We arrived in Brussels on November 23, the day after celebrating American Thanksgiving in Belgium. We thought we were too early to experience any of Brussels’ Christmas Market (from 30 November 2012 to 6 January 2013), but what better day to start the Christmas shopping season than the day after Thanksgiving, right?
We wandered through the Galeries St. Hubert, one of the first shopping arcades in Europe, before window shopping along Rue du Marché aux Herbes/Grasmarkt. (Streets in Brussels have both French and Dutch names, in case you weren’t lost and confused enough). And by window shopping I mean a quick glance as we hustled past shops on our way to Grand Place/Grote Markt (Great Plaza/Market).
We turned off Rue du Marché aux Herbes/Grasmarkt at Rue Chair et Pain/Vlees-en-broodstraat and beheld the bluest of rectangular Christmas trees. Yes, you read that right.
Translated from the City of Brussels’ website:
In 2012 the City of Brussels innovates by installing an electronic Christmas tree at the Grand-Place: the ‘Xmas 3’. This contemporary and artistic Christmas tree remains at the Grand-Place throughout a part of Winter Wonders (30 November to 28 December).
The ‘Xmas 3’ is a 24 meter high monumental electronic Christmas tree made of steel, covered with wood and a screen. For 4 euros, visitors can climb the installation during the day (from 11 am to 4 pm, 10 minutes per visit) to enjoy a panoramic view of 360° of the Grand-Place and the Unesco zone. The proceeds of these visits will go to Samu Social, an organization which helps homeless.
At night (from 6 pm), the ‘Xmas 3’ becomes the centre of the big sound and light show of Winter Wonders on the Grand-Place. This 2012 edition shows the new permanent lighting of the City Hall and the Maison du Roi (King’s House) as it comes to life in an interplay with the ‘Xmas 3’. The structure of the tree, lined with LED lighting, makes video projections (video mapping) possible.
From what I’ve seen of Brussels, the city has a decidedly French feel as compared to the more northern cities of Bruges and Ghent. Not exactly the backdrop I would expect for this wonder of modern art. This is the Maison du Roi (King’s House)/Broodhuis (Breadhouse). And, I think, the source of all that Christmas blue. Do you see the blue beam of light coming from the second story?
While we where watching, the blue tree changed to include grid lines, which also fell on the Town Hall located behind the tree from the direction of the King’s House. At the time, we thought the technicians were calibrating for an upcoming light show but, who knows, maybe that’s part of the Winter Wonders light show?
But then the Town Hall joined in the show. From darkness to green to quickly increasing, oscillating, then decreasing wedding-cake white, the entire building gleamed before receding into darkness only to be lit up spectacularly once again.
But was it a purposeful decision or one the City’s tourist board was pressured into making? If you read many a blog and even a few “news” stories, you may believe that the decision to replace the traditional Christmas tree with an electronic installation was based on a desire to not offend Muslims. This accusation arose from what was a misquote through mistranslation or distortion of the words of Mrs. Bianca Debaets, a member of the city council.
Is the hoopla an attempt by some to stir racial tensions by falsely blaming the switch from the usual real Christmas tree on offended Muslims? Perhaps. But traditionalists are also angry. Apparently, a petition calling for a real Christmas tree in Brussels’ Grand Place has attracted 10,000 signatures. But Brussels Tourism President Philippe Close said “Let’s be clear, there’ll be a Christmas tree and a nativity scene. Christmas traditions will be respected.” He also said that the City wanted “to emphasize culture and modernity, so asked artists to reinvent the Christmas tree, which is actually a pagan symbol.”
Whatever the reason for the modern take on the Christmas tree, I expect that Christmas-tree commentary will not end any time soon. After all, Brussels’ Christmas Market hasn’t even opened yet.
So, in anticipation of tomorrow’s Christmas Market opening and in the interest of art and modernity (and no tripod), I give you Grand Place and it’s snazzy, green, rectangular Christmas tree…in plastic wrap.