When something happened over 500 years ago, it can be tricky to parse out fact from legend. Take the first ever Christmas tree. The custom of a decorated tree at Yuletide dates back centuries, to at least the 15th or 16th century. That much is fact, the very first one? The Christmas tree that started it all? That might be more a matter of legend.
A likely candidate was in the medieval city of Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga’s City Center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including the Town Hall Square. Flanking the south side of the Square is the House of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, and it’s here where the Christmas tree story takes shape.
Near the northwest corner of the ornate building is a slightly domed stone marker embedded in the cobblestones, staking its claim—in eight languages—as the spot of the first public Christmas tree.
The Brotherhood of the Blackheads was a guild of professional merchants and traders that banded together in the 14th century, and remained active in Latvia and Estonia right up through the middle of the 20th century. They were known for their twice-yearly holiday celebrations, including the Christmas to New Years season. It’s said that the Brotherhood put a fir tree in the square, festooned it with paper flowers, sang and danced and cheered the season, then lit the whole thing on fire. (Needless to say, it is also said that more than a few glasses were raised by the Brothers during the celebration.).
The Brotherhood has documentation showing that this all happened for the first time in 1510, and it just might be the very first documented Christmas tree. The chapter in Tallin, 175 miles to the north in Estonia, makes the same claim for the same Christmas. Given the chummy relationship between the two chapters, it’s not inconceivable that they lit up their trees simultaneously. A Christmas tree still goes up in Riga’s Town Hall Square, in the same spot, in front of the same Brotherhood, but with a whole lot more lights and decorations. And that much is fact.