The Origins of the Christmas Tree and Pittsburgh’s Flaming Tree Festival of the Magi

Christmas trees
We have three Christmas trees this year.

Google “history of the Christmas tree” and you’ll find everything from little snips about Queen Victoria to pagan/indigenous culture appropriation to lots of photos of the evolution of American tree decor. It is a fun and interesting way to explore culture.

My favorite bit is the ongoing battle between Estonia and Latvia. I came across this struggle for accomplishment a few years ago and annually reread it to see if there are any updates.

723 the English missionary St. Boniface somewhere in Germany (which didn’t exist as we know Germany)

1441 – Tallinn, Estonia

1510 – Riga, Latvia

1536 – Martin Luther created the Christmas Tree in Wittenberg after a spiritual vision

1539 – Strasbourg, Alsace, France

1848 – Queen Victoria and her family posed for sketch seen around the world via Godey’s Lady’s Book and it took off from there …

It seems the Tallinn v Riga battle is pretty intense. I originally came across a reference to drunken men lighting a tree on fire and tossing it around while apparently having sex with the ladies of the region

 a fir tree would be set up in the center of town. Young men and women sang and danced around this tree and later set it ablaze.

That seems interesting. So I investigated further and found this:

And when the journeyman drinks had finished, they would set up a tall, tall Christmas tree, hung with many roses, in the market during the fasting and, late in the evening, arranged to go there with a bunch of wives and girls, first of all singing and dancing around it and afterwards set fire to the tree, which in the gloom flamed mightily. Then the journeymen took each other by the hand and jumped and danced around the tree and around the fire with couples, and let off firework rockets to celebrate. And however much the preachers preached against such things, such preaching was not at all respected. In addition, there was neither measure nor an end to the ring dancing with wives and girls, both day and night and often to defy and ignore the preachers who criticised such things.

You can read more about the battle between Rig and Tallinn (modern names) in the NYT piece from 2016.

It is a bit more interesting to dig into the history when you learn that a secret merchant association known as the Blackheads were attached to both of these origin stories. One can see why Christianity preferred St. Boniface killing Thor and Martin Luther getting a vision from God to weave into their stories of the tree. Queen Victoria taming the German customers was just icing on the Christmas cake.

Twice a year the Brotherhood celebrated major holidays: at the end of the navigation season between December 24 and January 10, Christmas and New Year, and from Easter to the beginning of the navigation season. Both celebrations commenced with an official session where organizational matters were settled, and continued with feasts, dancing, and festivities that sometimes included the whole town.

The custom of erecting a Christmas tree can be historically traced to such activities in the 15th and 16th centuries. According to the first documented uses of a Christmas tree in Estonia, in 1441, 1442, and 1514 the Brotherhood erected a tree for the holidays in their brotherhood house in Tallinn. At the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square where the members of the brotherhood danced around it.[4] In 1584, the pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square in Tallinn where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”.[5] The first description of a Christmas tree used the Brotherhood in Riga in 1510 resembles the descriptions from Tallinn.

Americans have flocked to bring back Krampus and the other Christmas companions to our celebrations – most including dressing up like Krampus and getting drunk at a brewery/pub/pour house/winery/bar/bench. So why not bring back the flaming tree?

And what better place to do this than Pittsburgh – we have a market square, lots of fireworks, singing and dancing aplenty, and I’m sure we can rustle up some flocks of maidens and wives (?) We have lots of Baltic cultures. Best of all, we have rivers. Now I’m not advocating pyromania or suggesting we hurl flaming trees from Mt. Washington into the rivers below. But the visual is impressive – we can dance around the flaming tree at the various lookout points in the region and then at the same time, hurl downward in a steel crate where a barge filled with firepeople will extinguish, pull the sodden tree from the river, and convert it into some sort of crafty sculpture for the region near a bike trail.

And use it as a fundraiser to install Latvian and Estonian nationality rooms at the University of Pittsburgh (if those nations want to be included.) Other cities have lantern festivals and lit boat races and that sort of thing, let’s make Pittsburgh the capital of secular Christmas by leaning into our legacy and adding some pierogi. We could even do it to close out the 12 days of Christmas near the Feast of Epiphany to encourage tree recycling. Bring your tree to recycle or show proof that you’ve done so and get a free drink ticket and a pickle pin. Or something.

Oh, plus we are the home of labor, right? The Brotherhoood of Blackheads were a guild. Guilds and unions are similar enough to make this work. And get them to sponsor the flaming tree festival of the Magi.

I want to be careful to say that I am not diminishing the very real devastation that our inaction on the climate crisis has wrought with regard to wildfires. I’m not suggesting wildfires. I’m just gently jesting about history, trees, Pittsburgh, and Christmas.



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