November’s the month to bring together the living and the dead

  • 2011-11-17
  • By Emi Pastor

CLOSE TIES: We see lots of flowers and candles near the graves, as the living care for the dead and vice versa.

RIGA - November is when nature is ready to go to sleep for the long winter, when days start to considerably shorten: with the end of a colorful fall, everything sinks deeper into hibernation. It is also a time to remember the dead souls, according to some ancient traditions in Latvia.

These upcoming weeks and further on, life turns inward, just the opposite from summer time, when people are outdoors enjoying the sunlight. But during the fall, and especially in November, nature invites humanity to think about Death. With reference to the time of remembrance, some old beliefs, like Velu laiks, or Svecisu Vakars, begin to occupy the minds of the Latvian people.

The world of the living and the world of the dead are separated in our daily routine, though some customs from the past run towards a sort of combination, and can proceed either with, or without religious feeling. Take your calendar, therefore, and mark these special days in golden letters.

We should pay attention to the following two special dates, or periods, this autumn. Chronologically, the first is Velu laiks, whose dates are variable because there are several different approaches and accounts that are worth considering. All of them, including the time of remembrance, from Mikeli (September 29) to Martini (November 10), are during the Velu laiks period, which means the “time of the souls” (Veli), when people organize their Velu vakars – the particular evening when the party is celebrated – in its honor. Both expressions - Velu laiks and Velu vakars - are valid.

The second celebration is the ‘Candlelight Evening,’ called in the Latvian language Svecisu vakars. One celebration that will take place is celebrated on November 20 this year, according to Rihards Kalnins, an expert at the Latvian Institute. In addition, Latvians also participate in Lacplesis Day (Lacplesa Diena in Latvian), November 11, commemorating the victory over the Bermontians in the Battle of Bay of Riga.
Leaving aside Lacplesis Day, which is a public and official event, we get back to the other two mentioned traditions, and their origins.

Both Svecisu vakars and Velu laiks have something in common: they are intended to honor those who have passed away. However, like the expert on Latvian mythology, Aldis Putelis, has explained to The Baltic Times, these two celebrations are “different phenomena.” In concrete terms, “the first being the heathen, and the second one comes from the Christian tradition,” and although they are not the same, “some syncretism can be expected as well between them,” he clarified.

The new date in the chronology is the custom Svecisu vakars, mainly celebrated on November 20. Mainly, because sometimes it is difficult to establish a concrete date for the event as there are other similar religious celebrations mixed with the tradition. For some people this event coincides with the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, in early November (neighboring Lithuania celebrates the festivities of All Saints Day and All Souls Day with a Bank Holiday, as do other Catholic countries like Poland). But in Latvia the date is not so clear: for the Protestant people this same ritual takes place the Sunday before Advent and is called Eternity Day.

Regardless, far from the rules of several churches, now Svecisu vakars is celebrated by going to the cemetery and offering a candle, remembering the lost person. And this is not reserved just for believers of religion. Juris Zalans is a manager at Cultural Projects and known in the movement of traditional folklore in Latvia, and he explained the essence of this celebration as: “Many people go to the cemetery and, although their motivation is not the Church and is nothing folkloric, it is some kind of act for them. After all, you belong to some communities. Your family, your group of friends, your social circle… Some of us are alive and others are dead. And with these types of events you can link both worlds as a social manifestation,” he said.

Svecisu vakars, or Miruso Pieminas Diena (Remembrance of the Dead Day), the most formal and official name, was ill-considered during the Soviet era. That’s how this private habit, which was initially very far from collective demands, became established. “In Soviet times Svecisu vakars was used as a protest. You had problems if you went to Church because it was not accepted, neither participating in events nor putting out these candles. But the main thing was that people wanted to express their protest [against this prohibition]. They wanted to put their candles in front of the graves and monuments of politicians of the First Latvian Republic. And it was not allowed by the Soviet Regime,” he said. In this situation, “They [the Soviet authorities] could not destroy graves in the cemeteries; it would have caused problems for them, but they were trying to fix which civilian people were there, and to impute with them some problems, in taking measures afterwards. Or, to avoid these remembrances, sometimes [they] even put things in front of these graves or monuments which had been built for politicians. Just to close the place and to make it not so visible,” he remembered.

