(Above: Dundee’s Christmas Tree in 1990)
What would Christmas be without a Christmas Tree? It’s hard to believe that this essential part of the celebration has only been in the UK for less than 200 years. And whilst we have been bringing evergreen pines into our homes for the best part of two centuries, the practice of having a public tree is a lot more modern, at least in this country.
I’m not sure which city had the first public tree, Riga and Talinn claim the accolade, dating their first trees back to 1510 and 1441 respectively. In many cases, big city trees are given as a thank you. In 1917, the people of Nova Scotia thanked Boston for their help after the Halifax Explosion by sending them a tree, a tradition which was restarted in 1971. Of course, the famous Trafalgar Square Tree is a gift from Norway as thanks for help in World War 2. The Christmas Tree behind the White House, known as the National Christmas Tree, has been lit by Presidents since 1923 and even has its own website. But when did Dundee get its first public Christmas tree?
For this we must travel back to 1952. What a year – there was a new Queen, Reindeer were reintroduced to the Cairngorms and tea rationing had ended! Hoorah. For the first Christmas tree in Dundee we have to thank the Rotary Club. Councillor Hardie suggested having a tree in City Square at a meeting of the Inner Wheel Club on 22 February 1952. Mr Hardie comparing us to Americans, called Brits “drab” and said that a tree would create an “atmosphere” in the city centre.
The Rotary Club applied to the Council for permission to erect a tree in City Square for 2 weeks at the end of December. The original application was discussed by the magistrates on 11th June, and there were no major objections by them. Further discussion was made on 13th August, when the rotary club added that they would be playing records to the crowds. The Magistrates agreed, so long as they obey the police if they told them to turn it down. Performance periods was limited to before 10:30 pm. In a minute of the Works Committee meeting on 1st September it was agreed that the tree would be 30ft tall.
The tree was put up on 20th December. It was 42 feet tall (quite a bit bigger than the agreed height) and the Courier claimed it was 32 years old and came from the Duke of Atholl’s estate. There was a program of events for ten days, culminating in a grand celebration on Hogmanay. The lighting ceremony took place on the 22nd, a mere 3 days before Christmas. The crowd were regailed with tunes played on the Caird Hall organ by Mr James Hinchcliffe and piped out into City Square. The 300 lights on the tree were switched on by Mrs W K Mearns, wife of the Dundee Rotary Club president. The Lord Provost and Magistrates also took part in the event. Despite a rainy day and a chilly wind, there was a good turn out in the crowd. The ceremony was rounded off by carol singing by the Rockwell Senior School Choir.
There was entertainment put on each day at the tree, with the aim of raising money for local charities. Most days had sessions between 2 and 4 pm and at night between 7 and 9 pm. This included choirs and carol singing, pipe bands, brass bands, accordion bands and Scottish country dancing. The Salvation Army, Boys Brigade, local schools, clubs studios and bands took part in the 10 day long event. On Christmas Eve, the Courier claims that 500 people gathered to sing carols at the foot of the tree in City Square. On Christmas Day itself, the Highland dancers had to be halted at 8pm because of persistent drizzle, meaning that it was not safe for them on the slippery stage. After 15 minutes it eased off, and after a tarpaulin was put over the stage so that the dancers could resume their routine. To make up for the lost time, they were given 5 extra minutes at the end of their slot.
On Hogmanay the High Street was closed in anticipation of the throngs of people who would be bringing in the New Year in the centre of town. Much like the opening ceremony of the tree, the closing on 31st December was to start with a tune on the organ,followed by a prayer from the minister of the parish church and New Year Message from Lord Provost Black. The crowd was then led in renditions of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘A Guid New Year’. Its estimated that 10,000 people squeezed into the square and high street for the bells at midnight.
The following year the organisation of the Christmas tree was taken over by the Council, with the help of the Rotary Club. In 1953 the tree came from Dalguise and was supposed to be same size as the first tree the year before, but the tree that arrived was a whopper at 50 feet tall.