TREE HUNTING – The journey from forest to home

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The delightfully crisp pine smell of a freshly cut Christmas tree makes you roll back your eyes and peer into your nostalgic, magical memories of festivities gone by. It kicks off the spirit of Christmas and fills the house with a nice ambiance of family togetherness that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate at other times of the year. The Christmas tree is the centrepiece of most Gibraltarian’s living or dining rooms and is decorated accordingly, with many families harbouring their own traditional Christmas baubles, colourful tinsel and wreaths. It is without a doubt a family affair when relatives search through the depths of old cupboards for that box that has everything from Christmas ornaments to the figurines used to decorate the ‘nacimiento’ (the Christmas cribs). Once the collection of a year’s worth of dust is blown away, it is time to gather round this year’s tree and begin the magic. The little ones rub their hands together and bob up and down with excitement as the shiny ornaments are pulled out of the box by an elder. The flashback of the previous year and the fantastic toys they received come flooding back and their sparkling eyes become positively infectious to all around them.

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Norway spruce

The Christmas tree as we know it was developed in early modern Germany before eventually spreading to the rest of Europe. However, evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands were a symbol of eternal life to the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. The worshiping of trees was also customary amongst pagan Europeans and the tradition survived the conversion to Christianity. In reality, there are many countries with their own culture and folklore attached to the ‘Christmas tree’, and in many circumstances they are linked to magic. Some Scandinavian customs revolve around decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil. In Gibraltar, however, people tend to follow the Latin American tradition of setting up Christmas trees on the 8 December (the day of the ‘immaculate conception’) and are left standing until 6 January. In line with the global commercialisation of Christmas, the Rock goes all out to provide the full experience for locals who are enchanted by Christmas lights and huge ten-metre-high trees.

The Basque supermarket chain, Eroski, which is run locally, will provide Gibraltarians the opportunity to purchase two types of Christmas trees, the picea abies (grown in Germany) and the picea glauca (grown in Denmark). Gibralflora, a local florist and garden centre that has supplied Christmas trees to Gibraltar for the last 25 years, are at the heart of this business on the Rock. The picea abies, or Norway spruce, is a species native to Northern, Central and Eastern Europe and is one of the most widely planted spruces, both in and outside of its native range. This is the traditional and most common green Christmas tree and is distributed all around the world. The Picea glauca, the white spruce, has a blueish gray tinge to it and is a species native to the northern temperate and boreal forests in North America. It was introduced into England and parts of continental Europe in or soon after the year 1700 and into Denmark around 1790.

White spruce
White spruce

Gavin Viñales, Gibralflora owner, said his supplier from the Netherlands has provided Christmas trees to customers around Europe for the last 80 years, “They hold plantations of these trees and take care of them meticulously. I have been with them for the last 25 years and they are the best in the market. You cannot beat the Dutch when it comes to knowledge about plants, they are the experts. They are also extremely conscious of the environment whereby they plant three new trees for every one that they cut down,” he said. This is very important nowadays with more concern surrounding the environment and it puts people’s minds at ease that they are not harming the earth by purchasing a Christmas tree. It is an ongoing process for the supplier which, as from January, begins planting new trees as well as tending to the others throughout the year, “We bring over trees as high as ten metres and we will put one of them outside the Sunborn when the time comes. The trees come over in a 20-foot truck. Everything is packed in neatly with the big ones at the bottom and each tree has its own colour scheme that signifies its height, so it is easy to tell them apart.” All the trees are presold and they arrive in Holland three days before they depart for Gibraltar in order to be packed onto the transport truck. Gavin has a database of clients who place their orders for trees year in year out and the list is ever-increasing. The trees are delivered right to your home and it gives that personal touch people want during the festive holidays, “We take them out by hand and if we have a ten metre tree we need ten men to lift it out. It is almost like a Christmas workshop when the trees arrive. We need to close off the whole area and spend around four hours unloading.”

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Crossing the border, searching for a Christmas tree and then lugging it into your car is not the most attractive prospect for locals. They would much prefer a hassle-free process, which Gibralflora and Eroski provide. However, the company still calls customers in to choose their tree. They would have already selected their size but all the trees are natural, so no two are the same. People have their own preferences and the mad rush before the doors are open for business is rather daunting for staff, but nevertheless very exciting, “Some people prefer the thicker ones or they check every branch to make sure it is the right one for them. Grandparents come with their grandkids and sometimes we have whole families gathering around to pick a tree as if it were a ritual. I suppose it is in a way. I’ve had clients tell me, ‘hey, I don’t want such a thick one this year, it was touching the dining room table and left us with no space’. I suppose every family has discussions about the Christmas tree around the dinner table.” One of the more light-hearted moments Gavin remembers was when one particular customer who called him in a panic demanded that he rush over to his home immediately, “‘there are three spiders on the tree and both my husband and I are terrified’ she told me. It was hilarious, but was a one off. Although these trees are screened meticulously, they are still out in the wilderness and the spiders might have been very small when they were in the plantation and grew as they were transported. It shows that a fresh Christmas tree can hold many treasures, some perhaps a little unexpected as it was in this case.”