Рождественская елка на площади Святого Петра, происхождение и значение

Christmas tree tradition in St Peter’s Square

With only a few days remaining before Christmas you can feel the holiday cheer all around, streets filled with lights and colors for the most awaited celebration of the year. In the squares of many cities around Italy you can see a Christmas tree, which has become a tradition: aming these squares there is St Peter’s, one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. But how did this tradition come to be? And when was the first tree set up? Let us find out together!

Roma, a piazza San Pietro arriva l'albero di Natale: donato dal Friuli  Venezia Giulia -

The history of the Christmas tree

The history of the Christmas tree is quite complex and tracing its extremely old origins is no easy task: some claim that the tradition came to be in the northern countries, in particular 24 of December when Adam and Eve are celebrated in Germany. The spruce was considered the tree of paradise and the symbolic fruits hung from its branches. To druids, who were Celtic priests the spruce was a symbol of long life because it is an evergreen tree: already back then spruces were cut down and decorated with ribbons, bells and votive animals to obtain the fa out of the gods. Later on, it appears that Vikings worshipped the cult of the red spruce believed to have magic powers.

Others claim that the first Christmas tree was set up in 724 AC by San Bonifacio, bishop and martyr. The legend goes that one day San Bonifacio met some pagans that were intent on worshipping the gospel Thor with a rite which had young kids sacrificed in front of a big oak. San Bonifacio shouted “This is the oak of thunder and this is the cross that will break the hammer of the fake god Thor” and he started hitting the tree with an axe to stop them. All of a sudden the wind started to blow and the tree fell down: behind the oak there was a young green spruce.

San Bonifacio then addressed the pagans again, and stated that that tree would be their sacred tree: in fact it represented the wood of peace, symbol of an everlasting life being an evergreen and its triangular shape represented the trinity. Later on the catholic tradition spread throughout Germany and German immigrants subsequently brought it to America. 

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The first city that according to history hosted the first Christmas tree was Tallin, in Estonia, in 1441: the story goes that a huge spruce was set up in the town square where men and women danced looking for love. Later on this tradition was picked up by the German people of Brema who in 1570 set up a tree decorated with walnuts, dates and apples. 

To this day it remains a tradition that people all over the world are particularly fond of: in some countries they prefer buying spruces grown specifically for this purpose, others opt for a synthetic one to reuse year after year. Decorations vary a lot: colored balls, ribbons, pendants, some people even use the pictures, and of course the comet on top is a must although other decorations have made their way into people’s homes such as a red ribbon.

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The Christmas tree in St Peter’s square

Be it as it may, the Christmas tree tradition has become essential. As already stated earlier on, many squares are starting to get their decorations and of course the Christmas tree going, a case in point being St Peter’s square. The first Christmas was set up here on request of Pope John Paul II: in fact, he had a huge decorated spruce right at the center of the Bernini colonnade. 

That spruce was donated by a Polish farmer who transported it on his own with his truck all the way to Rome. From that moment on every year the tradition of the Christmas tree in the middle of the square is carried on: at the feet of the obelisk the nativity scene is set up and on the right the Christmas tree stands tall, each year coming from a different part of Europe. This year, the Christmas tree that has just arrived to Rome is 28 meters high and 113 years old and will remain up until 9 January 2022. This year the 40th Christmas tree is celebrated in St Peter’s Square: the spruce comes from the Trentino Alto Adige region, from the sustainable forest of the PEFC certified Gruppo Territoriale.

This tradition has led to some criticism: there are those who wonder if it is sensible to unroot a century old tree that can live up to 600 years which has an immense naturalistic value only to decorate a square, albeit one of the most famous in the world. It is also true that tree comes from forests grown with that purpose but unfortunately none of these tree is ever replanted at the end of the Christmas period as it would mean having to spend quite a lot.

It is also good to remind ourselves that the alternative would be to have a plastic tree, which would too represent a non eco-friendly choice: how to combine the old traditions with the ever increasing need for more environmental awareness? The question remains unanswered.

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