How the Christmas tree came to Vienna

by Julia Meister

The Story of Henriette Alexandrine of Nassau-Weilburg or: How the Christmas Tree Came to Vienna

The only Protestant woman buried in the Capuchin crypt – that Viennese attraction popular with tourists, which represents the sometimes morbid fascination with the Habsburg dynasty like no other sight – is also the lady to whom we owe the custom of the Christmas tree. The short life of Archduke Charles of Austria’s wife, the famous hero of Aspern, to whom a majestic monument has been dedicated on Vienna’s Heldenplatz, lasted only 32 years. The tradition she left us lasts until today. Reason enough, especially now in the pre-Christmas season, to commemorate another forgotten Habsburg woman whose life and work have been unjustly forgotten.

“‘I found that I had not been deceived. The princess is healthy, well grown, rather pretty, well-behaved, homely, without knowledge of intrigue, of politics and of extravagant ideas, natural, in short she pleased me and seemed to me quite suitable to make a man happy as a housewife.'” These lines from Archduke Charles to his brother Josef do not exactly sound like the romantic beginning of a great love affair! But one thing after another:

The young woman of 17 whom he met in 1815 was born in Weilburg on 30 October 1797, the daughter of Duke Friedrich Wilhelm of Nassau-Weilburg and Burggräfin Luise von Kirchberg. Other sources state that she was born in the Eremitage Palace in Bayreuth when the family was on the run from Napoleon. Since Henriette’s father had left Weilburg in 1795 and was not allowed to return there until 1800, the latter variant makes perfect sense.

Weihnachtsbaum Wien; © sedmak

Little Henriette spent the summer months at Engers Castle from 1804. Her siblings were always by her side. Her sister Auguste tragically died when she was just two years old; her two brothers Wilhelm and Friedrich became respectively heir to the throne and later Duke of Nassau and Austrian Major General. As was natural in 18th and 19th century aristocratic circles, Henriette was at the prime age for marriage in 1815 at the age of 17 – just don’t wait too long and risk an eternal existence as a clumsy appendage of the family, was the motto!

The fact that the princess was a Protestant did not matter in this case: her future husband, born in 1771 as the third son of Leopold II, received authority from his brother, Emperor Franz II/I, in March 1815 to choose his wife without any restrictions regarding her creed. Moreover, it was to be a princess from a German royal house. The age difference of 26 years did not matter, as was so often the case in those days. A woman had to be as young as possible, with a long fertile period ahead of her. Whether she wanted a younger husband was mostly a moot point, for love marriages were rather the exception in aristocratic circles. The idea of a marriage with Henriette goes back to a request by the famous Archduke Johann, who went down in history with his Anna Plochl as a faithful lover who spent his life in mountain worlds. In 1813 Johann asked Baron von Gagern in Vienna if he had any ideas about whom Karl could marry; the choice fell on Henriette. Karl met Henriette’s father at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and often visited Weilburg while stationed in Mainz.

When the engagement was celebrated in Weilburg on 8 June 1815, Henriette was already over the moon with her future husband: if one believes the sources and above all the letters the couple sent each other, they were indeed granted the rare happiness of a love match! Karl, who reformed the military in 1799 and was promoted to Generalissimo in 1809, achieved the first Austrian victory against Napoleon at the Battle of Aspern and Eßling. The subsequent defeat at Wagram and the arbitrary – against imperial orders! – peace agreement with Napoleon led to Karl being relieved of his office. As a retired general, he now had plenty of time and leisure to devote to his own family.

Henriette’s Protestant faith was obviously extremely important to her, as it was stated in the marriage contract that if the couple found themselves in a place where there was no Protestant church, she would be provided with her own Protestant Reformed court chaplain. On 17 September 1815, the wedding was finally celebrated in Weilburg. In December, the newlyweds moved into Karl’s Palais in Vienna’s Annagasse. The Emperor’s consent to the marriage with a Protestant naturally had a political background: if Napoleon had formed an alliance with Russia and Prussia, Franz II/I did not want to ostracise the German Protestant dynasties.

As can be seen from the portraits that have survived, Henriette was a particular beauty. This is also confirmed by Colonel de Lort, who also praised Henriette’s character: “If one wanted to portray innocence combined with kindness, grace and beauty, one could not find a better model than the princess. She is 17 years old, of medium height, very slender, has hair of the most beautiful black, brown eyes full of expression and gentleness, an admirable complexion, the nose, the mouth, the oval of the face impeccable. She has never had a governess, her worthy mother has taken care of the education of this only daughter and made an angel of her.

She is the object of our most sincere admiration and our fondest wishes for the happiness of this sublime union. “Archduke Johann also spoke highly of his sister-in-law, describing her as a most fortunate choice. The husband himself “found the happiness of his life in his marriage and in his seven children. His pessimism and his earlier epilepsy-like [sic!] fits faded away completely”. Whether the domesticity of family life was actually able to bring about such miraculous cures?

