Christmas in the imperial family

Under the Christmas tree at Wallsee, newspaper illustration, 1916

A number of popular anecdotes about Christmas in the imperial family have survived from the reign of Franz Joseph in the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when the middle-class ideal of Christmas as a family celebration had already established itself at Court.

Under the Christmas tree at Wallsee, newspaper illustration, 1916

However, the reality within the imperial family was a good deal less rosy. The imperial couple’s younger daughter Marie Valerie complains in her diaries of the tense atmosphere when the imperial family gathered round the Christmas tree each year, surrounded by court dignitaries and servants, too constrained and embarrassed to make conversation anything other than stilted and awkward. Not until after her marriage, far removed from the solemn ceremonial of the Vienna Court, did Marie Valerie experience real family life. Full of enthusiasm she wrote describing her first Christmas after her marriage to Archduke Franz Salvator from the Tuscan line of the dynasty: ‘the joyful commonality with the servants made Christmas Eve the happiest I have ever experienced. What a contrast to the Christmas tree festivity in the imperial palace, where everything was so stiff and embarrassing!’

 

For the relatives of the notoriously frugal emperor, who under normal circumstances rarely countenanced money being spent on his own person, Christmas represented one of the few opportunities to make urgently needed purchases for his household. His servants had to deploy great diplomatic tact in coordinating enquiries from the family as to suitable gifts for the head of the family. The emperor’s wishes were astonishingly modest, for example tins for storing rusks and biscuits in his study.

 

Franz Joseph’s extreme frugality also extended to his staff. For a long time his personal servants did not receive any gifts at Christmas. When the ageing emperor’s ‘good friend’ Katharina Schratt heard of this she persuaded Franz Joseph to ensure that in future his staff would also be given presents.

Martin Mutschlechner