Tallinn's Christmas tree — the oldest Christmas tree in Europe?

Source: Kaupo Kalda

Tallinn's Christmas tree — the oldest Christmas tree in Europe?

Legend has it that the first Christmas tree was brought to Tallinn's Town Hall Square in 1441 by the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, a Livonian merchant association. If true, this would make Tallinn's Christmas tree the first publicly displayed Christmas tree in Europe. However, the city of Riga contests this claim, saying the Blackheads started a similar tradition in Latvia at around the same time.

Tallinn's famous Christmas tree stands tall in the Town Hall Square.

Photo by: Riho Kirss

So which Christmas tree tradition is the oldest? Was the first publicly displayed Christmas tree in Europe in Estonia or Latvia? 

The truth behind the legend of Tallinn's Christmas tree

Historian Anu Mänd says that both claims by Tallinn and Riga could well be false. If that's the case, then how did the rumor get started? According to Mänd, the legend probably started with a book called "The History of Tallinn Blackheads" published in 1885.  Its author, an amateur historian by the name of Friedrich Amelung, misinterpreted the word "tree" in the source documents and substituted it with "Christmas tree"(Weihnachtsbaum). He also claimed that the Blackheads — a professional association of ship owners, merchants, and foreigners that began in the 14th century — burned the Christmas tree as early as 1441 and 1514. But historical sources don't support his claim.

The sources do mention the word "tree", but we can't assume it was a Christmas tree. Moreover, the word "bom" in Low German does mean "tree," but it can also be used for "chandelier," among other definitions. Even if the Blackheads carried a tree to the market square, it wasn't the city's tree. It would have been a part of the Blackheads' private ceremony; citizens of Tallinn would not have been welcome there. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the tradition of carrying a tree to the market square during Christmas was continuous through the centuries up until modern times.

Getting back to the legend. In 1984, writer and the second president of Estonia, Lennart Meri, used Amelung's publication in his book "Hõbevalge." Meri and Amelung, in turn, inspired Estonian historian Jüri Kuuskemaa who brought this topic to the Estonian media in 1996. Thus, the legend of the oldest publicly displayed Christmas tree in Europe was born.

Though we can't say with certainty when it started (or which country started it first), carrying the tree into the heart of Tallinn became quite an affair over time. The event even attracted nobility, such as Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia who participated in Tallinn's Christmas tree tradition in 1711. 

What the tradition looks like today

Each year, the center of the holiday magic is Tallinn's Town Hall Square, and the Christmas tree is its main attraction. An annual contest is held to look for the most beautiful spruce tree in all of Estonia. The tree must be no more than 18 meters high and deep green in color with bushy but evenly spaced branches. The entire process from selection to set-up is carefully reported on by the Estonian news media. After being put up in the Town Hall Square, the tree is decorated with thousands of lights. The city center itself is home to nearly 100 different lighting displays each winter. The Adam Decolight factory in Rapla, Estonia, produces many of the lights for the Christmas tree as well as for streets, malls, and airports around the world from London to Macau.

Stay warm with a cup of glögi, Estonia's version of mulled wine

Photo by: Sergei Zjuganov

Tallinn's Christmas tree — the market's crown jewel

The Christmas market has been held at the Town Hall Square in Tallinn's Old Town since 1991. In 2019 it was named Europe's best Christmas market by European Best Destinations. Visitors can stroll among the wooden stalls filled with handicrafts, and try mulled wine, gingerbread, and traditional Estonian Christmas foods. There are two carousels for children and a program full of entertainment every weekend, including visits from Santa Claus. This year, the Christmas market begins on November 25th, when the lights on the tree and in the market are switched on. The market stays open until January 8th, 2023, the day after the Orthodox Christmas celebration.

The Christmas market is just one of the many festive attractions in Tallinn during the holiday season. In fact, you can soak in the Christmas spirit at special events all around Estonia throughout the month of December.

Last updated : 05.12.2022