In defence of Cardiff’s Christmas tree (and a brief history of civic trees)

This article was first published in the South Wales Echo.

Cardiff Council’s Christmas artificial tree has come in for some stick in the last couple of weeks. First, it was late appearing. Then, it turned out to be forty-foot-high rather than the promised forty metres. And then some people didn’t like it or complained that money was being spent on a tree at all.

Cardiff isn’t the only council to suffer such woes.  In Leicester, the civic tree was accused of first being half finished and then a gaudy mess. Some of the complaints seem rather petty or are perhaps down to people trying to be clever. Did anyone really care exactly when Cardiff’s tree went up or expect something nearly as tall as the 46m Statue of Liberty?

The gripes that it is ugly or comes from China rather a Welsh forest are more substantive. They also reflect a much wider sense that Christmas trees are symbolic.

Whatever kind of tree we choose for our own home is a more than a matter of simple taste. Christmas decorations are statements about ourselves.  Whether we go for something natural or plastic, whether we adorn it with gaudy multicoloured decorations or a simple colour scheme, our Christmas tree is a way of exhibiting our taste or sense of fun.

Yet leaving the curtains open so neighbours and passers-by can see our lit tree is not primarily about showing off our personal taste and style. It is also about sharing the joy that Christmas decorations can bring. Even the grumpiest Scrooge might admit there is something pleasant and even magical about Christmas lights on a cold and dark winter night.

Public trees have the same function. We might argue over what they should look like, but the civic tree is there as something for people to share and enjoy

The first public trees in the UK probably date to the inter-war period and were seen on village greens and town centres and at railway stations.  By this time, most middle-class families erected trees in their homes, but the ritual was still establishing itself amongst the working-classes who concentrated their limited resources on presents for the children and a good meal.

Public trees were far more common on the continent and after 1945 around twenty towns and cities in the UK were gifted trees by European communities as thanks for their assistance during the war.

The most famous was the Trafalgar Square tree, an annual gift to London from the people of Oslo. It quickly became something of a Christmas icon, encouraging more towns and cities to erect their own trees from public funds.

This new trend was not without its problems.  Like the other gifted trees, the Trafalgar Square tree had to receive special exemption from a ban on importing trees for fear they might bring disease. In 1958 and 1959, the police even refused to approve its lighting after 11pm for fear it would lead to drunks assembling around it.

Such concerns were not unfounded. In 1953, a Royal Navy officer was charged with being drunk and disorderly after climbing the thirty-foot tree in the centre of Bristol to take the star from its top.

But more generally public trees spread Christmas cheer and became part of what many enjoyed about the season. Thus in 1949 one local newspaper, while noting how common public trees had become in the southwest of England, argued they were ‘the centres of colour, life and laughter in the market places of many towns’.

Public trees, however, were more than just public celebrations intended to raise festive spirits.  The 1950s and 60s saw most towns and cities also start decorating their retail centres with displays of electric lights to promote Christmas shopping and the public tree became part of a wider civic display.

Making Christmas shopping pleasant mattered because so many people also found the expense, decisions and crowds stressful.  The ambience a tree and decorations generates compensates for that and helps make Christmas shopping a special experience.

Indeed, with consumers expecting shopping at Christmas to be different from the rest of year, any town or city that does not spend money on decorations risks losing custom to a nearby rival or, increasingly, to the convenience of online shopping.  A study of Manchester in 2012 found that the council’s festive lighting had cost £339,000 but that the city’s Christmas markets alone had generated £71 million in spending.

Unhappy people are always more forthcoming with their views on the world than those who are content.  Cardiff Council should thus take some comfort in the likelihood that their derided tree will generate more quiet cheer than vocal complaint.

They should also take comfort in the fact that putting the sparkle of a Christmas light onto a winter street is not only something of a tradition in itself, it’s also good for the local economy. Online retailers have many advantages but they don’t provide a tree and lights to enjoy.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University. He is the author of a new book, Christmas and the British: A Modern History, published by Bloomsbury.

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