RIGA — Latvia and its Baltic neighbour Estonia are exchanging friendly jabs over the claim that each was home to the first-ever town Christmas tree some five centuries ago.
As the Latvian capital Riga marks what it says is the 500th anniversary of its tree, its Estonian counterpart Tallinn has hit back.
"I received a present from the mayor of Tallinn, Edgar Savisaar, a short Christmas tree," Riga's mayor Nils Usakovs told AFP.
"He congratulated us on the 500th anniversary of the Riga Christmas tree and reminded us that Tallinn is celebrating the 569th anniversary," Usakovs said.
"It's good that the sole topic of disagreement between Riga and Tallinn is who has the oldest Christmas tree," he joked.
In the ongoing jousting, Latvia's tourist office rented billboard space in Tallinn inviting locals to see the home of the tree -- at Riga's festival.
According to researchers who back the Latvian side, the first tree wasn't actually the classic evergreen known today.
In 1510 a group of merchants built a pyramid-shaped wooden structure dubbed a "tree", decorated with dried flowers, fruit and vegetables, and even straw toys.
They are thought to have paraded it around their meeting hall before burning it to signify the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.
Estonians, meanwhile, insist that the world's first Christmas tree was erected in front of Tallinn town hall in 1441 as part of a winter ritual where merchants and single women danced around the tree and later set it on fire.
"The Latvians' claim that the first public Christmas tree was put up in Riga is not correct," art historian Juri Kuuskemaa wrote in Estonian largest daily Postimees this week.
Both Riga and Tallinn at the time were home to guilds of unmarried merchants, known as the Blackheads, who were traders from German statelets.
Mike Johnson, a Riga-based American who has researched the history of the Christmas tree, said the origin debate was in any case fairly academic.
"It is after all a legend, much like Santa Claus, and what right does Finland have to call itself Santa Claus's home?" he told AFP.
Copyright © 2010 AFP