Birthplace of the First Christmas Tree - Historicial Background
No one knows for certain who truly lays claim to the first Christmas tree,,,  
... but few dispute that it was in the area which is now Northern Europe.

Finland has Santa Claus. Russia has traditional handmade Christmas ornaments. Germany has Christmas markets. But arguably the most well-known of Christmas traditions -- decorating the Christmas tree -- may have its origin in Northern Europe.


When searching for the historical beginning of the first Christmas tree, one must go very deep into the past. Just like Santa Claus one finds that the first Christmas tree was combination of many different facts, legends and customs. The first documented use of a tree in a winter Christmas celebration was in several locations in Northern Europe including the current countries of Estonia, and Latvia in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. 

The exact origin of the Christmas tree is obscured by uncertainties of oral histories of the people in early European cultures. Discussions and arguments over which of the Baltic towns was first to decorate the Christmas tree must go deep into the history of the region, and of course may be all but impossible to reconcile. 

The period of time in this discussion in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was fraught with what anyone would consider upheaval. For Latvia and Estonia back then, such country distinctions were not so clear, the cities and their origins being more important. From the Teutonic Knights and the Northern Crusades, to the Vikings and then the Hanseatic League of the medieval Europe, the area called Livonia now the Baltic states saw their share of change.

Where the Christmas tree is concerned, it seems fairly likely that Riga may have actually be the first. Riga being somewhat older than the ancient fortress Toompea at the center of what is now Tallinn’s Old Town UNESCO site. But then, other factors surely played a roll in who adopted the custom of using a tree in a winter celebration first. 

Terra Mariana, or the official name for Medieval Livonia (Estonia and Latvia), was established on February 2, 1207 – making this whole area part of the Holy Roman Empire – only to lose that distinction 8 years later when Pope Innocent III decided Terra Mariana was a a direct subject to the Holy See – as you can “see” a lot of change was going on back then in the Baltics.

In 1227 the Livonian Brothers of the Sword conquered what was left of resistance within Estonia, and later the brothers joined in with the with the Teutonic Order of Prussia -which then became the Livonian Order. Throughout the existence of Livonia, there was almost constant disagreement and conflict between Riga and Reval (Tallinn). For Tallinn, the city acted as a sort of gateway between Western and Northern Europe and Russia. 

Riga, having been more at the center of social and religion a bit longer, was a stopover for pilgrims early on. This is another indicator that the Christmas celebration customs may have originated in Riga first as well.

The guild of German merchants from Lubeck Germany erected a house called the House of Blackheads (Melngalvju nams) in Riga and one by the same name in Tallinn (Mustpeade maja), and established other guilds across the region (in German language Blackheads is Schwarzhäupterhaus). The purpose of these guilds was to provide for efficient enforcement of inter-city trade.
 more - photos Riga's House of Blackheads

The House of Blackheads was characteristically a fraternity of young, unmarried merchants and ship captains in the Hansa cities, which chose St. Maurice to be their patron Saint. St. Mauritius was an imaginary African black moor (from this the name of the brotherhood “the Blackheads” comes). Due to their exceptional status, the Blackheads played an important role in the society life and traditions; many VIPs of that time (including Russian tsars) took part in events organized by the Blackheads. As a German merchant club the Brotherhood of Blackheads existed in Riga from about 1334 until 1939.

The Blackhead's Brotherhood Fraternity archives called "šrāgas", provide detailed information about the 1510th of the winter tradition and refers to an earlier such events, in the 1476th year. Likewise, they indicate that the tree was decorated; but for us, having regard to the medieval custom, have to conclude that it could only bouquets of ribbons, dried flowers, straw dolls, weave, and possibly fruit. Later, this "tree" that could not have a tree, but only from the wooden sticks built "wiring", with songs and dances were allowed to take outside the house celebration, which was common during medieval early Christmas period, and was ceremonially burned in the town square about during the first week of January. 

Most of this early documentation was written in the Old German language and it is difficult to locate all related documents forcing one to interpret and read between the lines. In addition, much research indicates that, the origins of this powerful and elite guild remain shrouded in secrecy. Evidence does support the guild performing ritual and party like dances and celebrations based around an outside bonfire in the square,

In 1584, the pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”. In that period, the guilds started erecting Christmas trees in front of their guildhalls: Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann (Marburg professor of European ethnology) found a Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 which reports how a small tree was decorated with "apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers" and erected in the guild-house, for the benefit of the guild members' children, who collected the dainties on Christmas Day.

