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A steel installation, replacing the traditional Christmas tree, is illuminated at Brussels' Grand Place November 29, 2012. The 25-metre-high sculpture was designed by French architects Pier Schneider and Francois Wunschel.FRANCOIS LENOIR/Reuters

When the city of Brussels decided to forgo its traditional Christmas tree in the city's main square this year and try something new, officials had no idea the turmoil they would cause.

The decision has not only divided the city, it has stirred up ethnic tensions, prompted an online petition and caused a fierce debate about the place of artwork in city streets.

It all began with a decision to replace the traditional Christmas tree in the historic Grand Place with a piece of modern art – a collection of giant steel-framed boxes stacked 24-metres high into something resembling a tree. At night, the boxes light up with swirls, spots and bright colours, all to the sound of pulsating music and lasers flashed across nearby buildings. By day, visitors can climb up the structure to a wooden viewing platform at the top.

The Xmas 3, as it is called, has faced a storm of protest and it was hard to find many fans of the design during a visit this week. "It looks like crap," said one American tourist. "Who let them put that up?" asked another woman. Many others just shrugged or shook their heads when asked about the tree. One woman said it resembled scaffolding on a construction site.

"I deplore it," said Bianca Debaets, a city councillor who represents the Christian Democratic Party of Flanders which has Catholic roots. "It's steel and cold, there is no warmth. It doesn't fit with our tradition."

Ms. Debaets caused an international stir last month when she said the city had made the decision to placate Brussels' growing Muslim population. "I suspect that the reference to the Christian religion was the decisive factor" in replacing the tree, she told reporters at a press conference. "For a lot of people who are not Christians, the tree there is offensive to them."

Her comments were picked up by media around the world, causing a flood of calls to City Hall. She hasn't backed down much since then, other than to say some of her comments were spun by journalists.

She points out that the city has also changed the name of its annual seasonal festival from "Christmas Market" to "Winter Pleasures." And now with the removal of the real tree from the Grand Place, "we are seeing the disappearance of another direct reference to Christmas."

Ms. Debaets is winning support. Nearly 30,000 people have signed an online petition saying that forgoing the traditional tree is another example of the city making too many religious accommodations. Already the city has banned religious symbols in public places and taken pork off the school lunch menu. Return the Christmas tree "and respect of our values and traditions," the petition said.

"She is all wrong," said Nicolas Dassonville, a spokesman for Brussels Mayor Freddy Thielemans. "But [her comments] worked in the media and it has created a bit of a scandal."

Mr. Dassonville said the city was simply trying something new and he denied any attempt to play down the Christianity in Christmas. "We have a [nativity scene] in the Grand Place. How is that non-Christian?" he said.

The Xmas 3 is part of the city's attempt to build up Christmas as a tourist season, he added. For years, December was the slowest time of the year for tourism in Brussels. To help turn that around, the city launched a winter carnival in 2000 called "Christmas Market." Since then the event, renamed "Winter Pleasures," has expanded and now stretches across nearly three kilometres of the historic city centre with a skating rink, Ferris wheel, concerts, light shows and dozens of shacks selling everything from clothing and chocolate to hand-made soap. It appears to be working. Last year the city pulled in 11/2 million visitors during the holiday season.

"We have been trying each year to reinvent it," said Mr. Dassonville explaining the decision to go with the modern art concept this year in Grand Place. The Xmas 3 also costs less, he noted, coming in at roughly €40,000 ($52,000), about one-third the cost of a real tree. The nightly laser show, which has become a Grand Place tradition, is less expensive with the Xmas 3 because it needs fewer lights. And the modern "tree" is also sponsored by a local energy company, saving the city even more cash.

Mr. Dassonville acknowledged the Xmas 3 has prompted a stronger reaction than the city expected. But not everyone is opposed and the city has received many positive comments, he said. Some people have also criticized Ms. Debaets for drumming up anti-Muslim sentiments.

But the majority of comments have been from people who just don't like the look of the thing. To many it is jarring next to the centuries-old buildings in the square, one of the most famous in Europe. Facebook pages are filled with angry comments about the work.

"It has created a debate, and why not?" said Mr. Dassonville. "If we can create a debate about the place of modern art in our city, that's good."

But when asked if the Xmas 3 will return in 2013, he replied: "We'll see about next year."

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