did not use the alphabet that we use today. Instead, it was written using twenty-four shapes called ‘runes’. Runes functioned like letters and so could be used to form words, but each rune also had a meaning in itself. For example the rune [mannaz] was like our letter ‘m’ but also meant ‘man’; the rune [isaz] was like our letter ‘i’ but also meant ‘ice’. The runes were written from right to left and only used straight lines, making them easier to carve into wood or stone. The runes were thought to have their own power and may have been used in magic rituals. As Britain became Christianised through the 7th century, Latin script was used instead of runes for writing down texts in Anglo-Saxon.
So, the basis of English is, without doubt, Anglo-Saxon, but other invaders have also shaped the language. In 1066, the Normans invaded from Northern France and added thousands of French words to the developing English language, changing it for ever and bringing it closer to Romance languages like Spanish and Italian. And, before that, we shouldn’t forget the Vikings, who started to attack and then migrate to Britain from 793. Although the Vikings didn’t impact the English language as much as the Anglo-Saxons or the Normans did, they did leave their mark on the language, including some words that appear in this sentence.
Prince Albert wasn’t the first German to have an influence on midwinter celebrations in England. The Anglo-Saxons who migrated to England from Northern Germany and Denmark in the early 5th century brought their own pagan traditions. In 725, a Christian monk called Bede, from the North of England, wrote a book about calendars and festivals called The Reckoning of Time. In it he describes the Anglo-Saxons’ midwinter festival. “They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas”, Bede writes, and explains how, on the night of December 24th, the Anglo-Saxons performed pagan rituals in a festival they called Modraniht (Mothers’ Night), which would have coincided with their New Year’s Eve.