Latvia’s Christmas gift to the world: first tree decorated 500 years ago

500th anniversary christmas tree

When sisters Mara Anderson and Ilze Berzins were growing up in Lancaster, their family’s Christmas tradition raised their neighbors’ eyebrows.

On Christmas Eve, the family would light candles, singing the songs of their homeland as the flickering lights danced among the branches of their fir tree.

“We always celebrated in the traditional ways with real candles on our tree,” says Anderson.

“It was all about the tree, gathering around, singing, saying your pantins (verses or poems memorized for the occasion), and reflecting on the light of the candles,” recalls Berzins.

It was a link to their homeland of Latvia. Their family, like many Latvians escaping their country during World War II, fled first to German displaced persons camps, then found sponsors who offered to help them start a new life in America. A number of Latvians settled in Lancaster; forging a small community that kept customs alive by holding church services in Latvian and offering a Latvian language school.

Keeping to their tradition of a candlelit tree was a way to still feel connected to their homeland as they struggled to adapt in a new country.

A central image of a Latvian Christmas, the candlelit tree evokes the image of the very first decorated Christmas tree, documented in Riga in 1510. A plaque, inscribed in eight languages, marks the site of the first tree.

Decorated by members of a trade guild, this first tree was central to the celebration of Christmas, and then later burned in a fiery display to celebrate the gradual return of the sun, in a mix of pagan and Christian customs.

A later legend credits Martin Luther for decorating a tree with candles after observing how the stars shone through the branches when he was walking through the Latvian countryside.

A mixture of pagan and Christian symbolism has been retained by generations of Latvians in the tree’s traditional decorations, from puzuris or sun-symbols constructed from straw and red string, to the fruits, nuts, cookies and candies decorating the tree.

“Growing up in Latvia, there were no bells or shiny things at that time,” says Nora Liepa of Lancaster. “We decorated with piparkukas, which are spice cookies with lots of pepper, and little small red winter apples, and walnuts, and candy with fringes attached to them.”

Monta Zagars of Lancaster recalls that sometime “naughty children” would unwrap the decorative foil candy, eat the treat inside, then wrap the foil back together and re-hang it on the tree.

“Most things on the tree were things you could eat,” says Liepa. “Each night before you would light the candles, you would have to say your pantins and then you could pick something from the tree.”

“If you didn’t sing or play the piano or say a poem, or even do all three, you didn’t get anything,” recalls Dzidra Ziedonis of Lancaster. “Some of them were pretty long poems; you really had to study.”

“Sometimes we would also have sparklers we attached to the branches of the tree with wire,” says Liepa. “It would be too dangerous to do that now, but that was what we did then.”

In keeping with tradition, many Latvians don’t cut or put up a tree until Christmas Eve.

“When I was a child, still in Latvia, the Christmas tree was decorated on Christmas Eve and we children didn’t see it until right before the celebration,” recalls Zagars. “There were candles and red apples polished so they would shine and pine cones and cotton balls to look like snow.”

When picking out your tree,  “you have to get a tree that isn’t perfect, a Charlie Brown tree, with strong branches that stuck out with lots of space in-between to make room for the candles,” says Berzins.

In America, candles were sometimes retained or traded for electric lights for safety reasons, but edible treats and straw ornaments prevailed.

“We also put on tiny mittens that our mother knit and miniature pastalas (traditional leather shoes) and sometimes prievites (hand-woven patterned ribbons), but that was mostly because they were Latvian things and not that they were traditional to put on a Latvian tree,” says Anderson.

Zagars would light only six candles on her tree and says the six members of her family would watch “their” candles while they sang, then quickly extinguish them when they were done.

“My tree is decorated with a lot of candles, but on Christmas Eve we only light five of them,” says Berzins. “The past few years I’ve invited the neighbors over and they nervously stand around while the candles burn.”

“It’s traditional to use them, but it can be dangerous if you don’t stand right there to watch them,” says Anderson. “My sister makes everyone count the candles as she lights them so we can make sure the same number are extinguished.”

While Latvians usually don’t put up a tree until Christmas Eve, they do keep it up through Epiphany.

“We always kept it up until January 6, the day of the star,” recalls Lidija Palks of York.

Latvian immigrants continued to celebrate “in the traditional way” in America, but for Latvians who didn’t escape, celebrating Christmas “during the Russian years” could be dangerous.

“In Russian times some people put blankets on the window and still lit the candles,” says Ziedonis.

“It was not a holiday,” says Inta Rimsame of Rezekne, Latvia, a Fulbright fellow at Millersville University. “We had to work and it was forbidden to celebrate it. But we did.”

Rimsame says she would go with her family to the woods and cut a fir tree on Christmas Eve, then bring it home to decorate with candles and candies.

“Without a Christmas tree it isn’t Christmas,” she says. “Everything revolves around the Christmas tree. The central part is that everybody holds hands and sings special songs and everything is about the movement around Christmas tree.”

“I thought everybody does it this way,” says Rimsame. “When you are in a small country, you think this is how it happens everywhere.”

When Latvia regained its independence in 1991, the celebration of Christmas in that country caught up with the rest of the world.

“Then it was really Christmas,” says Rimsame. “We tried to catch up with what we had missed for 50 years.”

“Now we try to follow old traditions but also what the rest of the world is doing,” she says. “Unfortunately, that means that now we start to think about presents.”

And still, in the country where the first Christmas tree began, the necessity of light and greenery in the dark of winter prevails.

“Having that light is so important,” says Rimsame. “In December it gets dark at 3 p.m., so that’s why we look forward to Christmas and getting to light the candles so much. We know that after Christmas, the days will be longer again.”

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