The Baltic Battle for the Christmas Tree

  • 2016-12-13
  • By Robert Cary

A few years ago, my family purchased a home that had been the victim of arson.  Not the opening line you expect in an article concerning the history of Christmas trees.  Don’t worry, we’ll get there together.  When we inspected the house and saw the damage, the obvious topic of discussion was: “What happened?”  The majority of the soot and burns were located in the living room, a few feet from the fireplace.  Strangely enough, an almost untouched patch of floor, a circle roughly 3 feet wide, was dead center where the damage occurred.  The flames radiated out from that unharmed spot. 

After a little investigation, we found out that the blaze was intentional, and had been set by an unhappy child in the family with a history of delinquency issues.   Judging from the timeframe of the insurance report, and the damage in the house, we developed our own theory about what happened:  the Christmas tree.  The child set the tree on fire, burning the rest of the home.  The holidays are a time for family, but we all have memories of family events that become a little heated, a little too tense, made worse by the fact that the strife is between people who are so close.  Well, as it turns out, tensions during the holidays don’t occur just between families, but also between countries. 

The countries in question are Latvia and Estonia.  And, in this particular article, the theme to link with the earlier personal story is a disagreement over the origin of the Christmas tree.  Historical accounts trace the first Christmas trees to Northern Europe, as early as the mid 1400s.  Guildhalls would put trees up and decorate them with apples, nuts, dates, and other simple treats to be enjoyed by the children and apprentices.  Some guilds would also use the tree as a centerpiece in the town square.  Men and women would sing and dance around the tree, before culminating their celebration by setting it aflame.  I choose to believe that the child in the earlier story was simply celebrating in the most traditional sense, and that the fire was an accident. 

While descriptions of how the Christmas tree tradition started are generally agreed upon, one source of contention between Latvia and Estonia remains.  Who did it first?  Was it Latvia that created the holiday standard?  Or is Estonia to blame for endless advertisements and roadside tree lots that spring up earlier and earlier every year?  The answer?  If you have a vested interest in either country, you aren’t going to like it.  The answer is neither started it, and both started it.  Prior to being separate countries, Estonia and Latvia were one region known as Livonia.  In the Livonian cities of Riga and Tallinn, now in Latvia and Estonia respectively, the Brotherhood of Blackheads (the association of unmarried tradesmen and merchants who lived in Livonia from the 1400s-1940, named after St. Maurice of Egypt) was the guild that erected a celebratory Christmas tree as early as 1441.  Seeing that the guild halls were part of the same organization, it is reasonable to assume that the trees were erected at the same time. 

Latvia and Estonia were officially founded as we know them in 1918, and have been in disagreement over the Christmas tree ever since.  And while there is some contention (and what holiday would be complete without that) what you should take away from this article is not what the countries disagree on, but the history of the Christmas tree that both recognize.  It was a symbol that people would gather around.  A symbol that would bring people together for festive revelry.  A locus where members of a guild, made up of the children from many different families, could come together and strengthen the bonds of friendship and family they enjoyed with each other.  So, whether you are arguing this Christmas season about where to put the Christmas tree, who gets to put the star on top, or which country started the tradition nearly 600 years ago, remember just how lucky you are to be celebrating the holidays with the people that you care about.  

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