Latvia, Christmas in

Latvia, Christmas in

The vast majority of Latvians are Christians. Most are Lutherans but sizeable Roman Catholic and Orthodox minorities exist. In past times Latvians often gathered together during the long evenings that surround the winter solstice to do needlework and other crafts, as well as to tell stories, guess riddles, dance, and sing. Though today Latvians honor Christmas as the birthday of Jesus Christ, their ancestors celebrated the winter solstice as the birthday of the sun maiden.

Preparations

Latvians anticipate Christmas with Advent wreaths and Advent calendars. They also prepare for the coming of the Christmas holiday by baking, cleaning, and decorating. Many people construct three-dimensional ornaments out of bent straws, which are used to dress up rooms. Decorations are also made from greenery, colored cloth, and other natural substances. Christmas trees constitute another important decoration, whose use in Latvia can be traced back several hundred years.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is the highlight of the Christmas season. Latvians enjoy an elaborate dinner on this day, usually featuring roast pork, sausage, bacon, or even pig's head (see also Boar's Head). Another prominent dish, a barley mash called koca, kukis, or kikas, gave rise to a Latvian nickname for Christmas Eve, which may be referred to as "Kukis Evening." Other typical Christmas Eve dishes include beans, peas, sauerkraut, beer, gingerbread, cookies, and fruit. Some say that the beans and peas became midwinter favorites because their round shape symbolized the longed-for sun. After dinner Latvians exchange their Christmas presents. In some homes Father Christmas arrives in time to distribute gifts and ask the children how well they have behaved during the year.

Latvian Christmas Traditions

The Yule log once played an important role in traditional Latvian Christmas celebrations. Villagers felled an oak tree from which they obtained their logs. They pulled these logs round their properties and then set fire to them. Several families might share a single log, which was burned after it had been dragged round the last homestead. Latvian lore offers two different explanations for this custom. One interprets the log as a kind of sponge that absorbs all the ill luck that clings to the household. Burning it permits the family to begin the new year with a clean slate. Another suggests that the logs signify life and burning them entices the sun to spend more time in the sky.

Mumming was another traditional practice associated with the midwinter holidays. Called kekatas, kujenieki, budeli, cigani, preili or kalad-nieki, these masked and costumed wanderers might appear anytime from Martinmas to Carnival (the festival that precedes the start of Lent). They were most active at Christmas time, however. Popular mummers' disguises included those of wolves, horses, bears, cranes, goats, short men, tall women, haystacks, Death, dead people, and fortune-tellers. Under the direction of a "father," they traveled from house to house singing songs and telling fortunes. One frequently used fortune-telling method involved ladling molten lead or wax into a pail of icy water and reading the twisted shapes as signs of future events. Their visits were thought to scare off harmful spirits, to promote fertility, and to bless (see also Ghosts). In exchange for all these favors, householders offered the mummers food and drink.

Repression and Revival

Between the years 1940 and 1991 the Russian-led U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) occupied Latvia. This government forbade the celebration of religious holidays. Latvians restored these holidays as soon as the occupation ended.

Further Reading

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: McClelland and Stewart, 2000.

Web Site

"Latvian Seasonal Holidays," an article written by Mera Mellon of the University of Latvia's Center for Ethnic Studies and posted to the web by the Latvian Institute, located in Riga, Latvia:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003