But, little is known about the original Riga tree other than the fact that it was attended by men wearing black hats, and that after a ceremony, they burnt the tree. The legend says that the first Riga tree in 1510 was decorated with paper flowers and burnt on the bonfire after the ceremony; most probably, with a toast for the future, with steins held high!

All of this may have been a mixture of pagan and Christian custom, as were very many of the customs in Central/Northern Europe at that time. In Latvia as in all of northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun as a part of pagan activities where people were living their life as they had done for hundreds of years before.

The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer.

It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.

Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means wheel, the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual. Holly berries were thought to be a food of the gods. 
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The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again.

In all societies, there were people who filled the roles of judge, doctor, diviner, mage, mystic, and clerical scholar - they were the religious intelligentsia of their culture.

These people often used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees and gathering around a large bonfire.

In the past, there have been stories about Martin Luther walking in the woods near Riga and he created the first Christmas Tree. But actually, the Riga tree reference and the Martin Luther Tree reference are two different occurrences.

The Martin Luther walk in the forest, believed to actually in Northern Germany and his lighted tree actually occurred several decades later.

According to an email we received from Countess Maria Hubert von Staufer from Christmas Archives International, references to the Martin Luther tree were NOT the Riga tree. The Countess goes on to say that The Martin Luther walk in the forest, is believed to actually occurred in Northern Germany and his lighted tree occurred several decades later than the Riga tree. the Countness went on to state that "Riga is very important in the History of the Christmas Tree".

According to Christian lore, the Christmas tree is associated with St Boniface and the German town of Geismar. Sometime in St Boniface's lifetime (c. 672-754) he cut down the tree of Thor in order to disprove the legitimacy of the Norse gods to the local German tribe. St. Boniface saw a fir tree growing in the roots of the old oak. Taking this as a sign of the Christian faith, he said "...let Christ be at the center of your households..." using the fir tree as a symbol of Christianity.

As it is obvious that we may never know the exact origin of decorating and celebrating about the Christmas tree. It also seems obvious that at the junction of pagan ritualistic celebration and religious reformation – such wonderful traditions emerge. This is as it should be, all things having their answers in between fact and legend. We leave you with some fantastic images of this fascinating area of Eastern Europe.

"The Christmas Tree is a symbol of hope and happiness and stems from pagan traditions that the Evergreen tree is a symbol of the celebration of the renewal of life. Throughout the world, the celebration of Christmas with the display of a decorated Christmas Tree has large significance well beyond the economic shopping sprees made famous throughout the United States and other wealthy countries."

Riga at Christmas Photos Riga Christmas Market Photos Santa Claus Photos Free ICON
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The location of this first recorded evergreen tree being used in a new year (Christmas) celebration was in Town Hall Square in Riga Latvia.

Located just meters or yards from the majestic Daugava River banks that was a major transportation route in the early Latvian development.




Town Hall Square, developed in the middle of the 13th century, was initially a marketplace. Various celebrations, dances, games, tournaments, performances of mysteries, carnivals and parades took place there. The main function of the Square, though, was the administration of the city: the rules and orders of the Town Council were read out there.



The most splendid building in the Square is the House of Blackheads originally built in 1334, and now rebuilt in 1995 - 1999), which hosted a brotherhood of unmarried foreign merchants. The town hall building across the square was built later and rebuilt again in 2003.


Just in front of the House of Blackheads is placed domed plaque marking the site of the first New Years (Christmas) tree ceremony.

The plaque is engraved "The First New Years Tree in Riga in 1510", in eight languages.






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Clarification Note on History of First Christmas Tree

Note: There is some interesting intrigue in this history. According to the organization Christmas Archives International UK, "little is known about the original Riga tree other than the fact that it was attended by men wearing black hats, and that after a ceremony, they burn the tree. This was a mixture of pagan and Christian custom, as were very many of the customs in Central Europe." 

Apparently, there were actually two separate trees and the references below to the Martin Luther tree may actually be later than 1510 and maybe not in Riga. The Riga tree in 1510 is the first decorated tree and Martin Luther's decorated tree was in the early 16th century, according to the organization Christmas Archives International UK

"I hope that you do not mind me telling you this, but as Riga is very important in the History of the Christmas Tree, I thought it best to tell  you so that you will not have erroneous information", stated a representative of the organization.



The Baltic Times Newspaper

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Riga's First Christmas Tree - year 1510

Riga's 2001 Christmas Tree - Domes Square







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By Krista Taurins, Riga, Latvia - 20 December 2001, The Baltic Times

Finland has jolly old Saint Nick. Russia has hand-painted blown glass Christmas decorations. Germany has Christmas markets.

