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A Slovenian Christmas Tree in the Vatican City

This year, following the decision of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia and in agreement with the Holy See, a Slovenian Christmas tree, a spruce from the Kočevje forests, will be erected in St Peter's Square in the Vatican City. It will be decorated with handmade Slovenian ethnographic ornaments. A Slovenian Christmas tree being put up in the Vatican, as well as the accompanying promotional events that will take place, is an excellent way to promote Slovenia, especially in the light of Slovenia’s Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2021. The project is managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food. The opening ceremony will take place in the Vatican City on 11 December 2020.

The project was presented at a press conference by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food, dr. Jože Podgoršek, Director of the Government Communication Office, mag. Uroš Urbanija, prof. dr. Janez Bogataj, ethnologist, dr. Sabina Šegula, florist, and Mr Igor Pirkovič, screenplay writer. A short presentational film was shown at the press conference.

Mag. Uroš Urbanija, Director of the Government Communication Office, pointed out in his introduction that the erection of the Christmas tree in St Peter's Square in the Vatican City is an excellent opportunity to enhance Slovenia's recognition in the world and to present Slovenia as a green country, and it is also a symbol of strong diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Slovenia. As we begin to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Slovenia’s independence in December 2020 and continue to do so throughout 2021, this will also serve as a kind of inaugural event. Moreover, it is one of the international projects that will consolidate Slovenia’s recognition in the light of Slovenia’s upcoming Presidency of the Council of the EU. Mr Urbanija pointed out that Slovenia has been granted this honour for the second time, with the first time being in 1996.

For the decoration of St Peter's Square, Slovenia will provide a large spruce, suitable for a Christmas tree, which will arrive in Rome by 30 November. For the decoration of the Holy See, Slovenia also supplied 42 smaller spruce and fir trees from 1.5 to 6 metres high, which are already in the Vatican. Smaller ornamental trees will be placed in the official premises. Slovenia will also decorate the Vatican’s rooms with Advent wreaths.

Minister Jože Podgoršek pointed out that the forest in Slovenia is a recognisable symbol of the country. In his opinion, Slovenia, through sustainable and multipurpose management, strives to ensure the continuous optimum functioning of forests as an ecosystem, of biotic communities of plants and animals and their habitats, and the sustainable use and management of this resource. He also said that the Slovenian forestry school is based on one of the most sustainable approaches to forest management. Christmas trees from the Kočevje forests, which hold the FSC certificate for sustainable forest management, are therefore a symbol of the qualities of Slovenian forests and forestry.

The minister proceeded to present in detail the dimensions of the spruce: it is 30 m high, 75 years old, weighs 7 tonnes and has a volume of 5.33 m³ and a diameter of 67 cm. The native Christmas spruce tree, as well as the remaining smaller spruce and fir trees, also hold the FSC certificate. The project of preparation and transport of Christmas trees is financed by the Forest Fund, one of whose tasks is the promotion of forests and forestry and the use of wood, wood products and forest-wood chains.

In addition to its green message, the Kočevje spruce will also spread a message of Slovenian ethnological heritage. In deciding what ornaments are most Slovenian and therefore most suitable, dr. Janez Bogataj, an outstanding expert on Slovenian ethnographic heritage, was enlisted to help. The ornament design he presented was the hexaconch. It is one of the core elements used in Slovenian cultural heritage. It was most commonly used as an ornament and symbol on house beams, door panels and sides of chests. The ornament is made of wood, which is also related to Slovenians. In addition to comet stars and a star in the form of a hexaconch, the spruce tree will also be decorated with a couple of single hexaconch stars.

Florist dr. Sabina Šegula, who, together with renowned horticulture expert Peter Ribič, has decorated the Vatican’s rooms for Easter and Christmas for the past several years, said that the main theme of the decorations was intergenerational cooperation. The decorations were primarily made at workshops that she ran herself. The outdoor trees that will adorn the Vatican will be decorated with straw decorations, and those indoors will be decorated with wooden decorations. The decorations’ motifs were designed by dr. Sabina Šegula,  with the exception of the motif of the straw angel.

Just like the hexaconch-shaped decorations, the decorations on the smaller trees also carry a special symbolic meaning. The straw angels represent our guardians against evil, while the straw snowflakes represent the snow-covered forests of Slovenia, as well as the peace and pureness of spirit that we associate with the Christmas season. Due to their unique shape, they are also a symbol of divine beauty. In addition to being a symbol of purity, they are also a symbol of new life. Just as they dissolve into water, people transform during the holiday season.

A real snow crystal takes the form of a six-pointed (hexagonal) star, to which the motif of the decoration on the large tree is connected. The wooden decorations also have interesting designs. The flower shape made of five loops – we can succeed together – symbolises the connection of the five continents. The circle with small coils symbolises the safety of being surrounded by family. The asymmetric heart symbolises the individuality of people and how every single person can show love to others in their own special way. The stylised bird decoration symbolises the Holy Spirit, a symbol of freedom.

Since we are facing difficult times in this epidemiological crisis, the cultural programme will not take place in the Vatican’s St Peter’s Square, but will be recorded in the studio of RTV Slovenija and will then be projected onto a big screen in the square. The script for the event was written by Igor Pirkovič and the very best Slovenian musicians, from singers to instrumentalists, will be performing in the cultural programme. In the Vatican, the festive day will begin with a mass for the homeland and an audience with Pope Francis, then continue in the afternoon with the cultural programme and the attendance of high-level guests. At this time, no large bilateral events are planned.

At the end of the press conference, Director Uroš Urbanija thanked all those participating, in particular thanking Ambassador of Slovenia to the Holy See Jakob Štunf. As an interesting fact, he added that the decorations that would be hanging from the Christmas tree in the Vatican City this year will also be used in Strassbourg the following year.