Go west, young country

  • 2008-12-17
  • By Adam Mullett

DECK THE HALLS: Christmas traditions in the Baltic states have recently been overpowered by Western consumerism as the holiday slowly becomes more focussed on gift-giving than religion.

The first snow has fallen, brightly decorated trees have popped up all over the city, and advertisments for holiday sales have appeared in most shop windows. It is that time of year again - Christmas has come to the Baltics. There is plenty to do and see during the holiday season in the Baltic states, and most people are now getting ready for a relaxing Christmas followed by a wild New Year's Eve. In this week's Industry Insider, we take a look at how Western consumerism is influencing the Baltic Christmas, and take a trip through two of the largest holiday markets in the region. Happy holidays!

VILNIUS - Christmas all over the world has become commercialized. Ever since Coca Cola reinvented Santa Claus, companies realized the commercial potential of the holiday.
In countries like the U.S.A., the U.K., Australia and Canada, the celebration is now a depraved gift-giving-fest where people try to show the measure of their love in the amount and value of presents they give.
It's nice to know that this part of the world still considers Christmas to be closer to its original form. Of course gift giving is present, no pun intended, but the family connection is celebrated alongside religious observation.
The question is, however, how long it will last before Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia "go west" and stop caring about the real reason for Christmas and just fill their stocking full of trinkets?

Marks & Spencer (MS), the English department store, is one of many companies making inroads in the Baltics with stores in both Lithuania and Latvia. Inside the shop is a food section that seems to be growing exponentially.
All the food they stock is what patrons will find in their British shops 's curry, spices, cookies, exotic oils and now 's traditional British Christmas food.
While the expatriate westerners who live in the Baltics might love the MS food sections, some locals have been left a little bewildered.

"I don't know what this is 's it seems like this food is all the same, but it is nothing like what we eat for Christmas," one shopper told The Baltic Times.

Tinsel and baubles are universal decorations, but some in the region are lamenting the commercialization of the holiday.
"Western Christmas culture is very commercialized 's all the festivals are directed to buy stuff without caring about the actual traditions or getting together," said Aurelija Sutkaityte, a Lithuanian jewelry maker who lived in Chicago.

"It is a threat because sometime ago people did care more about each other and the religious aspect, but now, just look at the shops 's they are decorated at least six weeks before the festival and people are expecting big presents," she added.
Sutkaityte thinks Christmas is primarily a religious festival.
People just go and spend money, but don't worry about the true idea of the festival. After all this is a religious festival," she said.

"This period before Christmas is called Advent 's it is a time for concentrating and thinking about the spiritual things. In older times, people wouldn't eat meat on Fridays and wouldn't party or drink at this time 's now nobody cares. I think the western culture really affected Lithuanian traditions," she added.
Ala Aspidova, a resident of Tallinn, told TBT that the Western traditions are similar to her family's celebrations.
"I don't see any difference, honestly. There is no such thing as Estonian Christmas traditions, apart from the food of course. I think they are trying to bring a fairytale into our lives 's this is fantasy, not religious," she said.

The three Baltic countries, which are among Europe's oldest surviving cultures, have vastly different Christmas traditions.

Sutkaityte said that her memories of Christmas as a child are quite different from today's celebrations.
"On the 24th the whole family gathered and decorated the tree and had 12 dishes without meat and went to church after dinner. As I remember, we would just gather together and it wasn't about presents. We weren't expecting presents. For me it has this feeling of waiting for a big religious festival for when Jesus is born. It wasn't stressed about giving gifts," she said.

Lithuanians traditionally gather together on Christmas Eve for celebrations where they have a smorgasbord of food made from fish and vegetables 's meat is not permitted on this day. A dish unique to Lithuania is the poppy seed 'milk' with clumps of solid bread.
Latvians celebrate the festival in a more pagan style thinking about the seasons. Families and friends gather together to make handicrafts and entertain each other with jokes and stories.
During Christmas, Latvian houses are decorated with three-dimensional straw or reed ornaments. Evergreen branches, junipers, colored rags, wood shavings and other natural materials are also used in the decorations.
Mumming is probably the best-known Christmas tradition.

Mummers are people who wear costumes and different masks. The most common traditional masks are bears, horses, cranes, wolves, goats, haystacks, tall women, small men, death, fortune-tellers, and living corpses. Led by a 'father,' the Mummers travel from homestead to homestead or from village to village. The Mummers bring a home blessing, encourage fertility, and frighten away any evil spirits.
In stark contrast to the American Christmas music played in most counties of the world, Estonians find Christmas to be the quietest time of the year. Traditional pagan beliefs ban loud celebrations in fear of scaring off good spirits.

From Dec. 21 to Jan. 6, Estonians refrain from working hard and spend time together cooking traditional foods like ginger bread, black pudding and pickled cabbage.
Of course Marzipan, beer and sauna are thrown into the mix too 's that is the traditional Estonian way.