But in terms of home-grown Christmas legends and traditions, Latvia - believed to be the birthplace of the decorated Christmas tree - may have the most marketable one of all.

And it's barely doing a thing about it. 

According to the story; in 1510 Martin Luther, walking through a Riga forest, was touched by the beauty of the moonlight glistening on the branches of a fir tree, He chopped a little one down and brought it home for his children. He attached candles to its branches to recreate the moonlight and -viola -the world's first decorated Christmas tree was recorded in Riga. 

Search the Internet for "Christmas traditions" and "Latvia" and you'll be swamped with mentions of Riga as the Christmas tree's hometown. CNN even did a piece on it. Ask a local Latvian about it, however, and you are likely to be met with a puzzled expression. 

Christmas concept American businessman and long-time Riga resident J.C. Cole has been encouraging Western Christmas traditions in Riga for several years like the first ever lights on Jacob's Barracks a few years ago - when he first heard of Riga's Christmas tree heritage.

Cole first learned of the story in a book outlining the history of the Christmas tree. Then earlier this year he began developing the idea of holding a Christmas market in Riga Old Town's Dome Square. 

Part of the publicity for the market includes the story of the birth of the Christmas tree, but still the concept needs to become common knowledge among local Latvians. 

"This has got to be a Latvian thing," said Mike Johnson, an American working in the tourist industry in Riga, who is on the market's board of directors. 

Johnson hopes that hotels and local companies will latch on to the idea and give it a local base, adding the marketing scheme cannot be an American Chamber of Commerce initiative if it is to succeed. 

Local roots Australian-Latvian and Riga resident Aldis Tilens, who sells handmade souvenirs in Latvia and abroad, agreed that marketing the Christmas tree tradition needs to be a home-grown phenomenon. 

Tilens first heard the Christmas tree legend two years ago and was surprised to find out it was news to his local employees. 

He sees the Martin Luther story as something that could unite Latvians. 

"Latvians are still coming to terms with their identity," he said. "Is it an event, a cultural difference or geography that sets them apart? This is something that Latvians can latch on to that could be a source of pride," 

Ojars Kalnins, wlio heads the Latvian Institute; which works to promote Latvia abroad, said his organization could incorporate the Christmas tree story in materials it distributes about Latvia. 

As he put it, the vast majority of the world knows nothing about the country. 

A knowledgeable percentage may associate Latvia with the former Soviet Union. Others may have had a chance encounter through a mention in the world press - such as the story of Konrads Kalejs or the teenage girl who slapped a British royal in the face with red carnations recently.

The Christmas tree story is a reminder that Latvia was, and still is, a European country with a European culture, Kalnins said. And it is all in addition to the obvious benefits for business and tourism, of course. 

Finnish finesse Finland may be a prime example for Latvia on how to market holiday traditions. Finland has Lapland, which is known around the world as the home of Santa Claus. 
In 1984, the Finnish airline Finnair began to market itself as "The Official Carrier of Santa Claus." It involved a logo, which has evolved several times over the years, as well as decorations on aircraft, airports and offices. 

Finnair also produced yearly Finland Santa Claus package tour spanning not only Christmastime; but from early December to late January.

The airline even went so far as to hold promotional tours with Santa himself; as far away as the company's Asian destinations. 

Until 1997, Finnair cooperated with the Arctic Circle Santa Village near the Finnish city of Rovaniemi and the Santa Claus mail office, allowing passengers to send letters to Santa using an envelope sold on board. 

Finnair brand manager Kari Tiitola said the company had benefited from the man in red and his association with Finland. 

"The direct benefits are in terms of awareness and corporate image, (rather than) incremental revenue because this is difficult to measure," he wrote. "I'm afraid no figures are available, but (it is evident that) it was beneficial to us." 

About a year ago, the company saw the opportunity to combine its efforts w1th a comprehensive Santa Claus theme, covering all the major stake-holders in Finland. 

Since Finland, and at least one of its major companies, has cashed in on the universal and immediately understandable concept of Christmas, Latvia has a blueprint on how to base its fame on a holiday legend. 

"I could see the export of 'real Christmas trees,' or toys made from genuine Latvian fir from the home of the Christmas tree," Tilens said. The idea is out there; someone just needs to grab the reindeer by the horns. 



Viena no leģendām vēsta, ka eglīte 1510.gadā pirmoreiz rotāta Rīgā
Article from Sestdiena, 3 - 9 December 2005,- Egīls Zirnis