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Public Christmas tree: Which city did it first?

Public Christmas tree: Which city did it first?

Supposedly, the answer lies somewhere in the Baltics and two capitals are vying for the honour

Come Christmas and two Baltic cities start arguing which one of them was the originator of the tradition of placing a Christmas tree on the public square - so widespread now around the world that it seems like it has always been a thing. Both of these cities are capitals: Tallinn, of Estonia, and Riga, of Latvia. Riga seems to be more assertive, but Tallinn might just have the better case.

If you’re wondering when the first Christmas tree was erected for public enjoyment, we would have to transport you somewhere at the cusp between the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

We owe it to the Brotherhood of Blackheads

Curiously enough, although the actual first city to display a Christmas tree might be somewhat lost to the fogs of history, what’s sure is who started the whole idea. And whatever the case might be, in both cities the originator was the so-called Brotherhood of Blackheads, a medieval fraternal society that welcomed unmarried merchants to its fold.

Supposedly, it was a unique organization that served both as a town defenders’ militia and a fraternity for those merchants and artisans who were too young, inexperienced and unmarried to join the Great Guild of the city.

Yes, it was these Baltic bachelors that came up with the idea of bringing a Christmas tree out in the open and making it the focus of festivities. Being something of a gentlemen’s club, they celebrated the end of the navigational season and Christmas with libations and merriment.

Decorating a tree at home was probably some kind of a ritual that likely dated back even to pre-Christian times, but it was in 1441 when the fraternity members decided to take the party outside and bring the tree with them. This happened at the City Hall Square in Tallinn (then known as Reval).

There are archival references that the placing of the tree (spruce, if you want specifics) also happened in 1442 and 1514. In 1584, chronicle Balthasar Russow wrote that young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”, pointing to the tradition having taken root already in Tallinn.

As for Riga, the first documented case of this goes back to 1510, however, the organizers behind it were also brothers from the local branch of the Blackheads. Back then, Tallinn and Riga were part of the land of Livonia, controlled by a crusaders’ military order and the Holy See. Both cities also preserve the medieval headquarter houses of the Blackheads guild – although the Riga one was reconstructed from scratch in the 1980s.

Riga authorities, however, in modern times have also taken it up to themselves to more aggressively market the city as the birthplace of the Christmas tree. For this purpose, they have even placed a plaque commemorating the 1510 event, even if records show that rather than a tree it was more of a tree-shaped wooden candelabrum decorated with dried flowers, fruit and vegetables.

But, it’s the thought that counts, right? Plus, one could argue that they predicted how things were going to start playing out in the 21st century.

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