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Public Christmas tree tradition has strong roots in Estonia

Tallinn's Old Town Christmas market 2023 opens in Rakeoja plats, Friday, December 1, 2023.
Tallinn's Old Town Christmas market 2023 opens in Rakeoja plats, Friday, December 1, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

A decorated Christmas tree is an essential part of the holiday season for many people, but it is not known exactly when it became commonplace to place a tree in a home in Estonia, experts say.

Reet Piiri, curator at the Estonian National Museum (ERM), said trees are symbolic and many nations include them in their celebrations.

"Spruce is an evergreen tree that symbolizes rebirth," she told Vikerradio's "Huvitaja" program. 

But traditions have varied across the country as spruce trees are not commonly found on Estonia's western islands, she said. Instead, pines or junipers were preferred.

"Nowadays, of course, spruces are more available, but if we look at the old traditions, there are other trees that have been used," the expert said.

Calendars and newspaper reports show Estonians have brought spruce trees into their homes since at least 1845. They were also hung from the rafters in farmhouses. Up until the 1920s, straw was also brought into houses during the festive period.

Christmas trees for sale. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

"So Christmas was about both the tree and the straw, and the old village Christmas tree was brought to town," Piiri explained.  

Germans have been decorating Christmas fir trees since the 16th century, originally with dates and paper flowers. Estonia's early decorations were also edible. Fruit from wild trees were tied to their branches.

Glass baubles and other decorations were seen on trees during the last decades of the 19th century.

"However, the spruce tree was still mostly decorated with edible stuff. The long, shiny glass candy canes with the shiny paper attached were popular at Christmas markets. These were tied to the tree. And, of course, candles, which gave the tree a final touch of festivity," Piiri said.

Tallinn claims to have been the first capital to install a public Christmas tree in 1441. The spruce was placed on Raekoja plats in the Old Town.

Reet Piiri. Source: Klassikaraadio

"Riga and Tallinn compete over who had it first," said Piir. The Blackhead brotherhood was present in both cities and it was traditional for them to have a Christmas spruce.

"Whether it was decorated, what the tree looked like, what the customs were – I don't know. What is known is that the tree was brought out and burnt in a ceremony," the curator said.

The first Tallinn Christmas tree recorded in newspapers was in 1928.

"Newspapers report that it did not attract any attention from the people of Tallinn. The daily Päevaleht simply wrote that while waiting for the omnibus, a few distracted glances went to the tree, but it was ignored," Piiri described.

The next fir tree was put up for Christmas 1935, which attracted a lot of attention, and was lit by electric candles. The tradition continues to this day.

Christmas baubles. Source: Miia Kiho/ERR

Tartu's first spruce tree was recorded in 1929 and the city organized a small ceremony.

It has been a tradition to give Christmas gifts since at least 1845, Piiri said. Illustrations from that era depict a Christmas tree with candles, gifts, and children. But Santa has not always been the bringer of presents and they were simply placed on the table.

But Estonia has other gift-giving traditions, which continue until the present day.

"While in many countries presents are simply under the tree, in Estonia a gift has to be earned. As early as the end of the 19th century, memoirs tell of people singing [for their presents], or worrying about forgetting the words to a poem," said Piiri.

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Editor: Sandra Saar, Helen Wright

Source: Interview by Kadri Põlendik

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