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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in the Latvian tradition

  • 2010-12-23
  • By Sam Logger

RIGA - It is time for joy and happiness to come into your house, as Christmas has arrived with laughter and entertainment! Just as the ancient Latvians celebrated it!

This year Riga has launched a big marketing campaign, claiming it was the first town where the decorated Christmas tree was put up. Now, when the National Christmas Tree Association in the United States approves this claim, Riga becomes more than just a capital somewhere in Europe. However, the Christmas tree is not the only decoration at the year’s last holiday in Latvia. And surely it is not the only Christmas activity.

So how to have yourself a merry little Christmas in the Latvian tradition? Three words – imagination, desire and patience! These all gather the whole package of Latvian Christmas traditions that were used to celebrate the winter solstice and welcome the sun back.

It’s good to start preparing for Christmas in time! And tidying up your living space is one of the tasks that Latvians are encouraged to do to make everything around a bit cleaner. It is also expected to have your home decorated with traditional decors, not with what you can usually buy in the shopping center. Thus a walk in the park or the forest is very welcome to collect the natural items. Small branches and fir-cones are some of them. If nature is not really your place to be, it’s interesting to have ornaments or anything else you can make with your own hands.

Log dragging is one of the most anticipated ancient Latvian Christmas traditions. An oak log is cut and then dragged through the yards to draw all the bad experiences of the year in. Later, the log is burnt, to symbolize the light’s win over the darkness. Another tradition that makes parallels with Halloween is mummery. People put different masks on and go from house to house to carry the blessing and protect against the evil spirits. Many roles are found within the mummers – the Gypsy (a cold-blooded trader) or the bear (which scares the evil spirits away). The mummers are invited in and treated well with goodies found in the house, usually food.

Christmas time is also eating time! Latvian Christmas tables are probably known for a laying out of nine dishes. It says that these dishes must be eaten till midnight to retain one’s wealth. However, it’s important what you have on this table, too, and the beans, peas, the pig snout, bacon pies are a small part of the food richness.

As being a pagan nation, ancient Latvians dedicated lots of time to fortunetelling. Christmas eve was not an exception. Someone wanted to know what the next year’s harvest will be like, and somebody, mostly the young, wanted to know the time of possible marriage. The Latvians also liked to bewitch luck – a proverb says that a lot of money will come to you if a black cat is carried around the church on Christmas Eve.

Very similar activities are done in waiting for the New Year. Apart from the modern countdown of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and fireworks, the Latvian ancestry were keen on fortune-telling and mummery. For New Years Latvians prepared fish as one of the dishes – the scales afterwards were put into a wallet to prevent the lack of money.

Do not forget to have a good time because both Christmas and New Years come once a year – it’s your possibility to celebrate in your own way. Fortunately, the traditions which come through the generations give so much happiness and wisdom, so we can use them to make ourselves better. And if the fact that Christmas and New Years are annual events makes these festivals less attractive – think twice! People are heading back to their roots – to comprehend the history and to value the knowledge it holds. So, maybe this is the true Christmas miracle – to believe that every tradition really works!