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The birth of the Christmas tree

By Anatol Steven. 18.12.2010

The world's first Christmas tree?
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The Christmas tree may seem like an oddly pagan Christian tradition, and many are the legends that speak of how the tradition started. But, according to the evidence, the very first Christmas tree was raised in Riga.

It all started in Riga. Allegedly. There are lots of places around Europe that lay claim to the beginnings of the Christmas tree tradition, but it was in the merry medieval town of Riga that the first fir tree was decorated on New Year’s Eve in the freezing winter of 1476.
According to the old annals of the merchants of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, written in 1510, what had then become a yearly tradition had begun back in 1476 when a tree was spontaneously decorated, probably with straw dolls, dried flowers, pretzels and fruit.
The fir is said to have also been adorned with paper roses in a ceremony attended by men with black hats who set light to the tree afterwards.
Surrounding households also created colorful arrangements of small trees or sticks to brighten up their homes during Christmas, and these were taken outside to join a procession to Ratslaukums (Town Hall Square) where they were ceremoniously cremated as the tree was burned to the sound of the people of the city singing, dancing and making merry.
However, other places and people also claim a link to this famous symbol of Christmas. According to Christian lore, it was the English monk St Boniface who unwittingly became associated with the tree back in the misty times of the 8th century AD.
He journeyed to convert the unruly tribes of Germany, and in the forest-shrouded Thuringian hamlet of Geismar he cut down a tree revered by local pagans who prayed to the Norse gods. Spotting a spruce growing in the old oak’s roots, he cried, using the tree as a Christian symbol: “Let Christ be at the centre of your households!”
Expressively, he used sticks in the triangular shape of the fir tree to illustrate the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Slowly, the converted tribes began to revere the evergreen fir as God's tree instead of the crooked oak.

Paradise plucked
Another legend is that the origins of the Christmas tree come from medieval mystery plays, specifically the Paradise Play once traditionally staged on December 24th during the feast of Adam and Eve. A fir tree decorated with apples was the only stage prop. It symbolized the tree from which Eve plucked her fateful apple.
Yet another version says that Martin Luther was inspired to establish the Christmas tree as a symbol of life for the Protestants by seeing stars as a magically twinkling backdrop to fir trees during a moonlight stroll. He then cut down a tree and decorated it with candles, in an effort to recreate the outdoor effect.
But it was actually a little before Luther’s time that the Livonians began erecting fir trees in the town hall squares of Riga, Reval (now Tallinn) and other towns at the end of the year. The esteemed members of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads would dance around it while it burned in some kind of merchants’ rite.
In 1584, a religious man and chronicler named Balthasar Russow described a tradition, by then well established, of decorating a fir tree in the market square for young lads and maidens to sing and dance around and then set aflame. Often, especially in Hanseatic seafaring trading towns like Riga, a tree was also raised outside the guildhalls for the guild members’ children to enjoy.

Christian or pagan?
Since Latvia regained its independence in 1991, people have been free to practice religion as they please. The 1990s brought a great resurgence of both Christianity in its many denominations as well as ancient Latvian folklore, as groups of enthusiasts sought their roots in pre-Christian traditions.
Long have Christian and pagan ideas uneasily shared mass celebrations, in Latvia too. Christmas is supposed to be the celebration of the birth of Jesus, yet his birthday coincides with the Winter Solstice, or the longest night of the year.
Early Latvians commemorated the change in the seasons by lighting the biggest log they could find to symbolize the burning sun. On the shortest night of the year, at Midsummer, this burning log was sent rolling down hills through gates made for the occasion. But at Midwinter the burning log was dragged up the hill, back through that same gate, symbolizing the sun’s return.
The old Scandinavians, who have historically traded and fraternized with the Balts over many centuries, had a very similar tradition. In fact, Yule is an old Norse name for the sun god, and the present-day Nordic word for Christmas is Jul (pronounced in much the same way).
Ironically, with the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the tradition of the Yule log was passed on to that once pious island of St Boniface, where it was adapted and transformed into the myriad forms it has today. These old traditions do indeed make sense as physical representations of the larger-than-life natural processes on which we have all come to depend.

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