Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree: Where's It From? What's Its History? When's The Switch-On?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 6 months ago

Last Updated 17 November 2023

Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree: Where's It From? What's Its History? When's The Switch-On?

"Trafalgar Square is changed as never before. A 48-ft Christmas tree has sprung up on the west side of Nelson's Column." So began a newspaper article on 22 December 1947, as a new — and endearing — Christmas tradition lit up in London.

The grandaddy of all London's Christmas trees takes pride of place in Trafalgar Square, but what's the story behind it? When and how does it arrive here? And why are Londoners so bloody ungrateful about the whole thing? It's time to spruce up on your arboreal knowhow...

Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree: The tree at night, illuminated in front of the National Gallery
Every year, a 20-metre Christmas tree from Norway is erected in Trafalgar Square. Image: iStock/stockcam

What exactly is the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree?

Arguably the most famous Christmas present in London, the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is a lofty (roughly 20-metre-tall) Norwegian spruce (Picea abies if you're being all Latin about it) gifted from Oslo to London each year. This has been the case since 1947, when Oslo sent London a tree to reward its/Britain's efforts during the second world war. This included providing a safe haven for the King of Norway, Haakon VII here, in London, and allowing the Norwegian government-in-exile to govern from here. Bonus fact: there's a good story along these line about Claridge's and the Yugoslavian Crown Prince too.

But why a tree, and not, say a nice Scandinivian jumper or something?

The tradition of cutting down a tree and putting it up in Oslo's Universitetsplassen is a long-held tradition. So sacred is it, in fact, that even when Norway was occupied by the Nazis during the second world war, members of the Royal Norwegian Navy snuck back into their own country to cut down a tree each year, bringing it back to London for King Haakon (now THAT is a Christmas film waiting to happen). Today, the tree symbolises not just what Britain did in the war, but also a respect for democracy, human rights, peace — and solidarity between the two countries/cities.

Where does the tree actually come from?

A fresh (and by fresh, we mean 50-to-60-year-old) tree is felled in the Nordmarka Forest, to the south-west of Oslo every year, in mid to late November. It's nicknamed the 'Queen of the Forest'. The Mayor of Oslo takes one end of the saw, and the Lord Mayor of Westminster takes the other. It looks like pretty darned hard work.

When does the tree arrive in Trafalgar Square?

It's got a bit of a journey; travelling by road to Brevik, then across the North Sea to Immingham, then by road again to London. The tree usually arrives in Trafalgar Square a few days before the switch on, giving time for it to be lifted into an upright position, and adorned with 500-odd vertical fairy lights.

Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree:  A cucumber being held up to the Christmas tree
Science in action. Image: Londonist

When is the lighting ceremony?

A special lighting ceremony, which involves carol singing and poetry readings, traditionally takes place on the first Thursday of December — so in 2023 that's 7 December.

And every year, Londoners express their heartfelt gratitude to Norway for the thoughtful present... right?

Well mainly, yes! The tree doubtlessly brings joy to millions of Londoners and visitors each yuletide. But as of recent years, the tree has come in for some, well, needling, with critics complaining it's 'underwhelming', 'wonky', and 'looks like a cucumber'. Some Norwegians naturally took offence, one saying: "Try getting a Christmas tree from the French to see how nice that is."

Londonist were compelled to investigate in 2018, when we very scientifically asked a handful people what they thought of the tree, before holding up a cucumber in front of it.

Our official line here at Londonist is that we love your tree Norway, and please don't stop this lovely Christmas tradition — Takk skal du ha!

Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree:  The tree in the background with a bronze lion in the foreground
Londoners didn't exactly behave when the tree first arrived here in 1947. Image: Raphaël Chekroun via creative commons

But Londoners reacted appropriately when the first tree arrived in 1947, yes?

Oh, they liked it alright, maybe a bit too much. Wrote the Yorkshire Evening Post: "Within a few minutes some of the crowd had begun to pull of pieces of the tree decorations as souvenirs." Sigh.

What happens to the tree once Christmas is over?

If you're worried that cutting down a majestic spruce is a tad wasteful, know that, after Twelfth Night, the tree is taken down, and turned into mulch, which is then used on gardens around London.