Language is not the only part of our heritage

Language is a crucial element in opening up your children’s Latvian heritage. But there is another part to the process of giving them a sense of Latvian identity: the annual cultural traditions and rituals of the Latvian people.

In my case this process involves food. When I think of Easter, Jāņi (Midsummer), Christmas, New Year’s Eve and even birthday celebrations back in my childhoood, I associate them with the specific foods baked for the occasion and the beautiful smells that wafted from the kitchen.

I can’t imagine Christmas without the smell of pīrāgi, ķimeņmaizes (caraway seed buns), ābolmaizes (apple slice), the traditional cepetis (pork roast) and of course the overpowering scent of piparkūkas (gingerbread) baking in the oven. Birthdays were always celebrated with the traditional kliņģeris. I’ll never forget the exotic scents of the saffron and cardamom being prepared to be mixed in with the other ingredients.

Easter would not be Easter without the eggs dyed in onion skins, as well as paska and a few other yummy Russian ring-ins: kulich (a sweet cake) and kulebyaka (salmon pie). I don’t know why my mother made them. They didn’t even sound Latvian, but they sure tasted heavenly.

And Jāņi would not be the same without Jāņu siers (cheese with caraway seeds) that often crumbled to pieces but always tasted delicious eaten together with the standard fare—pīrāgi.

Needless to say, this was all possible because my mother actually enjoyed cooking. My sister, my father and I were the lucky ones who could enjoy the fruits of mum’s hobby. But was it merely a hobby? Mum worked as well, so the effort she had to put in would have been great. And why? So her family could commend her on her cooking skills over and over again?

I don’t think so. There must have been a reason which I am only beginning to understand now that I have my own children. Come Easter and I will inevitably be out hunting down onion skins at all the local grocery stores (supermarkets are not as helpful in this regard), and in December (even though it’s the middle of summer in Melbourne) you’ll find me slaving over a hot stove baking piparkūkas and pīrāgi in the 40-degree (Celsius) heat.

And the kids love to get involved. They can’t wait to help with the kneading and the glazing and—most fun of all—the tasting! Yes, the process is tedious and exhausting and time-consuming and sometimes I wonder if it’s all been worth it. But when the family sits down for the Easter or Christmas feast and goes ape over the paska or the freshly baked pīrāgi, I know that what they are eating is just another part of their cultural heritage that I hope they will end up passing on to their children.

This aspect of Latvian culture—the preparation of traditional foods on special occasions—is still primarily (even in the liberated Western world) passed on from mother or grandmother to the younger generation of females. It would be rare (although I’m sure it does happen as my son is one example) to see a son or grandson in the kitchen, looking on as his relatives cook and bake. So a logical deduction can be drawn: if the Latvian partner in a relationship is a woman, there is a greater likelihood that there will be some attempt to replicate what her ancestors did before her (providing her relatives had the time, energy and interest in her childhood). There are exceptions, of course – I know of at least one Australian wife of a Latvian friend who makes a mean batch of pīrāgi and a scrumptious kliņģeris.

Cooking is one small part of one’s cultural heritage. In the case of Latvians it all depends on how far you want to take it. During Jāņi you may only be interested in teaching your children how to make a vaiņags (garland) and letting them hear a few songs so they know how they sound. Or you may feel it is important to their upbringing to experience a full-blown Jāņi, complete with jumping over the bonfire in a Latvian national costume and staying up till the wee hours of the morning. To achieve this aim it takes a bit more effort, finding out where these celebrations take place in your part of the world and maybe even getting involved in organizing such. A trip to Latvia around Jāņi is probably the best (and most expensive!) option, but then there’s the problem of finding a venue with authentic Jāņi celebrations.

Language is the most important element that needs to be passed down in order for the next generation to be able to catch a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a Latvian. But traditions add another dimension to this process. Of course it’s possible to show or experience the traditions without understanding the language, but an amalgamation of both creates a three- dimensional picture rather than a two-dimensional one. The traditions, which touch all five senses, will gel into one’s subconscious more readily than language by itself.

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.

2 thoughts on “Language is not the only part of our heritage

  1. We enjoyed your article immensely! It brought fond memories of Vic’s mom (deceased 1999) and her holiday preparations. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of our individual heritage.

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