18. Norway spruce

I put my Christmas tree up this week.

I know, I know. It is early. It is, in fact, still November. I could make excuses for this. I could tell you it’s because we’re away for our wedding soon, and then away for Christmas, so if we don’t get it up early, there’s no point getting it at all. I could also tell you that IKEA had trees for £25 with a £20 voucher, and that’s a helluva deal.

But the thing is, I shouldn’t have to. I love Christmas trees. I love Christmas. And lo, my tree is now up.

Let me tell you a bit more about it.

There are a few different trees we use as Christmas trees. The most popular in Europe is the Norway spruce, Picea abies. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, you may instead choose a blue spruce, which has lovely silver-blue foliage, or a Nordmann fir, which is mainly sold as a “non-drop” tree. But you shouldn’t, because neither of them smell like a Christmas tree.

Christmas is a holiday built on nostalgia. The entire point of Christmas is, every year, to try to create the ultimate ur-Christmas of your childhood, the one that never actually happened. Clear winter light, dog lounging by the fireside surrounded by a lunar landscape of presents, a dusting of snow on everything outside the house, and of nutmeg on everything inside the house. Coca-Cola truck rolling past as you step outside. And, of course, the unmistakable smell of Norway spruce in the air.

To invite another kind of Christmas tree – or worse, an artificial tree – into your home is to commit a kind of sacrilege. (As Jez in Peep Show put it, “Of course I don’t believe in Jesus, but I do believe in Christmas. I’m a Christmasist.”) You know when you go to a restaurant and, instead of giving you Heinz ketchup, they offer some schmanzy artisan ketchup they made themselves, and you wonder, “How has so much effort gone into something so disappointing?”? That’s how I feel about people who choose non-Norways. They don’t smell right, and smell is the most important Christmas sense.

Americans, incidentally, choose different trees entirely. Their most popular trees are the Douglas fir (post coming soon) and the balsam fir, which is also prized for its scent. This makes sense: both are North American natives. You do you, America.

Some Norway spruces are special. If you go to London, Edinburgh or Washington DC this Christmas, you will see a fine and grand specimen at the centre of town. These are provided by the city of Oslo every year, as a thank-you for the respective nations’ help during World War II.

And then there is Old Tjikko. Some trees reproduce through a process known as layering: when a branch touches the ground, it sends out roots, and a new tree grows that is a clone of the ‘parent’. Norway spruce is one such tree, and through this process, Old Tjikko – a tree in a remote part of Sweden – has come to be 9,558 years old: the oldest plant in the world.

In other words: Christmas trees are five times older than Christmas, and my nostalgia is entirely justified.


There will be a short break in service on this blog while I get married. Please twiddle your thumbs, read my archive, and buy some poinsettias.


  1. Another fine post, thank you. We’ll be getting our Douglas fir or Noble pine tomorrow here in the San Francisco Bay Area; these are both native to the western U.S. — and the Noble is just that. I’m for Christmas when you want or need it.

    Hoping you have a lovely wedding.

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