The monumental Christmas tree that rises every year in the centre of St Peter’s Square has become such an essential part of Rome’s festive season that many people think it has always been an integral part of the Vatican Christmas celebrations. But in actual fact, the tree has only appeared beside the more typically Italian Christmas crib relatively recently. Previously the Holy See considered it to be a foreign tradition, rooted in paganism, belonging to the culture of the Protestant peoples of the north, and therefore an inappropriate symbol to be featured in the heart of Roman Catholicism.
The first Vatican Christmas tree was introduced by Polish Pope John Paul II in 1982 and aroused quite a few initial rumblings of disapproval. Legend has it that this first tree was gifted by a Polish peasant who brought it to Rome on his lorry but other sources claim it was actually an Italian tree. Be that as it may, the custom caught on and ever since then European provinces with available forest and a strong Catholic tradition have vied with each other for the honour of supplying the tree that will stand guard over the nativity scene beside the obelisk in the centre of St Peter’s Square.
This year’s tree comes from the Luson forest near the mountain resort of Bressanone in the Italian province of Alto Adige. A 30m-tall spruce of some 80 summers, the cost of its transportation to Rome is financed, as customary, by the donating region. The tree is delivered at the beginning of December and last year Pope Benedict XVI turned the lights on by flipping a switch inside the Apostolic Palace overlooking St Peter’s Square, but past ceremonies have assigned the honour to young people of special merit, such as 11-year-old Juergen Lengauer, who had saved his two-year-old brother from drowning and was chosen to light the 2005 seven-tonne Austrian pine from Eferding, near Linz.
In all events, the tree-lighting ceremony is a colourful affair, attended by crowds of sightseers and folk-costumed dancers and musiciansfrom the donating area. In the exceptionally wet December of 2008, with the Tiber threatening to wash over the nearby bridges, the pouring rain did not deter the hundreds of carol-singing pilgrims who had accompanied the colossal red spruce from Gutenstein in the Piesting Valley of Austria, while a young member of the region’s Altenburg choir flicked on the 1,500 led lights installed by Vatican electricians and technicians.
Over the past 28 years, the majority of trees have come from the mountains of Italy, with the Sila region of Calabria claiming the record in 2006 for the tallest tree ever – a 32m-tall silver fir weighing nine tonnes that had to be partially transported by helicopter. In addition to Austria, other contributing European regions that have sent trees over the past ten years include Transylvania in Romania, Gorski Kotar in Croatia and the Ardennes in Wallonia, Belgium. The 2003 and 2004 trees came, respectively, from the Valle d’Aosta in the Italian Alps and from Pinzolo in the Dolomites, two northern Italian areas dear to Pope John Paul II, who liked to holiday among the mountains.
A couple of years ago the Vatican became sensitive to criticisms from environmental groups and green-minded citizens who protested against the sacrifice of these noble secular trees, chopped down for what they considered futile purposes. In 2008 it was announced that the wood would be recycled. Since then the trees have been turned over to artisans to make wooden toys for needy children as well as partially prepared park benches, gazebos, tables and boxes destined to be finished and decorated in school workshops. Last year’s 100-year-old spruce from Belgium was hailed as an environmentally-friendly tree because it was felled as part of a project to reintroduce and encourage the growth of traditional native trees and plants.
The Christmas tree is universally seen as a symbol of peace, but the Vatican tree has also been the cause of bitter protests and controversy. During the papacy of Pope John Paul II in Jubilee Year 2000, the tree was presented by the xenophobic governor of the Austrian province of Carinthia, Joerg Haider, a professed admirer of Hitler, who arrived with a delegation of 250 people and was granted a private papal audience. The Vatican justified the event by saying that the donation from Carinthia had been decided in 1997, before Haider became governor, but this was not enough to appease angry demonstrators who clashed with riot police in the streets of Rome. Rome’s Jewish shopkeepers turned their lights off in protest at the moment of the tree-lighting ceremony and the tree itself was put under a 24-hour armed guard in case it was vandalised.
Ten years on this unpleasant incident is largely forgotten. The Bressanone tree is expected to generate nothing but goodwill and the citizens of the town are thrilled at the prospect of their tree adorning St Peter’s Square.
“We are very honoured to be giving this year’s tree,” said a spokesperson from Bressanone town hall. “We feel we have a special bond with Pope Benedict, because he’s come here on holiday. In fact, we’ve made him an honorary citizen.”
The gift of the tree will be personalised with 300 woven straw stars, a typical Christmas tree decoration used in the German-speaking Tyrol regions, especially created by the nimble fingers of the women of the Bressanone Movimento Cattolico.