The Christmas tree is one of the most popular and widespread symbols of Christmas. Setting up a festively decorated tree is a tradition in many countries around the world. But where was the custom actually established and who tossed the first tinsel on the classic evergreen? The question has caused a not-so-serious battle and seasonal rivalry in the Baltics that has been branching out to all three capitals.
In the end, it all depends who you ask. For Latvians, the answer is clear: Rīga. The city claims that it is the site of what was believed to be the world’s first decorated tree in 1510. A memorial plaque set in the cobblestones on the town hall square proudly marks in eight languages the spot where it allegedly was set up. Some years ago the city erected on top of it also a permanent Christmas tree sculpture made of bronze. The legend is also presented in the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation where visitors further have the opportunity to see an ancient Christmas tree decoration: a small glass ball with a forged metal hook from the 17th century.
Nearly 300 kilometres north of Riga, however, the inhabitants of the Estonian capital Tallinn are singing a different carol. They claim the first decorated Christmas tree in their city already appeared in 1441 – and thus beats Rīga by 69 years. This, every year ahead of Christmas, leads to a friendly feud between Latvia and Estonia over which of the two cities has the right to be called the birthplace of the Christmas tree.
The only thing Riga and Tallinn are unanimous about is who first erected and decorated the tree in each of the capital: Both contending accounts trace the tradition back to mid-winter season ceremonies by the Brotherhood of the Blackheads – a medieval guild made up of young, unmarried German merchants living at that time in both Hanseatic cities on the Baltic Sea.
Land of the first Christmas tree?
A proposal several years ago by a Latvian Parliamentarian for a Christmas truce suggesting both sides agree that Livonia is the home of the Christmas tree was rebuffed by the then Estonian Prime Minster faster than one could say “Merry Christmas“, even though he later agreed on this diplomatic definition together with his Latvian counterpart.
However, Tallinn has still taken a policy of total non-recognition when it comes to Riga’s claim – not least because the city fathers believe that the first festive ceremony in their town in 1441 involved a real tree: a spruce. In Riga, the historic guild records indicate that the merchants in 1510 probably put up a tree-shaped wooden candelabrum decorated with dried flowers, fruit and vegetables, and even straw toys.
While some historians from both countries support and underpin each of the different versions with historical data, others are skeptical and stress that there is actually not enough contextual evidence. Neither Rīga nor Tallinn could actually claim from the existing sources to have definitively originated the Christmas tree, they argue in a Grinch-like manner. For them the legends circulated by both cities are no more than myth and modern marketing to attract tourists during the coldest and darkest time of year in the Baltics. Being the birthplace of the Christmas tree is a big selling point after all in the wintertime season – at least in non-COVID-times.
How and wherever the tradition of putting up a decorated Christmas tree might have been established – both in Rīga and Tallinn you are usually able to ponder it over mulled wine, gingerbread and sugary treats at the annual Christmas markets. Centrepiece of each of the markets in the old town of both Baltic capitals is a large tree, but with Rīga's Christmas market cancelled this year and Tallinn's taking place in a reduced form, Tallinn gets a walkover victory by default this year only.
Vilnius lights up Christmas tree battle
While Rīga and Tallinn have been for quite a time engaged in good-natured jousting and poring over historical documents under the evergreen branches, Vilnius has also entered the battle for the Christmas tree supremacy. Having no rival claim to be home of the first Christmas tree, the Lithuanian capital in recent years has tried to compete with ever more spectacular decorated trees.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year the city has also come up with one-of-a-kind Christmas tree. It looks like a surrealist picture and has been designed to be safely admired from a distance: The actual traditional tree is located inside a blocky exoskeleton decorated with branches, colour-changing lights and silver ornaments.
However, the essence of the controversy and the bickering over which nation first started decorating the Christmas tree, is the notion that the tradition ultimately was born in the region – be it in Rīga or in Tallinn. The public argument has made international headlines and helped both cities, and increasingly also Vilnius, to gain international attention. Because after all Christmas would not be the same without a Christmas tree.
This feature also appears in the Baltic Business Quarterly magazine produced by the German-Baltic Chamber of Commerce in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (AHK) and is reproduced here by kind permission. Find out more at the official website and read the rest of the magazine at https://www.ahk-balt.org/lv/publikacijas/zurnals.