Baltic states battle it out for Xmas tree supremacy

The Baltic states may have recently signed cooperation agreements on joint energy and rail links but on one question they remain divided: who has bragging rights as home of the first Christmas tree.

Insisting it has the right to be regarded as the true home of the decorated Yuletide tree is Latvia's capital city, Riga. Medieval documents suggest local merchants set up a decorated Christmas tree in 1510 and burned it a part of a seasonal celebration.

A large plaque proudly marks the spot on which the festive inferno was believed to have happened, outside the so-called Blackhead's House – currently the office of the Latvian President.

Backing up the claim is the US' National Christmas Tree Association which confirms: “The first written record of a decorated Christmas tree comes from Riga, Latvia. Men of the local merchants’ guild decorated a tree with artificial roses, danced around it in the marketplace and then set fire to it.”

However, soon after Riga started to actively market itself as the home of the first Christmas tree to mark the 500th anniversary of the event in 2010, Estonian capital Tallinn claimed it could provide an even earlier date with the city's tourism website declaring: “The Christmas Tree on Town Hall Square was erected by the Brotherhood of Black Heads guild already in 1441, making it the first public Christmas tree ever put on display.”

According to Mike Johnson, an American resident of Riga who has researched the rival claims, it's hard to tell exactly who is right. While Riga seems to have the stronger case, Tallinn has shown smart thinking in staking its own claim and has been much better at marketing itself as a Christmas destination, he says.

“The Estonians are a little more clever. Tallinn figured out that there was a House of Blackheads in both places. It was one merchant organization in two cities and so they said 'We'll be first' and dug up some piece of paper – I've never seen it – saying they were first. Riga has sheets of paper – I have seen them – and that's what this discussion is about,” says Johnson.

Occasional good-natured jousting between Estonian and Latvian media and politicians on the Christmas tree controversy has actually helped both cities, Riga mayor Nils Usakovs told LSM.

“Honestly speaking, we have no idea when precisely the first Christmas tree was decorated in Riga,” Usakovs admits.

“We just decided to say our Christmas tree is the oldest in Europe - and the story was an absolute success. Tallinn protested instantly. They said we were wrong and that the oldest Christmas tree was Estonian. Both cities increased their number of Christmas tourists," the mayor says.

But while Riga and Tallinn have been slugging it out under the mistletoe, Vilnius in Lithuania is set to steal the limelight from the pair of them.

Instead of poring over historical documents, Vilnius has concentrated on providing ever more spectacular decorated trees with this year's effort turning a 25-metre-tall tree (bigger than both Tallinn and Riga's) into a huge fairytale cottage with 13 windows, six balconies, 50,000 lights and more than 3 km of cables from which actors read stories every day.

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