Latvia and Estonia – Two of the three nations that make up the Baltics – don’t have a ton to hang their hats on when it comes to international notoriety. So, it’s understandable if the two are battling it out over who can claim to be the home of the decorated Christmas tree.
Both countries think they have a sturdy stump to stand on. In honor of the 500th anniversary of what officials believe to be the first tree, Latvians in 2010 erected a permanent Christmas tree sculpture in Riga made of metallic mirrors. The sculpture proclaims Riga as the “Capital of the Decorated Christmas Tree”.
Estonians, however, are singing a different carol, where historians say the first Christmas tree was seen in 1441, almost 70 years ahead of its neighbor.
This is more than just harmless bickering over which nation started decorating Christmas trees first. Holding the status as the tradition’s motherland is one of the meaningful draws for tourists at the coldest and darkest time of year in Northern Europe.
This year, for instance, the Live Riga tourist agency this year sponsored a Christmas Tree Trail of 25 stylized trees designed by artists and placed in various sites and neighborhoods to light up the dark and snowless parks and squares. One tree looks like an unfolded Rubik’s cube, some others resemble giant snowflakes. Yet another tree by the National Opera is surrounded by mannequins in sunglasses who look like The Men in Black.
In Estonia, the capital Tallinn’s City Tourist Office Convention Bureau homepage unequivocally states that “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 in Europe.”
Tallinn has one large tree as the centerpiece of its Christmas market. Here tourists can buy “felted wool hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls, wickerwork, elaborate quilts, ceramic and glassware, little sea-grass animals, homemade candles, wreaths and other decorations.” As for food, it’s “ Estonian traditional holiday food: pork, sauerkraut, black pudding.”
The medieval Brotherhood of The Black Heads sits at the root of the controversy. A guild and drinking society of unmarried merchants and part-time soldiers guarding their ships from pirates, they derived their name from their patron saint, St. Mauritius, an African Christian who led a Roman legion that refused to slaughter fellow Christians. St. Mauritius was beheaded for this mutiny.
In both contending accounts, the Black Heads ended a mid-winter season of feasting and drinking by carrying what has been described as a decorated tree into a nearby square and setting it on fire. Estonian historian Jueri Kuuskemaa believes the 1441 record describes a spruce tree, though he says that is conjecture based on pre-Christian traditions of using evergreen branches as decorations to celebrate the winter solstice.
Ojars Sparitis, a Latvian professor of art history who oversaw the building of a replica House of the Black Heads in Riga, says the whole decorated Christmas tree story is a myth and a modern marketing gimmick. Guild records indicate that what was dragged into the street by dancing revelers was probably a large, tree-shaped wooden candelabra.
The Latvian story seems to have stuck. The US National Christmas Tree Association states on its homepage that in “the first written record of a decorated Christmas Tree comes from Riga, Latvia.”
Anna Blaua, a spokeswoman for Live Riga, says it is difficult to tell whether the Christmas tree theme is attracting more tourists to Riga.
While Riga may be ahead of Tallinn in pushing its Christmas tree legend, there is a sad note to this year’s Christmas Tree Trail. One of the trees was designed by a 23-year old artist and former student of Mr. Sparitis who was killed along with her father in the Maxima supermarket collapse on November 21.