Christmas at the Tate - and a flock of blackbirds in a fir tree

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The Independent Online

The robin may be the garden bird most traditionally linked with Christmas in the British Isles, but the artist Gary Hume's choice of blackbirds to decorate Tate Britain's tree does have some festive logic, a gallery spokeswoman said.

Blackbirds have always had strong associations with the season through the popular song "The 12 Days of Christmas", the spokeswoman said . "The line 'four calling birds,' refers to blackbirds and may derive from the more traditional wording, 'four colly birds,' since 'colly' means black and refers to the soot of coal."

Tate Britain has been commissioning artists to create a Christmas tree for the past 18 years with results ranging from the fairly traditional to the wildly contemporary. Mat Collishaw's creation in 1999 appeared conventional but included a video of rats nibbling at mince pies at the base. Shirazeh Houshiary hung a tree upside down in 1993. Most controversially of all, Tracey Emin decorated a tree and gave it to a centre for people affected by HIV and Aids, leaving only a note requesting charitable donations.

Gary Hume, 43, whose tree was unveiled yesterday, is one of the generation of artists including Damien Hirst who graduated from Goldsmiths College, London, and came to prominence in the early 1990s.

The former Turner Prize nominee chose a traditional Nordmania spruce tree and decorated it with a flock of hand-painted, stencil-cut birds made from steel plate. "I used friends to help cut them out and spent a week in the studio listening to records and painting the beaks and eyes. All together, I thought they became quite ominous," he said.

The Tate also is celebrating the season with an e-advent calendar created in conjunction with BT. Behind each of the 24 online windows, there is a different piece of art, including some pieces which have been recently donated to the Tate and some previously unseen works.

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