Every year, the city of Oslo donates a Christmas tree from its snowy forests to London as a thank you for Britain’s help during World War II, often to mixed and hilarious reviews.
After the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940, King Haakon sought refuge in the British capital, and Oslo has expressed its thanks for the hospitality he received by gifting the city a Christmas spruce every year since 1947.
“It’s a token of our gratitude for the help that we received during the the Second World War,” Oslo mayor Anne Lindboe told AFP after taking an inaugural saw to this year’s tree at the end of November.
“But it’s also come to mean so much more. We are living in these really, really dark times and now I think the Christmas tree symbolises peace, standing together, friendship between cities.”
It may be a solidly planted friendship, but the gift does not always please its recipients.
‘Shaggy’, ‘scrawny’, ‘anaemic’, and straight out ‘ugly’ are some of the adjectives fit to print that have been used to criticise the various Norwegian spruces over the years.
British social media users took particular offence to the 2021 specimen.
“Have we gone to war with Norway?” joked one. “One of those 5G masts disguised as a tree,” said another, while a third described it as “a half-plucked chicken”.
It got so bad that year that Oslo seriously considered sending a second, bushier tree.
Admittedly, the Christmas tree – which has its own account on X, formerly Twitter – sometimes loses some of its splendour on its journey.
Before it goes up on Trafalgar Square, it spends several days in transit.
Flung from a lorry to a boat then back to a lorry, it travels from a dry and cold Nordic climate to the salty sea air and then to the mild and humid English winter.
Inevitably, a few branches get broken and pine needles shed.
“The trees that we send are generally perfect where they’re growing, but a lot of things can happen during the journey,” said grower Knut Johansson, in charge of managing the municipality of Oslo’s forests.
“Once we received complaints that the tree looked like a cucumber,” he recalled. “It’s like criticising the tree has become a bit of a sport.”
Yet every tree sent across the North Sea is carefully selected, preserved, packed, watered and shipped off on the shortest route possible.
Like an Ikea kit, dozens of extra branches are sent along to fill out the tree if necessary on arrival.
The spruce has to measure between 19 and 21 metres (62 and 69 feet), explained Johansson, so it is not too big to be transported by road, but not so small that it looks puny next to Nelson’s Column, which towers 52 metres above Trafalgar Square.
‘Not a Disney tree’
Britain’s ambassador to Oslo dismissed Brits’ occasional mockery of the gift.
“The point is, this is not like a Disney tree,” said Jan Thompson.
“It’s not going to be 100 per cent perfect but that’s what’s so special about it. It’s a real tree that’s been growing in a Norwegian forest.”
“Christmas isn’t really Christmas until the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square is lit,” she said.
However, rumours are circulating that the city of Oslo is mulling over whether to continue the tradition, given its environmental cost. The question will be reviewed next year.
In the meantime, this year’s 70-year-old tree went up in London on Monday.
The first reviews were positive.
“Fantastic, very festive. Brings the spirit of Christmas,” said one couple with a surname very fitting of the occasion, Becky and Gareth Wood.
“It’s a lovely gesture. And it’s free!”, gushed Betty and Kevin Saunders, tourists visiting from northern England.
But on social media, party-poopers did their best to spoil the joyous mood.
“Where’s the other half of it?!”, wrote one user on X, after seeing photos of the tree still lopsided after its voyage.