Schloss Weilburg an der Lahn, © Sapientisat

Henriette’s move to Vienna coincides with the beginning of the often glorified Biedermeier era: “The cosy home gains greater significance as a bourgeois dwelling, as a refuge of contemplative cosiness […]. At home one is among oneself and does not need to worry about war cries and politics.” The fact that Henriette and Karl did not shy away from this new way of life can also be seen in the portrait of them together as a family, created by Johann Ender in 1832: “The open emotionality on display distinguishes Biedermeier family life from that of previous times. Family portraits in which the family members nestle close together express this feeling. One settles into the house with full awareness, cultivates domestic intimacy and cultivates private life. House and family are closely interwoven, the family feeling is tied to the house, to household management, to domestic life. All these elements are interdependent. The sense of family cannot develop if the house is too open to the outside; rather, a minimum of seclusion is necessary.”

Now Henriette is remembered by the Viennese in two ways: Firstly, for refusing to enter the Reformed Church in Vienna via a back entrance – she had to have her own gate! The Henriettentor was born. So good, so un-Biedermeier. Much better known and in keeping with the Biedermeier era is the fact that the Protestant Henriette brought the Christmas tree closer to the Viennese people: whereas in the Catholic Habsburg city Christmas had hitherto only been celebrated with a Christmas mass, after the birth of her first child, little Maria Theresa Isabella, Henriette set herself the goal of “for the first time lighting for her daughter [… ] at Christmas in 1816 the 12 candles – one for each month – of her decorated Christmas tree [sic! ] in the then archducal palace at the corner of Seilerstätte and Annagasse[…]”. Monika Posch describes how meticulous she was in her preparations: “A special messenger was sent to Weilburg to fetch the Christmas decorations from there. In all secrecy, the princess had a mighty fir tree set up in the ballroom of the palace and decorated it herself. Certainly, there had been small coniferous trees before, decorated with baked goods and fruit, which were given to children and household staff on St. Nicholas’ Day. But these little trees did not bear candles, and at Christmas they were as absent as any other gifts. The Emperor, who had been invited to the Christmas party, is said to have been so impressed by the burning tree of lights that he ordered a Christmas tree decorated with candles to be put up in the Hofburg as well.”

As already mentioned, giving presents to each other was actually only customary on St Nicholas’ Day. According to Christoph Hatschek, it is thanks to Henriette that the magnificently decorated Christmas tree, together with lovingly wrapped presents, became established during Henriette’s lifetime: what was once a religious festival became a festival of giving and family.

Weihnachtsmarkt am Wiener Rathausplatz; © demerzel21

Of course, the aristocratic families of the early 19th century did not miss the opportunity to imitate the custom of the magnificent little tree within their own four walls! However, in the case of the Arnstein family, the glowing Christmas tree aroused the annoyance of Metternich’s police, who saw it as a possible political conspiracy and could only be convinced of the harmlessness of the new festive tradition at great expense. By the middle of the 19th century, however, the new custom was already an integral part of Vienna’s Christmas celebrations, and buying Christmas trees was an easy task given the abundance of Christmas trees for sale.

In 1823, Henriette and Karl’s family took over the Albertina, the palace of Duke Albrecht of Saxe-Teschen, who had died the year before. There, of course, Christmas was celebrated with just as much pomp and circumstance; a fact that displeased Archduke Johann: he felt the festivities were overdone and overloaded, and the gifts for the children annoyed him, as he always had the children in the mountains in mind, who often did not even have proper clothing.

In the beautiful Weilburg Palace, which once graced the town of Baden near Vienna and which Karl had built on the model of Henriette’s ancestral palace, the steadily growing family spent only the summer months. In 1829, the move from Baden to Vienna took place late: the pre-Christmas season in Baden’s Helenental was too beautiful! They had also chosen a Christmas tree there, which adorned the Vienna Stadtpalais. Henriette, however, still had some shopping to do and went on a stroll through the city with her eldest daughter, Maria Theresa. While accounts vary as to how exactly Henriette contracted scarlet fever there, we do know that she lived to see the beloved Christmas Eve – whether already gravely ill or once again, gathering all her strength, in the company of her family, remains to be seen. Henriette’s death left a gaping wound in Karl’s life, as Archduke Johann summed it up; it was almost impossible to fill it.

Incidentally, Henriette’s life continues to reverberate in Vienna’s Reformed City Church to this day: there, “at the [Advent] traditional Henriette Market in the courtyard […] wooden toys, baked goods, punch, handicrafts, Christmas tree decorations and books are sold. The proceeds are always dedicated to projects that have to do with children and young people.”

