THE COUNTDOWN to Christmas begins officially for Londoners tonight, with the ceremonial lighting of a 20 metre tall tree in Trafalgar Square at 6pm.

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This year, St Martin-in-the-Fields church choir, a Salvation Army brass band and Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth are to provide the music for the festive lighting-up ritual.

Since 1947, the people of Norway have given London a Christmas tree as a thank you for Britain’s support during World War II. In 1940, when the Germans overran Norway, its King, Haakon VII, fled to Britain.

While in exile in London, Haakon set up a government and planned his return to Norway once the war was over. In 1947, two days before Christmas, the first Christmas tree was presented.

Like its predecessors, this year’s tree, the 65th, was carefully selected from the forests surrounding Oslo. In 1947 it took four days to dig a 6ft hole in the middle of Trafalgar Square to anchor the tree. Today, a hydraulic crane is used and the tree is secured with a socket and clamp in a few hours.

In 1960 Westminster City Council wanted to ask Norway to pay for the electricity bill but Parliament stepped in. In 1980 the council tried to stop the tradition altogether to save the £5,000 cost. This year, energy efficient bulbs will be used.

The tree will remain in Trafalgar Square until just before the Twelfth Night of Christmas on 5 January, when it will be taken down and recycled.