The Fir Tree and the Christmas Miracle

Not sure if you want to believe the legend that a fir tree in this exact spot is one of the oldest Christmas traditions in Europe? Heirs to the Brotherhood of the Blackheads can show you historic proof.

Christmas tree in fire
A Christmas tree on fire. Photo: iStock.com / MediaProduction

In the city center of Riga, Latvia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a stone marks the spot where the first ever public Christmas tree is said to have stood in 1510. The richest, most wholesome version of this legend is truly full of Christmas miracles.

Christmas tree: the origin story

It’s winter of 1510 and the members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, named after their dark-skinned patron Saint Maurice, had gone into the woods to find a tree. At the time, it was already a centuries-old tradition to burn a log on the winter solstice, and the rich merchant city of Riga deserved an impressive tree.

That year, they found a particularly impressive fir, which they set out to bring back to the city center. However, as they approached the city, they realized that such a big offering to the gods of tradition would be a fire hazard for their beloved city. They left the fir tree outside the city and returned to their headquarters in the market square to plan their next moves.

Meanwhile, some children from the city happened upon the tree and started to play with it. Convinced that there must be something special about this specimen, they started to decorate it with dried fruits, nuts, toys and colorful yarns unraveled from their caps and mittens. In what would surely be considered a Christmas miracle, the decorations magically began to multiply, and soon the tree was entirely covered.

When the brethren found out what happened, they decided to leave the fir as it was, without setting it on fire. They placed the tree near the building where the gatherings of the Brotherhood of Blackheads have been held since ancient times – even until today. They called it a Christmas tree and made it an annual tradition.

The historic proof for the first Christmas tree

As much as it sounds like a typical Christmas legend, there’s actually some proof behind it. First, the dates, as yuletide decorations date back at least to the XVI or maybe even XV century. The place of this very first Christmas tree is marked by a stone marker, which every year is covered with actual Christmas tree. You can look for it in the north part of the square.

And, most of all, this fir tree on the Town Hall Square in Riga in 1510 is documented in Brotherhood’s archives, although it’s fair to add that another chapter of the organization in Tallin, Estonia also claims to have conceived of the tradition of public Christmas tree.

But that’s what best traditions are made from: a little curiosity, some inspiration, a whole lot of warmth and a sprinkle of miracles.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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