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Monday, December 22, 1997 Published at 17:33 GMT

Special Report

Norwegian Christmas cheer

One of the most magnificent sites of Christmas is the tree in Trafalgar Square in Central London - and it bears a history which reflects the traditional Yuletide values of generosity and thanksgiving.

During World War II, in 1940, King Haakon VII of Norway fled his country, hotly pursued by the Germans. He found asylum in Britain and set up a Norwegian Government in exile. For five years, in a house off London's Hyde Park, he was busy preparing for his eventual return home.

So grateful were the Norwegians for Britain's help that they decided to send an annual gift which measured up to the extent of their thanks and respect. The majestic Norwegian spruce was chosen.

The first tree, donated in 1947, was 48ft high and was presented to Britain two days before Christmas by the Norwegian Ambassador Hr Prebensen, after it had taken four days to dig a 6ft hole in the middle of Trafalgar Square.

"This is a symbol of the extremely close and cordial relations existing between Norway and Britain," he said. "I am convinced that these relations will continue." The Eurovision Song Contest apart, this prediction has so far come true.

Although the tree is these days around 75ft, not much else has altered in its 51 year history. Every year it is picked out by the Head Forester from the 17, 500 hectares of Oslo's municipal forests.

It is carefully cut down in an intricate procedure involving tractor, clamp and cradle and transported to Oslo docks from where it begins its journey to Felixstowe.

[ image: The tree is a focal point for Christmas visitors to London]
The tree is a focal point for Christmas visitors to London
At first light the tree is crane-lifted into the now permanent setting equipped with socket, clamp and electrical point in the square.

Finally, it is shrouded in its traditional Norwegian mantle of 500 white lights surmounted by a star which are turned on at a special ceremony attended by Norwegian Embassy guests and British officials and heralded by the choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

The lights shine out every day from noon to midnight until twelfth night. But that isn't the end of the story.

At the International Woodworking Exhibition at Wembley Exhibition Centre in February they will be selling master craftwork in aid of Children in Need, made from genuine Norwegian pine.

But it hasn't been all sweetness and fairy lights. Cordiality has been threatened on more than one occasion. In 1960 there were plans to charge Norway a higher electricity bill until Parliament intervened. In 1980 Westminster Council wanted to stop the tradition altogether to save the 5,000 cost.

The tree's physical fortitude has been tested too. It suffered breakages in 1978 and 1994. Protesters decided it would be effective to chain themselves to it in 1987. It has even been subjected to a chain-saw attack.

But try as some might, not even Brussels bureaucrats, with claims about the breaking of import restrictions, have been able to fell the mighty pine.

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