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Who First Decorated The Christmas Tree? Historian Says Neither Latvia Or Estonia


A minor international conflict has developed between Latvia and Estonia. It's a fight about Christmas trees.


Both countries claim to be the site of the first decorated trees, inspiring a Christmas tradition. It's a big selling point for wintertime tourists.

SIEGEL: The argument has gone on for several years. The Wall Street Journal has covered it, and so has The New York Times. But a Latvian historian says both countries are wrong. He says he can't find any evidence either one originated the Christmas tree.

GUSTAVS STRENGA: I would really doubt it.

SHAPIRO: That's Gustavs Strenga, a senior researcher at the National Library of Latvia in Riga. He traces the story to brotherhoods of unmarried merchants called the Blackheads. They were active starting in the 15th century.

SIEGEL: It wasn't until a few hundred years later that people began saying the Blackheads created the Christmas tree.

STRENGA: In fact, this is a story developed by 19th century historians who looked back in the history of the Baltic cities and in the records of these brotherhoods found some mystical trees.

SHAPIRO: Mystical trees.

STRENGA: Trees used in the carnival festivals just before the beginning of Lent when these trees were carried around and then burned in the marketplace of the city.

SIEGEL: Both Estonians and Latvians say these ceremonies happened in their country first.

SHAPIRO: So could it be that the Blackheads somehow influenced today's Christmas trees? Strenga says it's possible but probably not. He says the Christmas tree actually has its roots in Germany in the 16th century, not the Baltics.

SIEGEL: That hasn't stopped his home town of Riga.

STRENGA: Our mayor has lately also said that in fact, it doesn't matter whether it's true or not true. People like nice stories.

SHAPIRO: Strenga says he would rather the city focus on something else - funding research on the city's real medieval past.

SIEGEL: Though we're unsure how many tourists that might bring to town. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.