The Christmas tree in Town Hall Square in Tallinn. / sur

Christmas tree stories: centuries of history

The Baltic capitals Riga and Tallinn have still not decided which of them earned the honour of installing the first Christmas tree some five centuries ago. This century, Andalucía has managed to claim the most expensive one in the world, and apparently the tallest in Europe

ALEKK M. SAANDERS

Decorated trees are everywhere during the Christmas holidays. However, the use of evergreen trees to celebrate the winter season occurred before the birth of Christ.

Pagan tradition

Ancient Romans made decorations of evergreens for the December festival of Saturnalia. Fir tree branches were also used by European pagans for decorating the homes for the winter solstice in order to bring a colourful atmosphere to the dull and cold season.

One of the legends about Christmas trees is related to German pagans and an English monk. It is believed that in the 8th century, a monk from Crediton, Boniface, was sent to Germany to convert pagans to Christianity. When he saw an oak tree dedicated to Thor and being used in a pagan ritual, he chopped it down in anger. After felling the tree, Boniface read the Gospel and offered the villagers a fir tree to represent eternal life because it was an evergreen tree and pointed to heaven. So this story credits Saint Boniface of Devon with the invention of the Christmas tree.

Two friendly rivals

The origin of the Christmas tree is evidently based upon a combination of many different facts, legends and customs. Unsurprisingly, there are some versions more famous than others. One of the legends claims that the first printed reference to Christmas trees appeared in Germany in 1531. According to other sources France had put up its Christmas tree ten years before, either in Paris or the Alsace region, thanks to Duchess Helene of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

However, there is a theory that Germany adoped the new Christmas tradition from migrant workers from Riga, where the first decorated pine tree had been placed in the public square decades earlier. In 1510, men of the local merchants' guild decorated a tree with artificial roses, considered to be a symbol of the Virgin Mary. They danced around it and then set fire to it.

The Christmas tree in Riga. / sur

Neighbouring Estonia nevertheless is sure that its capital is indeed the originator of the tradition. The world's first Christmas tree was put in Tallinn yet in 1441. It was brought to the picturesque Town Hall Square by the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, a Livonian merchant association. Unmarried merchants sang and danced with Estonian girls around a tree, which they then burnt.

The Christmas tree in Spain

The ceremony of carrying the tree into the heart of Tallinn eventually became quite an affair, attracting even Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia, who participated in the event in 1711. The possible daughter of another Emperor of Russia, Nicholas I, brought the Christmas tree tradition to Spain.

The Russian beauty, Sofia Trubetskaya, kept Madrid society up to date with the latest fashions and ballroom games, and in 1870, she introduced the Christmas tree to Spain, by installing it in her palace

Sofia Trubetskaya is thought to be illegal daughter of the emperor, and that is why her mother took her from Russia to France. Sofia grew up in Paris and there she married the Frenchman, Charles de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III. After his death Sofia met the Spanish nobleman, José Osorio y Silva, who was living in France with the exiled Spanish royal family. In 1869, Sofia became his wife and also an active collaborator in his plan to restore the Spanish monarchy. The Russian beauty used to organise social events, festivals and cultural gatherings to gain support and raise money for her husband's plan.

In Madrid Sofia Trubetskaya was accepted easily into the Spanish aristocracy, becoming a dame of The Royal Order of Noble Ladies of Queen Maria Luisa. She continued organising ladies' meetings at her Palacio de Alcañices. It is believed that Sofia kept Madrid society up to date with the latest fashions and ballroom games. So, it's no surprise that it was Trubetskaya who in 1870 introduced the Christmas tree to Spain, by installing one in her palace.

Special trees in Andalucía

The first Christmas trees are believed to have been decorated with paper flowers or sweets and apples to be enjoyed by apprentices and children. The Costa del Sol made history in 2019 by decorating the world's most expensive Christmas tree.

The world's most expensive Christmas tree in the Estepona hotel. / sur

The tree, unveiled in the Kempinski Hotel lobby in Estepona, was decorated with ornaments valued at over 12 million euros. The five-metre-tall Christmas tree was designed by the Debbie Wingham.

The famous American haute couture designer and cake artist peppered it with red, pink, white and black diamonds, edible treats and traditional decorations.

Inspired by the verdant feathers of a peacock and the modernist art-deco era, the tree also featured unique martini glasses, perfume bottles, 3D printed chocolate peacocks and decorated baubles, created with a mixture of materials, from diamond dust and 24-carat gold to emu and ostrich eggs and feathers. Additionally, on the branches there was luxury jewellery from Bulgari, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Chanel.

The Europe's tallest (apparently) Christmas tree in Granada's Armilla. / sur

Another unusual "tree" in Andalucía can be found in Armilla (Granada province) and is claimed to be the tallest Christmas tree in Europe. The 55-metre-high Christmas cone was erected for the first time in 2016, when the new Nevada Shopping Park near Granada, one of the largest shopping complexes in Spain, was inaugurated.

Granada's Loja might boast apparently the cheapest tree of Andalucía

Incidentally, Granada's Loja could boast having the cheapest tree of Andalucía, which was placed on its town square some years ago. It was made of recycled plastic bottles.

Tallinn calling

The Old Town. / sur

This year the Estonian capital celebrates the 580th anniversary of being the first in Europe to display the Christmas tree. Now, in teh 21st century, tourists and guests flock to Tallinn to admire its winter fairy-tale atmosphere.

The Old Town, appreciated by Unesco, is also considered the most attractive place for spending Christmas holidays. The truly medieval spirit is created there due to narrow streets lined mostly with 13th and 16th century buildings.

The centre of the holiday magic is the Christmas tree on Town Hall Square. An annual contest is held to look for the most beautiful spruce tree in all of Estonia to become the market's showpiece. After being selected, the tree is decorated with thousands of lights.

The Christmas festivities in Tallinn last until 2 January 2022. Local artisans and designers sell gifts, and even let you make your own handicrafts or sweets in their workshops.

If you get hungry then taste 'verivorst'. This traditional Estonian blood sausage is a typical winter meal, usually served during the Christmas festivities, when piles of 'verivorst'-sausages are roasted together with potatoes and pork.

This traditional Estonian blood sausage is a typical winter meal, usually served during the Christmas festivities, when piles of 'verivorst'-sausages are roasted together with potatoes and pork

To warm up, you could drink the 'Vana Tallinn' liqueur, one of Estonia's hallmark products. The spicy flavour is derived from Jamaican rum, herbs, various spices from around the world, oranges and lemons, and in case of a morning hangover, you can drop in at the oldest active pharmacy in Europe, to buy aspirin.