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A wing and a prayer: angels should top our festive trees

For more than a century it took pride of place – a shining harbinger of joy atop the verdant emblem of Yuletide. But now after many years languishing unloved and forgotten in the nation's lofts, the Christmas angel is staging a comeback against the creeping ubiquity of the star.Yesterday it was announced that one of the country's leading department store chains is leading a Twitter and Facebook campaign to save the angel – a tradition which became popular in the wake of the Germanisation of the British Christmas in the 19th century.

But according to figures from Debenhams, nearly nine out of 10 trees this year will be topped by a star rather than an angel. In fact such is the plight of poor old Gabriel, the retailer estimates that just 9 per cent of trees will be decorated with an angel – only 4 per cent more than will carry a fairy which has nothing to do with the nativity.

Debenhams' Ed Watson urged customers to revive the dying tradition.

"The Christmas angel signifies everything wholesome and dignified about Christmas – it is as equally important to the nativity as the star and deserves to be celebrated as such.

"The angel signifies the true meaning of the festive period and is a way of reminding us as to what Christmas is really about. In this respect the tree topper is more important than the presents underneath," he said.

But it could be an uphill battle. The nation's two most famous Christmas trees – the one outside Number 10 Downing Street and the gift from the people of Oslo to the people of London at Trafalgar Square - are both topped by stars.

Yet according to the Church of England there is little to separate the two at least in terms of theological importance.

According to Luke, the Gabriel – or the Angel of the Lord - appears to the Virgin Mary foretelling the birth of Jesus. He also appears to explain Daniel's visions in the Old Testament and announce the birth of John the Baptist.

The star meanwhile appears in the Gospel of Matthew guiding the magi from the east towards Bethlehem where Christ has just been born.

Steve Jenkins of the Church of England said both star and angel were attempts to impose Christian iconography on the German tradition of the indoor evergreen tree – a mode of celebration that was rapidly adopted by the British middle classes after it was introduced by Prince Albert. "Stars are just as much a part of the Christian Christmas story as angels so we are equally happy with either," he said.

Unlike the United States, Britain has remained largely unscathed by the annual "war on Christmas" argument prevalent in America, which erupted with exceptional ferocity last year when Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee insisted on using the phrase "holiday tree".

This year he gave the public just 30 minutes' notice of the lighting ceremony to prevent a repeat of protests.

Pope Benedict, meanwhile, has ordered that donkeys, oxen and any other beasts should have no place in nativity scenes as there is no scriptural evidence to support their presence at the manger when Jesus was born.