Year after year, people complain about the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree. It's underwhelming, they say. There was the year it was wonky. And then there's the perennial: it looks like a cucumber.
So we went to the tree to find out what people really think about Oslo's annual gift. With a cucumber for comparison, obviously.
The first people we run into are staunch defenders of the tree. Born and bred Londoners, Martin and Yvonne have come to Trafalgar Square to hear their friends sing carols and say of the tree: "It's simple, traditional." They like the sense of continuity it provides, Yvonne elaborates, "Don't go changing everything all the time. It's for us oldies, you young people can have that," and she points to the Fourth Plinth. Currently sitting atop the plinth is a replica of a statue of Iamassu, from 700 BC, which stood until Isis destroyed it in 2015. By our maths roughly 2700 years trumps the tree's 71, possibly making it more of an 'oldie', but we get the gist of what she's saying.
The next people we chat to are even more dismissive of any tree criticism. When we raise the cucumber comparison, Alistair responds damningly: "That's because people don't have any taste." His friend Faz isn't quite as enthusiastic, offering up a paltry, "It's alright". He thinks more should be done to make it look festive as it's such a tourist attraction.
However, Alistair likes that it doesn't change each year, and then proceeds to tell us about the Norwegian history of the tree. Most people we talk to do this, offering it up as if it's a slice of niche knowledge that only they know, and they're letting us in on a bit of obscure trivia. We're sorry to disappoint them, but there is a big sign at the bottom explaining the tree's history. And anyway, just because it's a gift, that doesn't mean it has to look like a cucumber. There are things you can do, with lights and baubles.
We do meet one person who has no idea about the tree's provenance. We spot Roy standing a distance away from the tree, trying to capture the perfect shot with his DSLR on a tripod. He's visiting from India, and he's come to London during the Yuletide season, so while he's here, he's trying to see each major tree.
To him "this one stands out because it's different." That's true but is it cucumber-different? As soon as we mention the comparison, he's overcome with the giggles. He even agrees to pose in front of the tree holding our beloved green vegetable with a beaming smile across his face.
Claire is also taking tree snaps, but on the rather more common smartphone instead of Roy's bulky get-up. She is another one taken by the tree's continuity. "It's nice to keep some things how they are. Especially right now with Brexit and everything."
There we are then. This tree should look like a cucumber forever, because Brexit. She seems in a rush, so we don't get a chance to point out that Norway is a European country famously not in the EU.
It looks more like the Shard than the cucumber.
Finlay's been sitting on the steps between The National Gallery and the tree, listening to some carollers. When we catch up with him and talk about the cucumber, he smirks, but still sees something to like in the tree. "It does look a bit like a cucumber, but it's nice, it's understated." He's the second person we've met tonight using the word 'understated' to defend the tree's appearance, as if it's a 20-metre protest against our maximalist capitalist society.
While we're there, we put a post up on our Instagram page to see whether people were happier to criticise the tree from the safety of social media, rather than in the almighty plant's presence.
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The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, with some young carollers beneath. The tree is a gift from the city of Oslo, as a token of thanks for British support in the second world war. One has been given annually since 1947. Just one question. Do you think it looks like a cucumber?
The comments here are more negative. "A little imagination goes a long way!"; "The lights are just wrong"; "It's awful. The worst tree in London." Maybe social media is the root of all this negativity.
People forget what a real tree looks like
So far, most people we physically meet are Team Tree. It is, however, worth pointing out, that if you're a tree critic that you're less likely to come to Trafalgar Square on a bitingly cold winter's night, to hang out next to a tree you find underwhelming.
As the night continues, we do come across some naysayers. We spot Neil taking a selfie in front of the tree with a friend, but despite deeming it worthy of a pic, he doesn't seem all that convinced by the tree. So what's wrong? Is it the shape? "No, a tree's a tree." Instead his gripes are to do with the decoration: "They could have made more of an effort with the lights, they look like abseiling ropes someone's just dropped from the top."
He also says it's not as good as the tree in Covent Garden.
Comparing this tree to nearby Covent Garden's is a recurring theme amongst those we chat to, especially tourists. Konstantin is a tour guide, who's assembling a group at the base of the tree. He says, "people forget what a real tree looks like." That's in reference to the tree we're stood beneath, while he says Covent Garden is more like "Frankenstein's tree", that someone's done plastic surgery on to make it look so perfect.
That's not to say he thinks less of Covent Garden's tree, or having such a real tree is completely necessary. He whips out his iPad and shows off a really depressing picture of the tree from a few years back in the middle of the day, which he likes to show off to those on the tour. Someone on tonight's tour says we should have respect, because the tree's a gift, but then goes on to say she doesn't think it's so great herself. A principled character.
Someone else who isn't convinced is John, who mutters bitterly: "It's not all that impressive. The lighting's not all that impressive, it's just straight down." He says it was like this last year too, and he didn't like it then either, and that it used to be better. In our mind it's always looked this way, so we're surprised to find archive images of the tree with the lighting twirled around the branches artfully, instead of the underwhelming vertical drop.
Other people can't quite make up their minds on the tree. Sue and Diane are here specifically to see it, but aren't quite sure about the final product. We raise the cucumber similarity but that doesn't convince Sue. "It looks more like the Shard than the cucumber." We see where she's coming from — it is both pointy and blue.
Finally we meet Alicia. "When I moved to the UK [from Poland] I heard about the tree and was really excited. But then I got here and it's a bit plain. It's OK. I've seen worse trees."
So there we have it. It looks like Trafalgar Square's cucumber is another sign of divided Britain.
UPDATE: Since this article was published the tree itself got in touch to provide a comment on the cucumber debate. Read its words beneath:
A wise tree once told me that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. My understated decorations are a tree-dition. My lights may not shine as brightly as some of my evergreen brothers and sisters but I hope I am a symbol of lasting friendship for the people who visit from across the country and the world during the festive season. In that spirit, I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, even if you think I look like a cucumber.