Dressed in folk costumes or disguised as imaginary characters, a group of Latvians gather in a square in the heart of Riga for a winter solstice ceremony, based on the theme of the tree and whose tradition dates back to pagan times. .
The celebration in Riga is one of many similar celebrations held across the Baltic country, which historians say have a connection to the modern Christmas tree tradition.
The participants drag a tree trunk with a rope through the streets of the city while singing, then put it in a bonfire where it ends up in ashes.
In the Middle Ages, people installed trees in their homes as the solstice approached before burning them in the open air.
“The tree stump symbolizes everything that has gone wrong this year
,” says Liga Lukashunas, one of the participants in the celebrations and head of the Riga cultural center “Ritums”.
“We collect all our bad thoughts, our misdeeds or our health problems in these logs which then go up in smoke, allowing the year to come to have a fresh start”
, she specifies.
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Near the square where the ceremony ends, a plaque on the ground claims the site where the world's first decorated Christmas tree was publicly displayed in 1510. The pagan Baltic tradition was picked up by German traders who gave it its modern form and contributed to its spread through the Hanseatic League, an association of merchant towns in the northern countries, in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, at the time.
According to historical records, the original tree from 1510 was decorated by a guild of merchants with artificial roses.
The merchants then danced around the tree before setting it on fire.
But the first historical record of a Christmas tree in its current form dates back to 1476, when a tree was installed in a house belonging to the local Schwarzhaeupter organization of foreign merchants.
“With decorations and sweets they adorned a fir tree in their Schwarzhaeupter house and then carried it out into the street after Christmas, to burn it
,” according to
The Great Christmas Book
written by Latvian historian and linguist Guna Pitkevica.
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Today in Latvia, an ancient custom still alive allows everyone to cut their own tree in the large public forests that cover about a third of the country.
Aida Rancane, founder of the folk group Grodi, recalls that the winter solstice ceremonies symbolize
“the eternal rebirth of nature and the world around us, allowing people to renew themselves too”