The eastern Baltic coast was one of the last areas in Europe to be converted to Christianity. Because of this, many of the pre-Christian traditions are still alive and have not syncretized with Christianity as much as they have in other parts of the world. For example, Jāņi, the ancient summer solstice celebration, is a national holiday in present-day Latvia, when much of the population heads out of the cities to spend the shortest night of the year around huge bonfires. Jāņi may well be the biggest celebration of the year, even ahead of Christmas.
The Latvians were an agricultural people, and therefore not only most of their celebrations, but their whole calendar, was based on the movement of the sun, the changing of the seasons and various agricultural events such as planting time and harvest. Holidays fell on the summer and winter solstices (Jāņi and Ziemassvētki), when days were at their longest and shortest, respectively, and the spring and fall equinoxes (Lieldienas and Apjumības/Miķeļi), when day and night were equal. Holidays also marked the half-way points between solstices and equinoxes: Meteņi on Feb. 10, Ūsiņi on May 10, Māras on Aug. 10, and Mārtiņi on Nov. 10. Traditions and rituals associated with the various times of year tended to be done to ensure success in daily life, work and harvests.
This is the time of year—around Feb. 10—when the Latvians celebrated Meteņi, the end of winter and beginning of spring. Although nowadays Meteņi is not a big celebration, there are still many people who remember and observe it much the way Latvians did several hundred years ago.
Because it was not possible to do much work outside in winter, people turned to indoor work and visiting relatives and neighbors during the very cold weather. Spinning, weaving and sewing bees were a common way for the women to pass the time; children played word games and riddles with the grandparents; men fixed harnesses, whittled and prepared kindling wood. By the time of Meteņi, even though it’s still cold and there’s snow on the ground, spring can be felt in the air. Therefore, the Meteņi celebration is a joyous one. The days are becoming longer and sunnier, and it’s time to start thinking about the warmer season and spring work.
People particularly liked to visit friends and relatives at this time, and it was said that the farther one drove to visit, the longer one’s flax would grow and the better the cattle would thrive the following summer. It was also thought that lengthy sled rides down hills ensured an abundant flax and grain harvest, as well as general success in everything. In fact, sledding is considered the most characteristic and significant activity associated with Meteņi, and is done by adults and children alike.
Of course, what would a celebration be without food? After a day of sledding, everyone would sit down to a large meal with their guests. Earlier in the winter, say at Mārtiņi or Ziemassvētki, there was usually plenty of food in every house. But by Meteņi, stores were growing smaller. Therefore, it is no surprise that the foods associated with Meteņi are not all that rich, and they store well over the winter. Common for this time of year are barley porridges, dried peas and beans, zirņu pikas (gray peas and mashed potatoes molded into little balls), savory pies, sauerkraut, breads, beer and sausages. Pig’s head was a delicacy. Grūdenis, a Meteņi specialty, is smoked pork boiled into a porridge of barley grits and potatoes.
The rest of the evening was spent dancing, singing, talking, laughing and visiting. Sometimes loud hollering and pounding on the door and windows were heard—ķekatas had come to pay a visit! Ķekatas, people dressed up in costumes, have several different regional names, the best-known being budeļi, skutelnieki and čigāni. Although said to bring blessings and fertility to their hosts and their farmsteads, ķekatas were rarely polite. They boisterously roamed from one neighbor’s house to the next, barging in with loud songs and dances, demanding food and drink, often playing jokes on the people inside, and sometimes even frightening the children. A host who refused entry to the ķekatas or refused to feed them was ridiculed (think of trick-or-treat). Ķekatas expressed through songs the praises and criticisms of the hosts’ personalities (“apdziedāšana”). They constantly searched for faults. Ķekatas checked to see if the host’s house was clean enough, if the food tasted good, if all the chores had been done—and made fun of the owners if they didn’t live up to their standards.
It was even considered all right for the ķekatas to steal something small from the house. After all, it would have been the owner’s fault, because he or she had not been keeping a close eye on belongings! Some have explained the custom of stealing as deriving from necessity in this time of need. (And the tradition of costumes, then, conveniently hid the identity of the stealer, which was necessary for the continuation of neighborly relations the rest of the year.)
Latvian ķekatas’ costumes usually depict animals (wolf, goat, bear, horse, rabbit, heron, etc.), humans (the tall lady, the short man, a man dressed as a woman and vice versa, bear-tamer, gypsy, etc.) or common objects (bundle of straw, head of cabbage, moon, etc.). Less often does one see someone costumed as death, but usually the costumes do not depict gory or horrific monsters, as is common in Halloween celebrations. The main goal is to just hide your identity.
“Going ķekatās,” as it is called in Latvian, was a major part of the whole winter season and of all its celebrations—Mārtiņi, Meteņi, and especially Ziemassvētki. Meteņi was the last opportunity of the year to go ķekatās, because this was purely a winter form of entertainment. The English counterpart to the ķekatas is the mummers, while the Americanized version of the Celtic tradition is Halloween. The Meteņi time of year also corresponds to the Mardi Gras and Carnival season, with all of its revelry, trickery and costumes.
Participants, dressed as ķekatas, enjoy a lively and colorful Meteņi celebration recently at Rīga’s Bastejkalns. (Photo by Uldis Briedis, Diena)
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