There may be no bigger, more dramatic way to announce the holiday season than by sending a helicopter with a giant Christmas tree flying over a shimmering fjord with the soft winter light in the distance.
The city of Tromsø in northern Norway has been putting on this festive display for more than two decades, and when the giant, 100-year-old spruce tree approaches over the water, it truly feels like Santa Claus himself is delivering a present to the people watching below.
There’s a small window of less than two hours to make the magic happen: The end of November means northern Norway is enjoying its last moments of natural daylight before it switches to total darkness until the end of January. Around noon, the 39-foot tree is flown in from Charlottenlund, a small mountaintop looking out over the city.
The helicopter avoids flying over the center and makes an elegant detour by following the clear waters of the archipelago around Tromsø. The timing has to be right: no wind, no snow, a clear sky, and that quintessential, soft, pinkish Arctic light to welcome the tree. In one smooth movement, the blue spruce is lowered into a hole on Tromsø's main square, which looks out over the quiet harbor and the snowy mountaintops with the Arctic Cathedral as a backdrop.
A group of men and women, dressed in yellow reflective vests, await the tree delivery. A couple of locals look up, smile, and continue on their way. A handful of tourists do look surprised and shocked: a flying Christmas tree? There are no official announcements when the tree is going to be flown in. The city doesn’t want to make a fuss about it and prefers to keep it low profile and not a selfie-with-a-flying-Christmas-tree moment.
Aina Myreng, who is responsible for the tree operation, observes how the men straighten the spruce. “You know it’s cheaper to fly in the tree than to bring it in by truck. It’s been like this since 1992 and it has become a tradition,” she says. Aina is tasked with decorating the tree in the coming days with her fellow colleagues, all of them working for the city of Tromsø.
“We will be a women-only group because our male workers claim they are afraid of heights when they have to hang the 150 Christmas lights in the tree,” she says with a smile.
In the last weekend of November, the Christmas tree is lit during a merry ceremony drawing many locals who love the festive atmosphere. There’s a fanfare playing, food stalls are selling local delicacies like boknafesk — delicious semi-dried cod — and all the buildings are lit up with thousands of Christmas lights. Expect a lot of merry choir-singing, traditional sweet lefse (Norwegian pancakes), and special Christmas beer on the menu, plus coffee brewed outdoors over an open fire.
The second weekend in December is the moment when lots of people from the inland valleys come to Tromsø, and the festive season is not taken lightly in the North. During the intensely dark winter months it’s the best excuse to come together, to eat and drink, warm up over an open fire, and enjoy a real, Arctic winter.
There’s only one thing left to do after the tall Christmas tree of Tromsø is finally lit and shines in the polar darkness: to wish each other god jul (Merry Christmas) while looking forward to the moment when the sun comes back in the new year.