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?

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

A mass farewell to 2017

Dad’s column from this week in 1976 was dated Christmas Day itself


My Dad pulling a cracker with his grandson Joseph in 2006


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th December 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 27th December 2017.

I can’t quite believe that here we are already at my last column of 2017. Writing it every week has been an absolute pleasure, giving me an excuse to spend some time alone with my thoughts, and some time alone with my Dad’s thoughts from long ago.

I was surprised to find that the column I planned to work from this week is actually dated Christmas Day itself, and as that day was a Saturday in 1976, I wondered when the day of issue for the Darlington and Stockton Times changed to a Friday. I’m sure someone somewhere knows and will tell me! In it, Dad talks about our family tradition of attending Midnight Mass at the local catholic church. At first, I was too little to go, and would get frustrated at being the only child left behind in bed while my three siblings would totter off with my dad at the excitingly late hour of 11.30. There is an oft-repeated family story that one year, one of us fell asleep on the kitchen table while waiting to go, but to this day we debate which one of us it was. My mum says it was me!

Eventually, I was old enough for my parents to have confidence that I wouldn’t nod off half way through, or fidget and whine noisily. Poor misguided fools! I lost count of the amount of times I was ‘shushed’ due to my habit of sighing very loudly. And as long as I maintained contact between bottom and pew, then I classed that as sitting still. Arm folding and unfolding, feet tapping and swinging, or bum shuffling and shifting were all perfectly acceptable to me. Otherwise, how does a five-year-old get through an hour-long Catholic mass led by an elderly priest? It’s a lifetime, especially when all you really care about is the moment when you emerge excitedly from church, knowing it is finally officially Christmas Day, look up into the night sky and try and spot Santa on the way to your house with all the presents. You also hoped that by some miracle, while you were in there, the snow fairy would have paid a visit and sprinkled a little bit of her Christmas magic around for your walk home (sometimes she even did!).

Our family tradition continued for many years, and there were countless moments of light relief, including the time when our friend’s little boy, dressed as a shepherd near the altar, proudly held up his hand and shouted, “My tooth’s come out!” And another time, when a little boy was sitting next to his friend and both of them had taken their hands out of their jumper sleeves. One bumped the other and they both toppled over like weebles (they wobbled and they did fall down).

When we were young adults, Midnight Mass was where we ended up after the evening in the pub. Some of us were guilty of being slightly north of sober, which we thought we hid very well, until one of us (not me) became very unwell in a pew. It must have been so annoying for everyone else (sorry!) and drunkenness was cited as one of the reasons why the service ended up being moved to 8.30pm in recent years (which must have come as a relief for many parents of young children!).

But enough of Christmas, that’s all over – it is nearly the New Year now! Dad’s last column of 1976 was published on New Year’s Eve, and in it he pays tribute to his predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, who died almost exactly one year before. As those who’ve been reading my columns since I began in June will know, Major JFB wrote the Countryman’s Diary for 54 years, and my dad took it over in 1976 until his own death in April this year.

JFB was a very special influence in Dad’s life, and I hope that it would fill him with pride to know that 41 years later, the words of his tribute to the Major could very easily be applied to him.

‘His individual contribution to the understanding of country life and lore will never be forgotten. He was a man of immense knowledge, industry and faith.

‘The Grand Old Man now lies buried at Lealholm but his work will live on forever in the libraries of the world.’

I want to thank you all for being so understanding and supportive in reading my columns thus far, for all the wonderful letters and feedback, and for putting me right when I go wrong!

I wish you all the very best for 2018.

All Spruced Up For Christmas

Christmas selfie with my dad and mum last year, 2016. We didn’t know then that it would be Dad’s last one.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd December 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 20th December 2017.

As a child, I used to nag my parents to get our Christmas tree early, but they steadfastly refused to buy one until the very last minute. I’d see trees going up in windows all around the village and looked on with envious frustration. Some people even had those trendy new artificial silver ones, whose shimmer and sparkle were mesmerising to those of us eagerly awaiting December 25th, which always approached at the pace of a sloth on a slow day.

Finally, around 23rd December, when I was about fit to burst, Dad would go to buy a real tree and out would come all our decorations that had seen many, many years of use. Back then, the round baubles were nearly all made of wafer-thin glass, so we’d usually lose one or two mid-decorating. We also had more ornate metal baubles which varied in shape from the conventional, like yellow bells and red santas, to the more bizarre, like pink bunches of grapes (why?), green minarets, and those with the front scooped out to reveal the shiny innards (well that’s what they looked like to me).

The good, bushy tinsel would have pride of place, front and centre, while its sad, threadbare relatives, now barely more than straggly string, would be relegated to a lowly position round the back (We all know the unwritten rule of Christmas is still ‘Thou Shalt Not Dispose of Old and Tatty Decorations but Keep Them Forever Even if They Will Never Again See the Light of Day’).

Our plastic Christmas fairy, in a faded net tutu, would go on top last of all. She wasn’t the smartest or prettiest fairy, but we never thought to get rid of her until one Christmas, when we were all grown up, we came home to find she had been replaced with a rather fancy star.

The mood of 1970s glam rock was reflected in the baubles and tinsel, a glittery assortment of styles and colours which now would be considered the polar opposite of taste and sophistication. But we loved it all, and were prepared to suffer the pain of a thousand Norway Spruce needles in our fingers to make sure we covered the tree in just about every decoration we owned. There was no such thing as too much tinsel back then. Today’s kids, with their poncy soft-needled, non-dropping, fire-retardant Nordman Firs will never understand the kind of dogged determination needed to decorate a Norway Spruce.

In his column from 18th December 1976, Dad explains that the Norway Spruce was by far the most popular real tree of the day, and the reason he and Mum were so reluctant to put one up early was its propensity for shedding. We did keep it up, as tradition dictated, until the Epiphany on January 6th though, which was when we regretted our decorating zeal, as removing them was like rolling your arms along a hedgehog over and over again. Then Dad would carry this bone-dry fire hazard outside, followed by a thick trail of browning needles.

Many people think Queen Victoria’s husband Albert brought the Christmas tree custom over from Germany. But according to Her Majesty the Queen’s own website, (possibly the finest web address on the planet), it was Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, who first introduced a Christmas tree into the royal household in the late 1700s. But the popularity of Victoria and Albert was the reason it became a national institution.

The association of royalty with Christmas trees still persists, and every year, the Queen gives trees to Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in London, as well as to St Giles’ Cathedral and Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. She also donates trees to schools near the Sandringham estate where the Royal family spend Christmas.

As we decorated our tree this year (a Nordman Fir put up nice and early!), it was with more than a little sadness that for the first time, Dad wouldn’t be here to share the festivities with us. But we have enjoyed many lovely Christmases with him, and were very lucky that last year, we had a wonderful family celebration with no idea it would be his last. So I want to pass on my good wishes and thoughts for the season to all of you who are missing loved ones at this special time, and ask you to spare a thought too for those who are spending Christmas with no-one at all.