Bigger isn't always better

13-12-2003

It would not have occurred to me that something like that could happen - but I did not like the thing anyway. I'm talking about a Christmas tree, the tallest in this country, nicknamed Big Charles, that stood in Prague's Old Town Square until last Saturday when it came crashing down and nearly killed several people.

I could not believe that the City Hall had not had its stability checked by an expert and that the tree was actually six metres taller than regulations allow in that place. No wonder that a sudden gust of wind snapped the 31-metre tall conifer at its base like a sapling.

Four people, including a child, were hit by the falling mass of wood. One of them, a 54-year-old British tourist, may have to live with permanent consequences to his health.

This tragic accident is not the cause of my dislike of the tree, though, but rather a confirmation of my gut feeling. Call me a grumpy old pessimist but I always thought such tall Christmas trees in an almost non-religious country were a sign of megalomania rather than devotion and respect for tradition.

The tallest Christmas tree in Prague traditionally comes from the deep forests in the easternmost part of the country. The tree has to travel for more than a day to get to the capital, obstructing traffic on the way. A team of technicians travels ahead of the tree and takes down all overhead wires, only to put them back again when the "king" has passed. In the meantime, trams and all other traffic have to wait.

Last year, by coincidence, I found myself in the Old Town Square on the very evening when the tree was to be officially lit up. The square was packed. There were people clearly exhausted after a day of Christmas shopping, but there were also families who had come all the way from the suburbs specifically for the occasion - a supposedly spiritual moment of collective awe at something beautiful and bigger than us.

But it was anything but that. While the orchestra was solemnly playing "Silent Night", people shouted abuse at each other as they kept stepping on each other's feet, being nudged by elbows or not being able to see because of someone's big hat. I was quite repelled and I resolved that the coming year I would make sure to be somewhere else on that night.

A year has passed. Since the horror-movie accident of last Saturday, a new Christmas tree has been erected on the square to replace the fallen giant. Its successor is five metres shorter. To me it doesn't sound like that much of a difference to feel safe anywhere near it. So now, at least, I have a sound reason to avoid the Old Town Square at Christmas time.

13-12-2003