Since we do not know en détail what Christmas may have looked like in the circle of Henriette’s and Karl’s family, readers are hereby referred to Franz Xaver Paumgarten’s drawing from the Illustrated Booklet of Remembrance for the Viennese Merchant Family Carl Baumann, 1820. This is the oldest depiction of a Christmas tree in Vienna. Even if the illustration with the Krampus coming in the door seems a little strange to us, the Christmas splendour of the Christmas tree and the harmonious family get-together of the depicted family, including St. Nicholas in the room, predominate. It is this cosy festivity that the Christmas tree evokes in our minds – a tradition that we owe to the forgotten Habsburg Henriette of Nassau-Weilburg.

On request, we can send the complete text including footnotes by e-mail to interested readers.


Vgl. Burger, Ernst: „Henriette Alexandrine von Nassau-Weilburg.“ Online: [11.08.2021].

Posch, Monika: „Henriette von Nassau-Weilburg. Eine Protestantin im Hause Habsburg.“ In: Peter Karner (Hg.), Die evangelische Gemeinde H.B. in Wien. Jubiläumsfestschrift (= Forschungen und Beiträge zur Wiener Stadtgeschichte 16), Wien 1986, S. 72–81; hier: S. 73. Sie zitiert aus H. Hertenberger, F. Wiltschek: Erzherzog Karl. Der Sieger von Aspern. Graz, Wien, Köln 1983, S. 305.

Vgl. Dr. Marianne Rauchensteiner: „Henriette, Gemahlin von Erzherzog Karl“. In: Die Habsburger. Ein biographisches Lexikon. Hrsg. von Brigitte Hamann. Wien 1988, S. 163-164; hier: S. 163.

Vgl. Burger, online: [11.08.2021].

Vgl. Geisthardt, Fritz: „Friedrich Wilhelm.“ In: Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB). Band 5. Berlin 1961, S. 521 f. Online: [10.09.2021].

Vgl. „Österreich, Henriette Erzherzogin von“, in: Hessische Biografie. Online: (12.09.2021).

Vgl. „Friedrich Wilhelm (Nassau-Weilburg).“ Online: [12.09.2021].

Vgl. Posch 1986

Vgl. ebd., S. 72. Zu Erzherzog Johann, vgl.: „Johann, der »steirische Prinz«, Reichsverweser.“ In: Die Habsburger. Ein biographisches Lexikon. Hrsg. von Brigitte Hamann. Wien 1988, S. 175-177.

Gruber, Stephan: „Der Sieger von Aspern.“ In: Die Welt der Habsburger. Online: [21.09.2021].

„Karl Ludwig von Österreich-Teschen.“ In: Die Kapuzinergruft. Online: [21.09.2021].

Vgl. Posch 1986, S. 73-74. Sie zitiert aus Bibl, Viktor: „Erzherzog Karl. Der beharrliche Kämpfer für Deutschlands Ehre.“ Wien, Leipzig 1942, S. 250.

Vgl. Burger, online: „Henriette Alexandrine von Nassau-Weilburg.“ [11.08.2021].

Vgl. Burger, online: „Henriette Alexandrine von Nassau-Weilburg.“ [11.08.2021].

Posch 1986; sie zitiert aus Criste, Oskar: Erzherzog Karl von Österreich 3. Wien, Leipzig 1912, S. 322.

Vgl. Wohlgemuth-Kotasek, Edith: „Erzherzog Johann in seinen Briefen an Marie Louise.“ In: Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Staatsarchivs 14. (1961) – Festschrift für Gebhard Rath zum 60. Geburtstag. S. 532-548; hier: S. 537-538.

Sapper, Christian: „Erzherzog Karl Ludwig als Hoch- und Deutschmeister (1801 Juli 27-1804 Juni 30).“ In: Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Staatsarchivs 43. (1993) – Festschrift für Rudolf Neck zum 65. Geburtstag. S. 114-121; hier: S. 119.

Haller, Günther: „Das traute Heim.“ In: Die Presse Geschichte, No 13 (ersch. 2020), Biedermeier. S. 52-59; hier: S. 55.

Vgl. Hatschek, online: [13.09.2021].

Vgl. Posch 1986, S. 77, bezugnehmend auf Koschatzky, Walter: Das Tagebuch des Erzherzog Johann von Österreich. In: Albertinastudien, 3 (1965), Heft 3, 145. Auch Hatschek (online) zitiert diese Passage.

Vgl. Posch 1986, S. 78-79 sowie Burger, online: [11.08.2021].

Vgl. Hatschek, online: [13.09.2021].

Vgl. Wohlgemuth-Kotasek 1961, S. 538.

„Henriette von Nassau-Weilburg“. Online: [21.09.2021].

Wien Museum, siehe Illustration.

Vgl. „Christbaum“. In: Wien Geschichte Wiki. Online: [21.09.2021].

Vgl. Burger, online: [11.08.2021] sowie Posch 1986, S. 75-76.

Hatschek, Christoph: „Erzherzog Karl und das Weihnachtsfest.“ Online: [13.09.2021].

Posch 1986, S. 76.

Vgl. Hatschek, online: [13.09.2021].

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