British yule, Latvian bluķis have similar roots

The Latvian timber industry is already known for its links to Great Britain, both historically as a provider of masts in the glory days of the Royal Navy, and in recent times as a significant contributor of product to the construction industry. But many may not know of another curious link.

British expatriates in Latvia often are surprised at how close the Latvians are to their folkloric heritage, from all the handcrafts on sale at tourist spots, through the number of their Latvian colleagues who sing in a choir or dance in a group, to the annual market at the outdoor museum at Berģi. But did you know that the British and Latvians share some winter solstice traditions?

In the Latvian solstice celebration, budeļi go out in masks and wander from house to house frightening off evil spirits and bad luck, so that the next year’s harvest will be successful (it always comes down to fertility rites, doesn’t it?). The masks are key, as the wearers must not be recognisable to the evil spirits. Sound like British traditions? Yes, this is very similar to what evolved into mummers’ plays in England.

But what about the timber connection?

This is where the versions differ slightly. In Latvia, a large oak log or bluķis is dragged past every house by the budeļi and ceremonially burned at the last one. There are conflicting stories about what this signifies: either the evil spirits collected along the way are destroyed by burning (shades of Guy Fawkes celebrations in Britain), or the bluķis represents the sun, which will arise again attracted by the flames.

On British Christmas cards (but more often on American ones, proof that they speak an earlier version of English) you will often see the word Yuletide. From where does this strange word come? It comes from the Yule log, which, you guessed it, was ceremonially burnt at Christmas or the winter solstice to ward off evil. In England, a log was decorated with ribbons and brought home by each family and burnt over the solstice period.  It was important to keep some of the charcoal in the hearth as kindling for next year’s log. Nowadays, this tradition lives on most often in a culinary variation of the Yule log, ironically made to a French recipe.

The source of the word yule is most likely Scandinavia (Jul means Christmas in Swedish), which may also explain the similarity in the traditions. As you wassail (that’s another story) in the glow of the candles on your Christmas tree this winter, you may also want to reflect on the fact that Rīga is the site of the earliest tree lighting on record.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *