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 Latvia. And it’s all but unknown.
The story goes that in 1510, Martin Luther, a founder of the Protestant faith, was walking through a Rīga forest one evening. He came upon a fir tree the branches of which glistened in the light of the moon and stars. Impressed by its beauty, he chopped down a smaller tree and took it home for his children. To recreate the moonlight, he fixed candles to the branches. With that, the first decorated Christmas tree in history was born.
For lack of a better word, call the Christmas tree story a legend. It has been mentioned on CNN and there are countless references to it on the Internet (search for “Christmas tradition” and “Latvia”). It appears in books on the origins of Christmas trees.
But ask a local Latvian about the legend and receive a puzzled expression in response. No one seems to know about it.
This is probably not surprising, because during Communist times a Western, Christian tradition originating in Latvia would have hardly been publicized.
Why the story remains such a secret is a mystery. Making it well known could certainly be beneficial, given Latvia’s recent negative publicity. Images of a dying Konrāds Kalējs and a teenage girl slapping a royal Rīga visitor with a red flower come to mind from recent news events. Wouldn’t being known as the “home of the Christmas tree” be a pleasant change?
Latvian Institute Director Ojārs Kalniņš, who works to promote Latvia, agrees.
A foreign-born Latvian who repatriated to Latvia two years ago, Kalniņš said Latvians are often curious about how the rest of the world perceives Latvia. The truth sometimes hurts: He said he tells them the vast majority of the world knows nothing. People who take a special interest in world events or cultures have usually heard of Latvia. If they know anything specifically about the country, he said, it is often a negative association with the former Soviet Union. Others may have had a chance encounter with a specific issue in the foreign press.
“At the moment, most people who have a passing knowledge of the country know about the Russian population,” Kalniņš explained. “The business community may know about corruption here.”
Kalniņš said the Christmas tree legend is the sort of trivia the Latvian Institute can incorporate in the information it distributes. Part of the institute’s work is to encourage foreign journalists to cover Latvia and to provide them with information.
Aldis Tilens, an Australian-Latvian and longterm Rīga resident who sells Latvian handicrafts in Latvia and abroad, has long wondered why the country doesn’t make more of the Christmas tree story. Tilens first heard of the legend several years ago. He was surprised when he asked his local Latvian employees about it and found it was news to them.
The Christmas tree legend is a unique marketing tool because it is not contrived, unlike, for instance, Lithuania’s boast that it has the world’s tallest Christmas tree this year. The information on Martin Luther, whether you believe it’s true or not, is already out there. Tilens described it as "simply a mechanism for people to learn about Latvia." Aside from the potential effects on business and tourism, Tilens said the legend would help to foster a positive image in the world.
“(The Christmas tree legend) sets the geography of the country, it gears the culture toward Western traditions and Christianity,” he said. “It brings up the spirit of giving and well being, and has warm and positive connotations.”
But bringing a warm and fuzzy feeling about Latvia to the collective consciousness of the world is not the only reason for trying to promulgate the Christmas tree story. This simple legend could further help to unify Latvia’s idea of itself.
In an essay on the tragedy of Central Europe, Czech writer Milan Kundera in 1984 forcefully reminded the world that Europe did not end at the Iron Curtain or the eastern border of the then European Community. The essential tragedy, Kundera wrote, is that these countries were removed from the map of Europe. This artificial division temporarily severed cultural ties that are still healing.
“Latvians are still coming to terms with their identity,” Tilens said. “Is it an event, a cultural difference or geography that sets them apart? (The Christmas tree story) is something that Latvians can latch on to that could be a source of pride.”
Kalniņš points out that Latvia is a country of dual cultures. He was not referring to Russian vs. Latvian. Instead, he meant that Latvia has pre-European traditions that are purely Latvian. These include folk art, costumes and culture, Iļģi-type music and folk dancing. This aspect of Latvia’s culture is portrayed through the popular song and dance festivals. It must be preserved, as it makes Latvia unique.
But at least as important—especially now that Latvia is aiming for European Union membership—is that Latvia’s is also a European culture, Kalniņš said. The opera is an example of Latvia’s European cultural heritage. The country’s performers who have made their name in the world of arts have done so through European cultural traditions.
Latvia, perched on the periphery of Europe, its eastern neighbor a close reminder of the recent past, needs to reaffirm its position in Europe.
“People often say Latvia is returning to Europe,” Kalniņš said. “We’re not returning to Europe—we always were a part.”
Such a simple thing as the birth of the tradition of decorating a tree to celebrate Christmas, started by Martin Luther some 500 years ago in Latvia, serves as but another reminder that Latvia was, and still is, European.
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