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A reason to love fir

  • 2001-12-20
  • Krista Taurins
RIGA - Finland has jolly old Saint Nick. Russia has hand-painted blown glass Christmas decorations. Germany has Christmas markets.

But in terms of home-grown Christmas legends and traditions, Latvia - believed to be the birthplace of the decorated Christmas tree - may have the most marketable one of all.

And it's barely doing a thing about it.

According to the story, in 1510 Martin Luther, walking through a Riga forest, was touched by the beauty of the moonlight glistening on the branches of a fir tree. He chopped a little one down and brought it home for his children.

He attached candles to its branches to recreate the moonlight and - viola - the world's first decorated Christmas tree was recorded in Riga.

Search the Internet for "Christmas traditions" and "Latvia" and you'll be swamped with mentions of Riga as the Christmas tree's hometown. CNN even did a piece on it. Ask a local Latvian about it, however, and you are likely to be met with a puzzled expression.

Christmas concept

American businessman and long-time Riga resident J.C. Cole has been encouraging Western Christmas traditions in Riga for several years - like the first-ever lights on Jacob's Barracks a few years ago - when he first heard of Riga's Christmas tree heritage.

Cole first learned of the story in a book outlining the history of the Christmas tree. Then earlier this year he began developing the idea of holding a Christmas market in Riga Old Town's Dome Square.

Part of the publicity for the market includes the story of the birth of the Christmas tree, but still the concept needs to become common knowledge among local Latvians.

"This has got to be a Latvian thing," said Mike Johnson, an American working in the tourist industry in Riga, who is on the market's board of directors.

Johnson hopes that hotels and local companies will latch on to the idea and give it a local base, adding the marketing scheme cannot be an American Chamber of Commerce initiative if it is to succeed.

Local roots

Australian-Latvian and Riga resident Aldis Tilens, who sells handmade souvenirs in Latvia and abroad, agreed that marketing the Christmas tree tradition needs to be a home-grown phenomenon.

Tilens first heard the Christmas tree legend two years ago and was surprised to find out it was news to his local employees.

He sees the Martin Luther story as something that could unite Latvians.

"Latvians are still coming to terms with their identity," he said. "Is it an event, a cultural difference or geography that sets them apart? This is something that Latvians can latch on to that could be a source of pride."

Ojars Kalnins, who heads the Latvian Institute, which works to promote Latvia abroad, said his organization could incorporate the Christmas tree story in materials it distributes about Latvia.

As he put it, the vast majority of the world knows nothing about the country.

A knowledgeable percentage may associate Latvia with the former Soviet Union. Others may have had a chance encounter through a mention in the world press - such as the story of Konrads Kalejs or the teenage girl who slapped a British royal in the face with red carnations recently.

The Christmas tree story is a reminder that Latvia was, and still is, a European country with a European culture, Kalnins said.

And it is all in addition to the obvious benefits for business and tourism, of course.

Finnish finesse

Finland may be a prime example for Latvia on how to market holiday traditions.

Finland has Lapland, which is known around the world as the home of Santa Claus.

In 1984, the Finnish airline Finnair began to market itself as "The Official Carrier of Santa Claus." It involved a logo, which has evolved several times over the years, as well as decorations on aircraft, airports and offices.

Finnair also produced yearly Finland Santa Claus package tours spanning not only Christmastime, but from early December to late January.

The airline even went so far as to hold promotional tours with Santa himself, as far away as the company's Asian destinations.

Until 1997, Finnair cooperated with the Arctic Circle Santa Village near the Finnish city of Rovaniemi and the Santa Claus mail office, allowing passengers to send letters to Santa using an envelope sold on board.

Finnair brand manager Kari Tiitola said the company had benefited from the man in red and his association with Finland.

"The direct benefits are in terms of awareness and corporate image, (rather than) incremental revenue because this is difficult to measure," he wrote. "I'm afraid no figures are available, but (it is evident that) it was beneficial to us."

About a year ago, the company saw the opportunity to combine its efforts with a comprehensive Santa Claus theme, covering all the major stake-holders in Finland.

Since Finland, and at least one of its major companies, has cashed in on the universal and immediately understandable concept of Christmas, Latvia has a blueprint on how to base its fame on a holiday legend.

"I could see the export of 'real Christmas trees,' or toys made from genuine Latvian fir from the home of the Christmas tree," Tilens said.

The idea is out there; someone just needs to grab the reindeer by the horns.