The Story of the Christmas Tree... ... and how it all began in Riga, Latvia, 500 years ago!
Latvians have always loved to tell stories and uphold traditions. Over the centuries, autumn and winter evenings have created a special environment for new stories to be made up; myths flowed together with memories and new traditions emerged, including the legend about the tradition of decorating Christmas trees.
A well-known guild in Riga in 1510 was the Brotherhood of the Blackheads; an association of unmarried merchants, ship's owners and captains. Their name comes from their Patron Saint Maurice (also Moritz, Morris, Mauritius). He was the leader of the legendary Roman Theban Legion in the 3rdC and one of the favourite and most widely venerated saints of that group. As the Patron Saint of several professions, locales and kingdoms, he was also a highly revered saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church and also a Black Christian from Thebes, Egypt.
The Blackheads were very active in civic life, supporting various events and donating money to the church and city. As the Winter Solstice approached in 1510, the men of the brotherhood went into the forest to find the biggest fir tree they could, planning to set the tree on fire on the banks of the Daugava River, Riga, thus supplementing the age-old tradition of burning a log around the solstice.
The brethren found an enormous fir tree, but when they got it back to Riga, they decided it was too big to burn, because it that would endanger surrounding buildings and people. The men returned to their building for a thorough debate about the matter and the discussion lasted well into the afternoon.
Meanwhile, local children found the tree on the banks of the river, wondered how it had gotten there and agreed it was a special tree, indeed. They were so excited they began to decorate the tree with anything that came to hand; there were nuts and apples, chains and crowns of dried berries and flowers, children even unraveled their mittens for the colourful yarn. They were so enthusiastic, they didn't notice that the materials needed to decorate the enormous tree were increasing in quantity all by themselves! When it started to get dark out, the children said goodbye to the tree and ran home to get warm and tell their families about what they'd found.
It was nearly dark when the Blackheads ended their meeting....without a decision. One of the tradesmen went down to the river and saw, from a distance, the miraculous transformation of the tree. The decorations left by the children were covered in silvery frost and the fir tree sparkled in the moonlight. He knew what to do and he brought his brethren to see the tree for themselves. They were amazed, and so it was decided to install the tree in the city centre and decorate it for Christmas. "This will be a Christmas tree."
The tree was brought to the central market square of the city, where City Hall Square is now. It was raised to stand as if it were back in the forest. The decorations left by the children were supplemented with ribbons, toys and ornaments and the tree was blindingly beautiful. It was a celebration, in and of itself. When the men of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads began to add decorations to the tree, people came out of their houses and were surprised. They told each other that the fir tree had transformed itself miraculously and soon enough the legend buzzed all around the town. People came running with decorations for the tree and once the work was done, everyone was astonished at the tree's beauty. "This is a Christmas tree - a gift which we should use to bring joy to each other at Christmas," said one of the Blackheads.
Well, that's the story. Christmas trees have lasted to this very day and outside the House of the Blackheads, there is a memorial plaque commemorating the idea that Riga was where the first Christmas tree was decorated, 500 years ago. This is how the story about the first decorated Christmas tree in Riga ends, but it surely marks the beginning of a festive tradition that spans around the globe. The magic can still be found in every house that celebrates the joy of Christmas with a decorated tree - until this very day.