On Christmas Eve 24 December 1837 at 10.43pm the fourth child of Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria was born in München, Germany. The little girl was christened Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, but was known by her family by the nickname of Sisi.
In August 1853 Elisabeth became engaged to her full cousin Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. At Christmas 1853, when Franz Joseph came to München to celebrate with her family, Elisabeth gave her fiancé a wondeful portrait of herself on horseback near the Starnberger See. Elisabeth, the landscape and Possenhofen Castle were painted by Carl Theodor von Piloty and the horse by Franz Adam. For more than 60 years this portrait was hanging at the bedroom of Franz Joseph in the Hofburg. Nowadays the one shown there is a copy. After the death of Franz Joseph it was inherited by the youngest daughter of the couple, Marie-Valerie, and thereafter it was in the private possession of the family for many years. In April 2017 it was auctioned off in the Dorotheum in Vienna for 1,54 million Euros.
On Christmas Eve the imperial family celebrated a double feast, as Elisabeth had her birthday. At Christmas there were always two Christmas trees. The smaller one was for the children and was decorated by Elisabeth herself. She bought gifts for Franz Joseph, her children and members of the court herself. Later on there was even a third tree, with underneath gifts for the unfortunate, on request of the young Archduchess Marie Valerie, the youngest child, as is written in the book “The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria” by Brigitte Hamann.
Marie Valerie herself in her diaries however mentions the tense atmosphere surrounding the Christmas celebrations with her family, surrounded by court dignitaries and servants. In her diaries she describes her first Christmas as a married woman – she had become engaged to Archduke Franz Salvator of Austria-Tuscany the previous Christmas Eve – as:
“- 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!”
Still in several European countries tv-channels around Christmas like to show the three films Sissi (1955), Sissi- die junge Kaiserin (1956) and Sissi – Schicksaljahre einer Kaiserin (1957), in which actress Romy Schneider stars as the young Empress.