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Oh Christmas Prune

I realize this column is called the Story Behind the Person, but over the past few years, I have written several articles featuring Santa Claus, and thought it was time for something a little different.

Christmas is a great time of year. People are festive and happy and, instead of stressing on what presents to buy, turn their attention to sharing goodwill with all. I do love the traditions, and one of my favourites is going out into the woods, to cut down the most perfect Christmas tree in the world. Two years ago I went on a trip to Latvia and Estonia, each of which boasted the origin of the very first Christmas tree, ever.

I was intrigued when each of my guides showed me a plaque in the town square depicting the source of the Christmas tree. I was rather surprised, as I always assumed this particular Yuletide tradition originated in Germany. Well, it seems I was wrong.

The very first time the use of a Christmas tree shows up in history, is in the Estonian city of Tallinn. After a little checking, however, it seems a fraternity known as the 'Brotherhood of Blackheads', erected what is now considered to be the first tree, in the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia. Although both cities lay claim to the origin of the Christmas tree, Riga appears to win out.

The 'Brotherhood of Blackheads' was an association of local, unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners living in Livonia (what is now Estonia and Latvia). A few trees were raised in the town square and the Brotherhood of wife-less men would then dance around them. Later the trees were set on fire. I wonder if the group was called the 'Brotherhood of Blackheads', because they danced too close to the fire and were charred for life? The local word for 'tree' also meant mast or pole, and the 'tree' might have been a tree-shaped wooden candelabra rather than a 'real' tree. Undoubtedly, as they were bachelors, the group’s mandate had something to do with attracting a possible spouse. Perhaps he who had the largest tree won.

In the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, there is a plaque which is engraved with "The First New Year's Tree in Riga in 1510", in eight languages. The exact origin of the Christmas tree is vague, as histories were passed down through stories and tales, but it is now generally accepted that the source of our Christmas tree originates in this region.