The arrival of the huge Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square each December is a familiar part of the festive season for many people in the capital, Londoners and visitors alike. Some years back, entirely by accident, I found myself in the Square on the evening the tree was due to be lit. As darkness gathered over the city, carols were sung and speeches made – and, with great ceremony, the switch was flicked, lighting the tree to an admiring chorus of oohs and aahs from those watching.
However, what many of those delighting in this seemingly timeless Christmas tradition may not have known is that it is not quite as ‘traditional’ as they might think. The annual presence of such a tree in Trafalgar Square actually only dates back to the late 1940s and the immediate post-war period – and it is back to the Second World War (and across the seas) we must go to find out exactly why this is…
Technically neutral during the First World War, the highly strategic Scandinavian kingdom of Norway had hoped to retain this status when the Second World War broke out in 1939. It didn’t work out that way – the Norwegians were dragged into the conflict when German forces invaded in April 1940.
Despite resistance from many Norwegian people, the country was occupied until the end of the war under the rule of a collaborationist government, led by the notorious Vidkun Quisling. However, the pre-occupation government and the Norwegian monarch, King Haakon VII, had managed to escape to London, where they quickly set up a government-in-exile.
From London, Haakon and his government regularly broadcast news and inspirational speeches over the radio back to Norway, encouraging resistance efforts and supporting clandestine military campaigns against the occupying forces. As a result of his activities in London, Haakon rapidly became an important symbol – both literally and figuratively – of Norwegian freedom and of their resistance efforts at home and abroad, and remained so until the end of the war.
But what does that little history lesson have to do with Christmas trees? Well, during the cold and austere winter of 1947, a mere two years after the end of the war, the Norwegians decided to send a thank-you present to the people of London for all their support and friendship during the years of occupation – and what could be a more perfect seasonal gift than a very large Christmas tree?
Every year since then, various British and Norwegian civic dignitaries have met in Oslo for the annual ritual of selecting the tree, which is then transported by ferry across the North Sea to the UK. From its port of entry, a lorry then carries this precious Christmas cargo to London, where the tree is set up in Trafalgar Square.
At more than 20 metres high and decorated in the Norwegian style with over 500 low-energy halogen lights, the tree is a striking seasonal addition to the city, easily holding its own against the Square’s most famous year-round resident; old Nelson and his column (as you can see from the photograph above).
The tree’s sheer size and the warm glow of its lights draws people in – when I visited recently, mine was not the only camera snapping away. In the chill air of an early December dusk, while the city roared around me, I stood on the steps by the National Gallery and watched for a while as people took photos of each other, smiling and laughing, in front of the famous Trafalgar Square tree….
A very merry Christmas to you all!