The controversy surrounding the ‘record-breaking’ Christmas tree

24 December 2016 12:13 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Last year it was a bra this year it is a tree; Sri Lanka apparently likes to finish the year off with a controversial bang. This year, the proposed ‘World’s Tallest Christmas Tree’ at Galle Face has managed to stir up quite a debate, a result that seems to plague recent projects on this stretch of beach.   

The project started in August under the auspices of the Minister of Ports and Shipping Arjuna Ranatunga in an effort publicised as creating the ‘World’s Tallest Artificial Christmas Tree’, a record which is currently held by GZ Think Big Culture Communication Co.,Ltd. (China), in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China for a tree of 180 feet. The cone-shaped skeleton is to be covered with a green mesh and inundated with an estimated one million pine cones. Its height; 320 feet. Keeping aside all the fame in 2004, Pope John Paul called the Christmas tree a symbol of Christ, exalting the value of life, and it reminds Christians of the “tree of life” of Genesis 2:9, an image of Christ, the supreme gift of God to humanity.   

The attempt however came under heavy fire, notably from the Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo who called it a ‘wasteful expenditure’. However after both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance met with the Cardinal to discuss the matter, the project seems to have got the festively appropriate green light.   

Irrespective of any blessings the project has received, the proposal has presented two issues. The general commercialisation of Christmas which has been an ongoing concern of a portion of society and the use of 12 million for a Christmas tree Guinness World Record.   

The Project Chairman Mangala Gunasekara said he was hoping to finish the tree by Christmas Eve (today). Rs.1.10 million has been used up of the total budget of 12 million. When asked about how the project was being funded, Gunasekara said most of the funding was via the various raw material itself, with Multilac sponsoring the paint and SR Metals sponsoring the metal needed. “The wood we used was that which was being discarded so we were able to purchase it for an extremely cheap amount. This was the case with most of the material we had to pay for. 

The pine cones for example were bought from an impoverished village in Nuwara Eliya, so we were able to help the community as well through this process.” When quizzed about the donors of the funding, Gunasekara responded that the full list of donors would be read out when the tree was to be unveiled. “Mobitel was going to give us Rs.4.5 million for this project but this didn’t happen when the project was put on hold, so we had to go behind people begging for money.” The raw material used for this however will not be used again once the tree is taken down after being up for the planned 13 days, Gunasekara added.   

With regards to the Guinness World Record aspect of the project, he said the report had to be given in before March. 

  “I personally believe there are three benefits that will result from this project. Firstly, great fame and glory will be brought to Sri Lanka. Secondly it will have a great impact on tourism. For instance, a few days ago, an entire bus of tourists visited the site and said the only reason they would be staying back would be to see the erected tree. Thirdly, this project will showcase the artistic and creative ability of our people,” said Gunasekara. He added that this was merely his personal opinion and that he didn’t know how the rest of the public felt, nor as to the views of the Christian community in Sri Lanka since he was a Buddhist himself.   

It had been reported previously that the Buddhist Society of the Ports Authority would be sponsoring the entire project but when Upali De Zoysa of the Society was spoken to about this, he said it was all a misunderstanding. “We are not sponsoring the project. It is just that we gave a donation of Rs.10,000 initially as part of the Port Authority.”   

When one of the sponsors, Multilac, was contacted, they responded that they were not considering any ‘bigger picture’ through the project, other than the statement that would be given to the public that Multilac was “one of the 3 companies in the world to have led free paint.”   

The artist of the Christmas tree, Nanayakkara, described it not as a commercial project but as an artistic creation. “We wanted to embark on this to uplift tourism in the country and to bring about religious harmony. Therefore, a team of 10 of us went and spoke to the Secretary to the Minister of Ports and Shipping who got us in touch with the Minister who agreed to help us out.” The project started in August with a budget of 12 million. Nanayakkara says that with regards to the funding process, it was merely private companies using parts of their profits to give back to their country. When asked about whether the tree would be completed by today, Nanayakkara didn’t sound optimistic, merely stating that the entire skeleton had been made and referred to the delay being due to the stoppage of work due to the concerns that were raised by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. “I am a Buddhist but I think that religious feelings are felt more when decorations like this are seen by all. This is the same with Vesak lanterns for Vesak and crackers that are lit.” Nanayakkara urged the general population to help in this project since there were almost 150 people volunteering presently. “We are not being paid a salary and people generously provide us with meals.”   

Reverend Edmond Thilakaratne, media director of the Archdiocese of Colombo, clarified that the stance of the Cardinal had always been the same and that was that whatever had to be done should be in the true spirit of Christmas. “He is not going to ask anyone to put up trees or to ask them to stop.”   

It is not just a decoration. The philosophy behind it is that the tree symbolises life during the winter period. Having the tree within one’s home is a symbol of this life. In Church, we make use of the tree to understand this event. Therefore this tree is not out of place at all. It is within the framework of the spirit of Christmas.   

According to Fr. Joseph Benedict, most rituals involved with Christmas were introduced by St. Joseph Vaz, Sri Lanka’s saint. This was after the coming of the missionaries to Sri Lanka. St. Joseph Vaz travelled around the country to find out how people had been celebrating Christmas and took the initiative to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Originally during the period of Christmas, people would read the Bible together and engage in a service to meditate on the coming of Jesus. On the new initiative, the use of certain objects, including the tree, were also revived. “It is not just a decoration. The philosophy behind it is that the tree symbolises life during the winter period. Having the tree within one’s home was a symbol of this life. In Church, we make use of the tree to understand this event. Therefore this tree is not out of place at all. It is within the framework of the spirit of Christmas as it 
evolves devotion”   

Therefore, it seems as though all is festive on the beach, with the star on the tree being the possibility of a Guinness World Record. The cost benefit analysis can, however, only be made after the completion of the tree and balances on the assumption that the expense of 12 million will have positive and long-lasting impact on our tourist industry and arts and crafts of Sri Lanka. This is added with the probability that Sri Lanka does indeed receive the World Record next year. All in all several probabilities pitted against a sum that arguably would have had more evident benefits were they used for bigger social problems. But then again maybe Father Christmas has a stocking full of goodies coming our way!   

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