Earlier this year, the mayor of Oslo, Fabian Stang, announced that the city wouldn’t be sending Reykjavik their annual Christmas tree. This was something of a big deal, as Oslo has been sending Reykjavik, London, and Rotterdam a tree as a token of friendship for over 60 years. According to the mayor, the reason behind this break in tradition was its cost—it is reported that packing up and flying a tree overseas costs Norway around 180,000 Norwegian Krone [$29,000] every year.
As was expected, the decision didn’t go down too well with the people of Iceland, and Reykjavik mayor Jón Gnarr made some snide comments about Iceland basically writing the story of the Norwegians' independence in 1905.
To make matters worse, news was soon released that, unlike Rotterdam and Reykjavik, London would still be receiving a Christmas tree. Not sure how Rotterdam felt about this, but in the end, the huge Icelandic backlash made the Oslo mayor retract his decision and restart the tree-gifting process.
I spoke to the writer who broke this important story of international diplomacy.
VICE: Hi, Kari. So what exactly is the significance of the tree?
Kári Tulinius: Most children in Reykjavík for the last 60-something years have been taken to see the lighting of the Christmas tree, which Oslo donates to Reykjavík. It is an integral part of most people's childhood memories of Christmas.
Norway and Iceland aren't known for being religious. Why was this tree such a big deal in the first place?
It's true, neither Iceland nor Norway are especially religious (the cross on their flags notwithstanding) but Christmas is a huge deal. It is the darkest time of year. It is cold and there are only a few hours of sunlight. Going all out to celebrate at the end of the year is the only way that Icelanders get through the dark, cold winter.
Were people in Iceland as angry as the internet made it look?
No one is ever as mad as they seem to be on the internet. The human race would have wiped itself out thousands of years ago if people could attain the kind of frothing rage that they appear to reach on online comment sections. But yes, many Icelanders were hurt by Oslo's decision, mostly because it was so unexpected. When it emerged that the City of Oslo would still send a tree to London, people's feelings were hurt—they were caught off-guard and lashed out online.
How big a deal is the actual ceremony of lighting the Oslo tree?
I have not personally been to see it since I was a small boy, but generally it is attended by thousands of people—mostly families with small children. In a city of 120,000 that is a lot of people. Additionally, the lighting is always shown on the evening news of RÚV, the state broadcaster.
Were there any other reasons for breaking the hearts of the people of Iceland, other than the costs?
My suspicion is that someone saw this line item in the budget and thought it would be a simple way to save a bit of money. It also allowed the City of Oslo to reduce their carbon footprint, which is laudable enough, but sending a tree to Iceland is perhaps not Norway's biggest contribution to global warming.
What do Icelanders think of Norwegians now?
Broadly speaking I think this did not affect many Icelanders' perception of Norway. Icelanders consider Norwegians to be practically family. Scandinavians are routinely referred to as "our cousins" in public discourse. I think the decision by Norway, the Faroe Islands, and the EU to exclude Iceland from negotiations on a fishing rights treaty changed the opinions of the Icelandic political class. Many felt that Norway was underhanded in its deal-making, which is not something that anyone expected.
So there is no resentment in Iceland toward Norway? They did say they will still send the tree, after all...
I think this will be forgotten. If Oslo had gone a year without sending a tree, then people in Reykjavík would probably have felt hurt, but as the Oslo Tree was "saved," probably no one will remember this little episode. It is a bit like a family dispute—if the apology arrives on time then there is no time for resentment to build up.