You want a sign of the times? Winnipeggers now face the previously unthinkable possibility that a towering spruce tree will not be erected in the courtyard of Winnipeg City Hall to mark the Christmas season. You can blame the weather.
Mayor Brian Bowman on Wednesday announced the city won’t cut down a tree to erect in the city hall courtyard because of the lingering effects of the horrific October snowstorm on the city’s tree population.
Mr. Bowman argued the equipment and personnel needed to fulfil this tradition are occupied with the cleanup, which the city believes could take until spring. In that context, redirecting city or private crews to assist with the Christmas tree project would be counterproductive.
The city said it will now look at acquiring "an alternative tree" to keep the tradition going. That means we have an opportunity to turn this Grinch-like setback into an opportunity to start a new and possibly more enduring tradition.
The idea of cutting down a tree that has taken the better part of a century to grow is a bit outdated. Individual residents have already made the decision to replace real trees with artificial ones in large part to stop the widespread cultivation and cutting of real trees.
Winnipeg is not the only city facing a moment of climate truth when it comes to the annual holiday tree tradition.
In New York City, the raising of an even bigger tree at the plaza at Rockefeller Center is a deeply embraced tradition even as concerns are raised about it being an inherently wasteful practice. To placate those concerns, the building owners repurposed the tree after the holiday season, turning it into lumber that is then donated to Habitat for Humanity projects.
Other cities have decided to go artificial to keep the tradition going. In 2017, Vancouver erected a 25-metre-high metal-framed artificial behemoth at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Residents claim that while the tree is rather underwhelming during the day, at night, when it is fully lit, it is even more spectacular than the real trees that were used in earlier years.
These examples confirm an important reality about the holiday tree tradition.
In the end, the joy we get from this tradition is not really about the tree. It’s also about the lights, which symbolize hope, peace and optimism. In that context, the city should be creative in looking for an alternative. There are other examples in Winnipeg to draw from.
Several buildings around the city feature long-standing holiday light installations, including the three wise men who sit atop the Great-West Life building on Osborne Street across from the Manitoba legislature, which is itself trimmed in vivid lights. The holiday light fixtures that sit atop the median along Portage Avenue and Main Street downtown have also been known to prompt seasonal cheer.
Perhaps we don’t need a tree at all. Artificial trees, after all, have their own environmental consequences. Perhaps a sculpture or some other structure could be used in place of a venerable tree. One can easily imagine a design competition to come up with an environmentally friendly holiday light installation for city hall.
If we focus on the lights, and not what supports them, then we can spare the real trees with the knowledge that they, ultimately, serve a much more important purpose in our lives.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.