Latvian winter festival marks shortest day

The traditional Latvian Christmas (called Ziemassvētki, meaning “winter festival”) is an ancient holiday having nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Instead, Ziemassvētki marks the shortest day and longest night of the year—the winter solstice—falling on Dec. 21 or 22, depending on the year.

One of the most important things to do at Ziemassvētki is to pull a yule log (called simply bluķis in Latvian) around your home three times. The log collects all of the sorrows, worries, misfortunes and anger that have accumulated during the past year. Then you need to burn the log, preferably outside, but a fireplace will do. The bonfire is considered a surrogate for the light of the sun, of which there is very little at this darkest time of year.

Many traditional Ziemassvētki songs and games also have to do with the theme of light or, more precisely, light winning over dark and ensuring that the sun will return again, the days will grow longer and life will go on. These two forces are often symbolized in the songs and dances by a goat and wolf or the sun and moon.

The season of the ķekatas, or mummers, begins at Mārtiņi (Nov. 10) and lasts until Meteņi (Feb. 10), but culminates at Ziemassvētki and is a very important part of the festivities. Ķekatas are costumed people who wander from house to house, making much noise, singing and dancing, demanding food and drink, and so on. They tend to dress as animals, natural objects or humans, instead of the gory monsters and witches associated with Halloween (which is ultimately related to the mummer tradition). Ziemassvētki is supposed to be a loud and even rowdy holiday – not quiet and peaceful, as we often imagine Christmas ought to be.

Because the solstices are very significant turning points of the year, they are also times for divining and fortune telling. There are countless benign and fun ways to divine the future, some of which include floating walnut shell boats in basins of water, going outside to listen to the bees in the hive, and interpreting dreams. Latvians (along with most Scandinavians) also melt pieces of lead, pour the molten lead into cold water, and then try to foresee their futures in the shape of the resulting blob of hardened lead.

Ziemassvētki is not Ziemassvētki, without piparkūkas (spicy, thin gingerbread cookies), cūkas šņukuris (pig’s snout) and pelēkie zirņi (gray peas). Blood sausage, pīrāgi, and ķūķis or koča (barley baked with smoked pork) are also popular foods at Ziemassvētki.

Traditional room decorations include straw or reed pieces strung together to form elaborate three-dimensional geometrical shapes and hung from the ceiling. Another popular decoration, a puzuris, is much easier to make: tie a long string around a small potato, then poke interestingly shaped dried grasses into the potato until you’ve formed a star or sun. The fuller the sun is of grasses, the more beautiful the decoration.

Even though it’s not really part of a truly traditional Ziemassvētki, keep your Christmas tree. The evergreen is, of course, a symbol of life in the darkest time of year, when everything else seems dead, and thus fits nicely into the celebration. Latvians tend to prefer short-needled spruce trees, rather than fat and full pines (for American readers, think more in the direction of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree). That’s so that you can hang ornaments in the tree—between the branches—rather than just lay them on the outer branches. As with so many things, Latvian-style tree decorating also tends to be simple and reserved: tasteful ornaments made of wood and other natural materials, including pinecones, cranberries and gingerbread; simple solid-colored balls, and real candles.

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