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Christmas trees – what on earth are we doing?

Stop and think about it, just for a minute. For a month a year we go up to a random man on the pavement, pay £50 for a uprooted tree bigger than we are and put it in a bucket in the corner of the living room, then cover it in bright plastic. The question has to be asked: what on earth are we doing?

Christmas trees are an odd habit for us to have as a nation. And as with many Christmas traditions, Queen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert is to blame.

Although the first Christmas tree in the UK is thought to have made an appearance in 1800, have a decorated trees in your house became popular in 1840 when Prince Albert sent home for a large tree to entertain his wife Victoria and their new baby with. The London Mission Society decorated the tree to look like a Tree of Paradise, laden down with oranges, other exotic fruit and candles, just like in Germany.

Parol for sale in the Philippines.
Image credit: Noel Autor

The idea soon caught on and Christmas trees became a staple in the UK, and from there, further afield to the US and the colonies.

Trees never really caught on In Europe outside of Germany. Countries there have different but equally odd traditions. In France it is all about a log.

There, the yule log is the centre of celebrations. Where possible, the whole family gets involved in cutting down the log, which is burnt gradually over the 12 days of Christmas. If any is left it’s stored until next Christmas, which apparently helps protect against lightning.

The log inspires the traditional French Christmas dessert of Bûche de Noël, which is a very delicious sponge cake covered in soft chocolate icing to replicate the bark. If the wooden log’s not for you, then Mary Berry's cake version certainly should be.

 chocolate yule logflaming yule log
The yule log: dessert or fire? Up to you!
Image credit: French Entrée and Why

In Italy, the nativity scene – called the presopo - is the central focus. At its simplest, this is miniature replica of the barn in which Christ was born, populated by the figures who were present at the birth. While Catholics in the UK often have a nativity as well as a tree, in Italy the nativity is a much grander affair. The mini barn is covered in coloured paper and strung with shiny painted pine cones and miniature decorations. Little candles light up the sides and a star hangs at the apex. It often forms part of a village setting that is similarly lit up. If you’re visiting in Italy over the festive period, you’d do well to at least some acknowledgement of it: most people will kneel before it and musicians will even play songs to the barn’s occupants.

An impressive presopo
A fully-lit presopo, with backdrop. Photo credit: Prolococopertino

In the Philippines, fresh Christmas trees are very expensive as they’re not a native species. Instead, people make their own versions by hand in a variety of sizes and materials. Far more attention is paid to the parol, which are a kind of paper lantern that is hung from every window of the house, representing the Star of Bethlehem. These have become supersized in recent years, appearing on the streets as part of the general festive celebration.

 brightly-lit parol
Public displays of enormous parol (from the Spanish farol, meaning lantern) are common in the Philippines at Christmas.
Image: Experience Project

So it's not all about the tree. Why not use some ideas from celebrations around the world to give your home an international flavour this Christmas?