It was huge and purple. The massive construction soared more than 80 feet into the air and throbbed in time with the lights and music. I stood there, staring at it trying to understand what the problem was. No, it wasn’t traditional but when the light show came on and the music blasted, it was an amazing spectacle to behold. It was hard for me to believe that this decidedly modern Christmas tree was at the root of so much angst in Brussels.
In December 2011, my partner and I spent the Christmas holidays in the Belgian capital and loved being part of the festive spirit. In the center of town at the massive Grand Place was an enormous pine tree, decked out for the holiday season. When we returned in 2012 though that traditional tree had been replaced by something new, contemporary, different but amazing nonetheless.
Every year Brussels celebrates the holiday season with a month-long winter festival that is one of the best I’ve seen. Rows upon rows of merchants selling everything from mulled wine to handmade soaps line the streets and everyone is out strolling with loved ones in tow. Every night during the festival the Grand Place transforms into an open air light and music show, a brief interlude that never fails to amaze and entertain. This is where the tree controversy comes in.
Not surprisingly, the people of Brussels have been somewhat wary of the change from a big, bright traditional Christmas tree to an even bigger and brighter modern version. My lack of surprise isn’t a slight against the Belgian people; it’s just human nature. People dislike and distrust change and you can see that in every corner of the globe. After some research though I was a little surprised at the undertones of the controversy, which smack of racism, something I wouldn’t have expected in one of my favorite European countries.
Like many other countries in Europe though, Belgium has seen a rapid and sudden change in their demographics in the last 10-20 years, and such shifts always strike fear into the hearts of many. People are distrustful of new cultures by nature and when coupled with a down economy, tend to blame them for their troubles. You can see this trend pop up throughout the Western world repeatedly over the centuries. It’s nothing new, but it has made Belgians start to consider what it is exactly that makes them Belgian.
What really surprised me though was that the average person didn’t seem to understand what the tree was really being used for. They knew it was there in the Grand Place, they knew it was modern and most knew that they didn’t like it. But they’d never seen a clip of the tree in action during the light show, in its full glory. I can’t believe that the local news hasn’t showed what the reality of the situation is and I hope they haven’t been feeding into baseless fear.
What does the tree mean for Belgium? Not much, not the tree itself. It is still a tree after all in shape if nothing else, no traditions have been halted and the celebrations persist. I have to believe the change was done not in a nod towards multiculturalism, but towards facilitating a better light show and to paint Brussels in a more modern light, to escape specters of staleness and being too stodgy. But the tree has reignited a debate in the country and it’s something it will have to deal with in the future. Like many other nations before it, Belgium has to learn how to accommodate new people while maintaining the traditions and culture that make Belgium unique.
So what did I think of the tree? I loved it. At first I was taken a little aback, it looks like one of those horrible fixtures one sees in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. But after watching the light show for the first time I was hooked. The organizers of the event have so much more creative license now than before and the stunning results are amazing to watch in person. There’s still a tree, it’s still in celebration of Christmas and I think people should have realized the real intent rather than invent more nefarious ones. But that’s just me.
Here’s a brief video of the tree in action during the light show, tell me what you think.
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