Tree-mendous Christmas tradition

A Christmas family photo taken in 1982 with a Norway Spruce tree in the background.(Back, L-R: My brother Andrew, Dad, my aunty Margaret. Front, L-R: Mum and my sister Tricia)

As we are well into December now, I wonder if you have put your tree up yet? And do you prefer a real one or an artificial one? You can get some very fancy (and expensive!) fake trees, and yet I’ve never been tempted to ditch the real version.

We usually go out in the second weekend of December to buy ours and I make a bit of an event of it. I embargo Christmas music in the house until we get the tree, then the boys help me lug the decorations from the attic, I crack open a bottle of sherry (the only time of year I drink it), then start adorning the tree with baubles to the sound of the cheesy tunes. It has become my little festive tradition, and I’m sure you have your own (whether that is something like mine, or burying your head under a cushion and pretending it’s not happening, which I fully appreciate).

I did know that the impressive tree that appears annually in Trafalgar Square was a originally a gift from Norway, but wasn’t sure if that still happened. Thanks to reading my dad’s column from 12th December 1981, I was prompted to look into it further, and yes Norway does still send a tree as a thank you for our support of the country during World War II. They were one of our closest allies.

The story behind it goes like this. In the 1940s, a chap called Per Prag was the manager of the London branch of the Norwegian National Tourist Office. One year he was on a trip back to his homeland when he became marooned on a mountain pass by a snow storm. While he was stuck there, he could do little but admire the wonderful sight of a swathe of Norway Spruce trees, all laden with thick white snow, cascading down the mountainside.

He recalled that during the Second World War, despite German U-boats patrolling the North Sea, at Christmas time a spruce was smuggled from his country into England for King Haakon, who was exiled there. The Germans had invaded Norway on 9th April 1940, intending to capture the king and the government. They all managed to escape and for a time the king stayed in the village of Nybersund before escaping to England with the help of the British. He regularly broadcast to the people of Norway from exile and became a symbol of resistance against the Nazis. He returned home after the war and remained a much-loved monarch until his death in September 1957.

Per Prag thought that gifting a tree to the Brits would be a fitting way to express Norway’s gratitude for the wartime support. He managed to gain the necessary approvals, including finding a way round UK import restrictions which would normally have prevented the tree being allowed in. As it was classed as a ‘charitable gift’ rather than a normal import, it was permissible, with the undertaking that it would be destroyed immediately after Christmas.

The first tree was selected from the Maridalen Valley, just north of Oslo, where particularly fine specimens grew, and it was carried to the docks in Oslo by horse-sleigh. It was around 50 feet tall and transported to England, arriving in London on 18th December 1947. It was formally handed over on 22nd December in a ceremony in Trafalgar Square witnessed by thousands of citizens who let out a collective gasp as the electric light bulbs were switched on. The tree was also adorned with 300 candles, silver streamers and topped with a silver star.

Today, Norway still sends us one of its best spruce tress in time for Christmas. Known locally as the ‘queen of the forest’, Trafalgar Square-worthy specimens are identified and nurtured years in advance. The lucky 2021 winner was carefully chosen several months before it was felled at a special ceremony in November attended by the Lord Mayor of Westminster, the British Ambassador to Norway and the Mayor of Oslo. This year’s tree is over 78 feet tall and is thought to be around 80 years old. It was unveiled in a special ceremony on 2nd December and as is usual, it is decorated in the traditional Norwegian fashion, with white string lights hung vertically from the top.

Do you have a special Christmas tree tradition I wonder?

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 10th and the Gazette & Herald on 8th December 2021

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