The Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square is the City of Oslo's traditional Christmas gift to the City of Westminster. This year the Christmas tree was lit on Thursday 4 December.
The first tree was brought over in 1947 as a token of Norwegian appreciation of British friendship during the Second World War. When Norway was invaded by German forces in 1940, King Haakon VII escaped to Britain and a Norwegian exile government was set up in London. To most Norwegians, London came to represent the spirit of freedom during those difficult years. From London, the latest war news was broadcast in Norwegian, along with a message and information network which became vital to the resistance movement and which gave the people in Norway inspiration and hope of liberation.
The tree has become a symbol of the close and warm relationship between the peoples of Britain and Norway. Norwegians are happy and proud that this token of their friendship - probably the most famous Christmas tree in the world - seems to have become so much a part of Christmas for Londoners.
The tree itself, a Norwegian spruce (Picea abies), is chosen with great care. Selected from the forests surrounding Oslo, it is normally earmarked for its pride of place in London’s Trafalgar Square several months, even years, in advance. The Norwegian foresters who look after it describe it fondly as 'the queen of the forest'. This year, however, the tree will be chosen by a young viewer of the BBC’s children’s programme Blue Peter.
The tree is cut down one day in November during a ceremony in which the Lord Mayor of Westminster, the British ambassador to Norway and the Mayor of Oslo take active part. Most years, the first snow will have just fallen to brighten the otherwise dark forest. Local and international schoolchildren sing Christmas carols and the city authorities serve 'forest coffee' and sandwiches.
The tree, which is usually 20 to 25 m (70 ft) in height and anything between 50 and 60 years old, is then shipped free-of-charge across the North Sea to Immingham by DFDS Tor Line. A special crew is contracted to haul it from the docks to Trafalgar Square and the space which is allocated every year to the Norwegian Christmas tree.
It takes several hours to put the tree up. Scaffolding is erected, the tree is winched up, and the base of its trunk pushed four feet into the ground and secured with a dozen or more wooden wedges. There is no other form of support. The tree stands there again as it did in the forest.
The ceremony of switching on the lights takes place in the early evening of the first Thursday in December. The scene is familiar to most of us. There is a band playing and a choir sings Christmas carols as the Lord Mayor of Westminster arrives with his party. The floodlighting of the nearby National Gallery is specially dimmed for the occasion. At the flick of a switch the Christmas tree comes alive, turning into a twinkling mass of lights. In line with Norwegian tradition the lights are all white; electrical bulbs being the twentieth-century equivalent of candlelight.
A crib provided by the Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is erected on the west side of the Square. It is dedicated at a special service on the Sunday after the lighting-up ceremony. The passing public may stop on their way home from work and join the carol singers every night until Christmas. During the carol singing, donations to selected charities are collected by volunteers.