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Switzerland's Christmas tree tradition comes of age

Christmas trees have become a Swiss tradition over the past two centuries

(Keystone)

The Christmas tree, central to the Yuletide tradition, is a relatively new phenomenon in Switzerland. It was only about 200 years ago that lighting the tree's candles became a part of the Christmas custom.

It was only during the 19th century that Christmas trees - known in Germany since the 1500s - slowly began to appear in Swiss households.

Today there is scarcely a Swiss family with children which doesn't have a tree - by mid-December local tree-sellers have set up their stands in every town and do a roaring trade.

From grower to retailer, Christmas trees are an industry. Walter Jäggi from Solothurn, for example, is a tree farmer who sells about 3,000 Christmas trees each year from a stand. Another - Stefan Weiss of Aargau - hopes to sell 400 trees this year, all slow-growing Nordmann pines.

Switzerland's retail chain, Coop, sells about 100,000 trees at Christmas. Although Coop buys most of its red pines from local suppliers, its Nordmann pines are imported (unfortunately for Swiss tree growers like Weiss).

Coop's Karl Weisskopf says the stores sell at most 10,000 artificial trees. "They aren't usually for homes. People buy them for shop windows and foyers - places where they'll be up for weeks," he told swissinfo.

Many of the live Christmas trees on display in public places around Switzerland are from cantonal forests. Forester Christoph Zuber, for example, recently delivered over 200 trees to the city of Basel.

"About 100 went to schools, banks, theatres, cemeteries and the zoo, and another 40 were delivered to the psychiatric clinic," says Zuber. "This year we also provided 70 trees to downtown stores; for once they coordinated their decorating plans, so we were able to give them a hand."

Families can also buy their Christmas trees from public forests. "Twenty years ago we used to sell 2,000 trees, but now it's only about 500," says Zuber. He speculates that people must be getting their trees at the big stores, even though they are not as fresh.

St Gallen's huge Klosterplatz tree came from a private garden and was flown to the square by helicopter. The city set it up, local electricians donated their time to light it, and students at the college of art made the ornaments.

Apart from a few large trees like this one, Christmas decorations in different Swiss cities are usually organised by the merchants' and property owners' associations.

In St Gallen, for example, each important shopping street has its own "Gassengesellschaft" to ensure that flowers and benches appear in summer and Christmas ornaments in winter.

For the past 30 years the merchants' associations of downtown Bern have decorated the streets with trees - or more accurately, the tops of trees, provided by a forester in Schwarzenburg. This year, however, only the older half of the city is decked with Christmas trees (410 in all); the other half is festooned instead with hanging lights.

What happens to all the used Christmas trees after Three Kings Day (January 6)? Many are removed with the garbage; others are collected on special pick-up days. Either way, most are burned, although in a few cities - Bern and Geneva, for example - they are shredded and used as compost.

Franz Weibel, chief forester for the city of Bern, cuts about 5,000 trees from the city's forests each year for Christmas and plants 4,000 seedlings to replace them; the rest, he explains, come back on their own. Overall, the Swiss Christmas tree trade is carefully calculated and evenly balanced between grower and consumer.

by Kim Hays

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