Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — If Germans are known for being punctual, it turns out even their trees show up early.
This year’s Christmas tree from Bavaria’s Bohemian Forest was scheduled to arrive on the feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6.
Instead, cameramen and photographers had to scramble Dec. 5, when images starting showing up on the Vatican’s 24-hour live video feed of a giant crane hoisting an 82-foot-tall evergreen in St. Peter’s Square.
Bavarian television was the only crew there for the tree’s dawn debut. They had been tipped off in the middle of the night by the German company trucking the precious cargo to Rome.
“We got here early because the weather was good, the Alps were clear (of snow on the roads) and there was no traffic,” Alois Frank, the trucking company manager, told Catholic News Service.
Holding his lemon-yellow hardhat, Frank said he and his team had left the town of Waldmunchen at 7 a.m. on Dec. 2 and got to Rome exactly 72 hours later. They had left earlier than planned to beat bad weather expected in the North, he said.
This despite an earlier bit of trouble, when a mechanical defect grounded the helicopter with which they had intended to lift the cut tree from its forest home. They ended up using a crane to transfer the conifer onto the open semi that took it to Rome.
Though not the tallest tree ever to grace the square, it was perhaps one of the fattest. Vatican workmen struggled for nearly an hour to cut and fit the three-foot-wide trunk into the metal stand’s two-foot-diameter hole.
The seemingly endless paring and pruning prompted one Italian onlooker to joke that the seven-ton majestic evergreen would end up as a toothpick.
Using ropes and a large metal pipe as a lever, the men eventually managed to twist, turn and lodge the spruce snuggly into the stand. Other trucks from Waldmunchen had brought another 60 smaller trees, destined for the Paul VI audience hall and other areas around the Vatican.
It was Blessed John Paul II who started the tradition of mounting a large Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square, and beneath it a Nativity scene, which is not unveiled until Christmas Eve.
Every year since 1982, a different country or Alpine region has donated the tree. And every year, after admiring it from his window in the Apostolic Palace, the pope has highlighted the Christian significance of the tree bedecked with lights.
Blessed John Paul often recalled how the evergreen symbolizes “life that does not die,” and teaches that people’s lives can remain “ever green” if they offer the gift of themselves in service to others.
Pope Benedict XVI called the Christmas tree a sign of the shining presence of Jesus, who “shattered the darkness of error and sin and has brought humanity the joy of his blazing divine light.”
Yet sometimes, the Vatican evergreen has also taken on other shades of meaning.
In 2002, the president of Croatia called the tree it donated a stark reminder of Serbian aggression during his country’s struggle for independence.
Then-President Stipe Mesic, in Rome to present the tree to the pope, told Vatican Radio the tree came from a farm owned by a man who had been run off his land by Serb soldiers.
An 82-foot-tall tree from the forests of Transylvania became a symbol for another former-communist country, this time, of Romania’s “hope for the unity of Europe” and of the “deep roots of our Christian faith,” then-President Ion Iliescu said in 2001, noting the tree was also the first to come to the Vatican from a predominantly Orthodox country.
The 1999 tree, from the Czech Republic, reminded U.S. Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka of the Czech people’s resistance under communism.
“This tree has weathered strong winds and many storms, but it survived,” the cardinal told a delegation from the country. “It reminds me of the long winter of dictatorship that your people had to overcome.”
Czech seminarians from the donating diocese saw the tree in a still different light and jokingly described it as an innocent victim of a “serious environmental crime.” After putting their bishop on a mock trial, they sentenced him to plant a new tree in its place.
The seminarians expressed their ecological concerns with a friendly jest, but the following year, protesters at the dedication of the Vatican tree made their point by throwing smoke bombs and bottles, to which Italian police responded with canisters of tear gas.
The demonstration, about three blocks from St. Peter’s Square, was aimed at Jorg Haider, governor of the Austrian province that had donated the tree. Haider, who briefly met Blessed John Paul when the pope greeted the delegation of donors, had drawn criticism throughout Europe for past comments opposing immigration and expressing sympathy with some Nazi policies.
More than 50 people were injured that day, and in the end, even the tree didn’t make it unscathed.
After its removal from the square in early February, the 89-foot tree was planted in southern Italy, where two days later vandals doused its base with a flammable liquid and set it aflame.
The blackened and charred tree lost not only its boughs of green, but also the Christmas spirit it had been meant to symbolize.
A related video with commentary from a Jesuit priest about the Christmas tree tradition will be available on the CNS YouTube channel, at youtube.com/catholicnewsservice.