Fortunately, Svecisu vakars is now freely celebrated and the cemeteries around the country are revived by candles in the evening, thanks to the people who celebrated family gatherings there, accompanied by music and poetry readings.
But Svecisu vakars is not the only ancient manifestation that has arrived to current Latvia. In fact, the period of Velu laiks is another manifestation of honoring the dead that has been practiced in the country during many decades but, in this case, it takes place around the table with food and drink. “The heathen tradition foresaw a week of remembrance at home, when the spirits of the ancestors (called Veli) had to be honored and fed in order to ensure good fortune and fertility in the next year,” said Putelis.

In similar terms Zalans expressed that the origin of the Velu laiks comes from another era, and that that tradition was celebrated mainly in the countryside. “A very long time ago, Latvians lived in very much separated farms, and when in one farm people met together for an assembly, they also made a table with food and drinks for their Veli, for their souls.” Over the years, food, song and dance show more protagonism than tears and sobs in these ancient meetings. Included in that, there is a cultural world hidden with songs, a philosophy of life and some rituals, but nothing intrinsically related with drama or fear.
Nowadays, without formalities or luxuries, Velu laiks has become a way to reunite families and relatives, although “unfortunately, now this tradition has almost disappeared,” pointed out Zalans. In fact, according to him, its conservation and force are in the groups who enjoy folklore, but not so popular between the average person, threatening its continuance in future generations. Rarely is this mentioned in conversation between younger people. Velu laiks “was a completely pagan tradition that now is celebrated as a folklore movement,” he concluded.

Like a good example of ancient Latvian celebrations, this tradition has its relevance in the mythological calendar as people in the autumn go to visit their old homes.
Contrary to what we may imagine, Veli vakars is not a somber celebration, ceremonious and magnificent. The tradition, which arrived in the 21th century, looks more like a party than a memorial service or funeral. Music, dance, food, drink and, overall, friends and people who love the deceased celebrate together this event, while the candles in honor of the dead are lit up.
This festive character appears in the songs that are sung, with curious lyrics. Zalans, who appreciates this folk music, said that “when you listen to the songs, you know that they help and make you feel better. Their intention is not to make these things more dramatic or stressful. Also, if you translate these songs, you will find humor. We have many of these texts which are very funny, and of course it is not just for fun. Most of these texts are philosophic. I want my grave to stay here, and to see how you continue your life,” he said jokingly.

The concept of death, its sense or senselessness, is always behind these sorts of traditions. It is cultural heritage to consider death as a logical and natural end of life. Everyone has their own sense of reference about this issue, each person has an opinion. For Putelis, “even the traditional beliefs consider death as the moment when the soul, spirit departs the body, the flesh. And it is difficult to say to what extent this is influenced by Christianity. There are no ancient writings of the Latvian tribes, nor about their ways, because the oldest dates back to the first half of the 17th century. The whole of Europe has the idea that the soul also leaves the body while sleeping, so this is the origin.”

Asked about the attitude of Latvians in the face of Death, he opined that “There are no people in Europe, more or less Western, who can accept their mortality in stoic peace. We all know that dying is natural; we can clearly trace the causes. But still, emotionally, it is rather difficult to accept this common, universal fact. Therefore, speaking of death as a natural phenomenon, one cannot expect it to be met, or even celebrated, in complete silence. The conclusion is that “as no-one can tell for sure what awaits us in death, it remains scary. And it has always been so. The living are the living. And the others are different. The different are seen as the most dangerous.”

However, we can find another interpretation; many, actually. “From all these things that we have described, this attitude is not so much crying out to us. Through Velu laiks and Svecisu vakars, events are more like memories and maybe show how to achieve better communication.

In spite of our attendances at funerals, where we, of course, may cry and feel sad, if we compare ourselves with southern countries, it may be that funerals in Latvia are quieter. The expression of feelings here is quieter, even deeper. Maybe people are deeper inside… In southern countries people express more their feelings, but in Latvia things seem not so dramatic, and not so evident. They appear more formal. And, perhaps, this is due to the mentality of the people.

To understand Death as a transition from this world to another, and to consider whatever funeral-like ritual is used to help the deceased step over the border between these two worlds, may, in fact, help the living. The relatives of the deceased must resign themselves to what has occurred. When living through years and years, doesn’t it make sense to mix dance and memories, losses with food, mourning and music? In general, the events described are not so dramatic: “With these contacts during these dates you can make stronger links inside the family or the group. And the social function is important,” Zalans remarked. After all, death is an inevitable fact that makes us all feel, and be, equal.