When it comes to who had or where the first Christmas tree showed up the stories all vary. However, what is known for certain is that is was in Northern Europe. What we do know is that supposedly there are two Santa Clauses. The one who lives in Finland in Lapland and the other one who comes from the North Pole. Children in North America swear by Santa Claus from the North Pole and children in Europe believe in the one in Lapland. Perhaps they are brothers but whatever the real story is all the world’s children are now united and in both North America and in Europe you now see that jolly fat man in a red suit with a white beard going ho, ho, ho. I for one have never stopped believing and this magical belief is what gets me through the holidays.
Searching for the First Christmas Tree
The very first documented use of an evergreen tree in Christmas celebrations happened in several locations in Northern Europe. Two Baltic countries – Estonia and Latvia had decorated Christmas trees in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It seems that the very first city to have a Christmas tree was the capital of Latvia, Riga. The official name for Medieval Livonia (Latvia and Estonia) was Terra Mariana and established on February 2, 1207, which made the entire area part of the Holy Roman Empire.
The House of Blackheads
The guild of German merchants from Lubeck, Germany built a guild house called the House of the Blackheads or in Latvian “Melngalvju Nams” in Riga, Latvia. The members of this guild were a fraternity of young, unmarried merchants and ship captains in the Hanza cities, choosing St. Maurice as their patron Saint. St. Mauritius was an imaginary African black Moor which is the reason for the guild house to be called the House of Blackheads. This Brotherhood of the Blackheads existed in Riga from around 1334 to 1939. They decorated a Christmas tree in about 1510 as a winter tradition. In the photo, you can see the decorated Christmas tree that is put up every year in Town Hall Square where the House of Blackheads is located.
The tree was decorated with ribbon bouquets, dried flowers, straw dolls and perhaps fruit. This tree was then taken out and burned in the town square during the first week of January. During the period about 1584, the guilds began setting up Christmas trees in front of their guildhalls in the town squares. Today in Riga, Latvia the House of Blackheads which had been destroyed during wartime has been reconstructed just like the original and every Christmas a decorated tree is set up in the town square just outside of the guildhall.
Pagans of Northern Europe
The pagans of Northern Europe celebrated their own kind of winter solstice called Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun god Mithras and it was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the sun god grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. A custom is to light a candle to encourage the sun god so that the sun will reappear next year. Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun and the word Yule means wheel. The wheel is a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered to be a sacred plant and the custom of kissing beneath it began as a fertility ritual. Holly berries were thought to be the food of the gods.
The Symbolic Tree
The one symbol that unites practically all the northern European winter solstices is the tree. Live trees were brought into homes during harsh winters so that the inhabitants of the home will be reminded that soon their crops would grow again. In all societies, the people who filled the roles of doctor, judge, diviner, mage, mystic and clerical scholar were the religious intelligentsia of their culture. They used the tree as a religious symbol holding sacred ceremonies surrounding and worshipping huge trees and then gathering about large bonfires. Christian lore associates the Christmas tree with St. Boniface and the German town of Geismar. Supposedly during St. Boniface’s lifetime (c. 672-754) he cut down the tree of Thor to be able to disprove the legitimacy of the Norse gods to the local German tribe. He saw a fir tree growing in the roots of the old oak and took this to be a sign of Christian faith. St. Boniface stated that Christ should be the center of every household and the fir tree should be used as a symbol of Christianity.
The Christmas Tree
It is a fact that the Christmas tree is a symbol of hope and happiness. It stems from pagan traditions that the evergreen tree is a symbol to be used to celebrate the renewal of life. All around the globe, most people celebrate with a decorated Christmas tree. The tree can be a live tree or a manufactured one. However, it is unfortunate that Christmas as a celebration of Christ’s birthday and a time to bring together friends and families has gotten buried under a mound of commercialism. Let us bring back love and hope and make Christmas once more a celebration to come together and enjoy each other rather than making it a time for mad shopping sprees and rushing about. In days gone by Latvians decorated lovely trees with homemade ornaments and small candles clipped to the branches that merrily flickered.
Today in Riga, Latvia there are Christmas trees most everywhere but the traditional tree is set up right near the Blackhead Hall in Town Hall Square. This square developed in the mid-13th century as a marketplace. Celebrations and carnivals also took place here. Its main function was the administration of the city – the rules and orders of the Town Council were read out there. Today it is once again a place for Christmas markets and other celebrations. Right in front of the House of Blackheads is a domed plaque that marks the site of the first Christmas tree ceremony.