The annual cycles arrange themselves in lifetimes, lifetimes twine with destinies and in their polyphony one can feel the course of a people before eternity. The traditional Latvian worldview develops in dialogue with nature, God (deities), and other people. Dialogue is necessary to attune, but additionally, harmonious living is one of our ancestors' most fundamental insights - to be in harmony with nature, God, other people, and oneself. |
In its revolution around the sun, the earth has, in the course of one year's time, four primary points, connected with the changing lengths of day and night. They are marked with the beginning and end of certain farm work. This rhythm of nature determines when and how the four most important Latvian holidays are celebrated.
Latvia's seasonal traditions originated in the woodlands and countryside and reflect the values and lifestyle of people who worked and loved the land. Nevertheless, over the centuries these traditions have established themselves in cities as well and have adapted to the character of city life. As a result, Latvia's ancient seasonal traditions not only remain popular today; they have become an integral part of contemporary Latvian society.
Lieldienas, "The Great Day", "Great Days" - these are designations used in the folk songs for the spring equinox. According to folk tradition Easter has arrived when the day has become longer than the night for the first time that year.
On Easter morning people arose before the rising of the sun, and to obtain health and beauty, they hurried to wash their faces in a spring or a stream running east. This was followed by one of the most important Easter activities - awaiting the sunrise exactly when it appears on the equinox morning. In Liv villages the morning began with the calling and awakening of birds so they might protect the people from evil and sickness.
Those who had risen first, awoke those who were still sleeping and switched them with steamed birch branches. In this way a special force that encouraged fertility and endowed people with health and success was transferred from the branches. This ritual is connected with archaic concepts about the staff of life and its fertility enhancing power.
The spring equinox (March 21) is the time when farmers are hurried by endless labors and must keep up with the rapid awakening of nature and the rhythm of work. But the Latvian preserves a certain independence from this haste: for instance, one of the most important Easter rituals is hanging of the swing and swinging. But when swinging at Easter, one must not stop the swing; it must stop on its own. Only when the swinging is gentle, will the flax field finish its blooming without being beaten down by rain or wind. According to archaic beliefs, swinging is connected with fertility, and it must be done, so the livestock will do well, as well as the flax, and one will be spared bites from mosquitoes and gadflies. The first to be swung were usually the master and mistress, after that the rest took their turns. In return for swinging them, the girls paid the boys eggs, pies, or even handmade mittens and socks.
In the past, eggs for different peoples were a symbol of life, and also in Latvian spring equinox traditions they were given a special place. Awaiting Easter, eggs were colored with onion skins, rye shoots, chamomile, or hay cuttings. This is not such an old custom, but in our day very popular. Eggs are given for swinging, and eggs are knocked together to see which one survives cracking, as according to belief, the one whose egg shell was strongest, will live longer. During Easter, eggs are rolled and eaten in great quantities, because in addition to round flatbreads and sprouted grains, they are the primary Easter foods.
The summer solstice (June 22) marks a divide in both nature and the work of the farmer. In nature it is the longest day and the shortest night when in Latvia the short summer has reached its flowering height. For the farmer ploughing, sowing, and weeding work is done before Midsummer, but after Midsummer begins the period when crops are harvested, which starts out with hay mowing.
All of the herbs and flowers collected at Midsummer (Jāņi) are known as Jāņi-herbs, and the day before Midsummer is often known as Herb Day. During this time the collected herbs and roots are attributed special healing power, which is useful for healing both people and livestock. Midsummer herbs are plaited in wreaths and included in bouquets. Women and girls make wreaths for all celebrants to wear. Women traditionally wear flower wreaths while those worn by men are made of oak leaves or twigs. Rooms, byres, corrals, wells, mills, and other places important in the farmer's life are decorated with Midsummer herbs. The livestock and fences are adorned with wreaths. Birch, oak, and rowan boughs are used to decorate gates and rooms.
One of the most important Midsummer herbs in Latvia is the mythical blooming fern, which, according to legend, opens its magic golden flower only on Midsummer Eve. Midsummer Eve is a magic night when one may meet Mother Laima (Fortune) herself and Dieviņš walking, see money drying, and if very lucky - find the blooming fern flower.
For the Midsummer celebration, the mistress makes cheese, but the master brews beer. All the celebrants are treated with them. With the cheese wheel and the beer mug come the blessings of nature and God, but the songs, dances, and rituals of the Midsummer "children" in turn bring blessings to everything and everyone to whom songs are addressed. The highest point of the year's turning has been reached, and each celebrant participates in the wedding of the Sky Father and the Earth Mother.
The most colorful Midsummer traditions are the līgotne-songs - Midsummer folk songs with a characteristic refrain - līgo, līgo. Several thousand songs sing about Saule (Sun), the sky son Jānis, the hosts of each farmstead - "mother" and "father" of Midsummer, and the Jānis children - the celebrants who go from farm to farm singing and bringing blessings with their songs, picking Jāņi-herbs along the road. Every phase of the celebration, each situation and its characteristics are sung about.
Midsummer celebrations can not be imagined without Jāņi-fires, which are lit before sunset on Herb evening and are kept going until sunrise on Jāņi-morn. The Jāņi-fire is made at the top of a hill. At the top of a pole is placed a barrel of tar - pundeles or pūdeles, a wheel soaked in tar and wrapped in straw, or specially prepared straw lamps or torches. The Jāņi-fire purifies, promotes health and fertility, and drives away evil.
The winter solstice (December 22) was celebrated when the night was longest and the day shortest, when the intensity of field work was lowest, but people gathered for evening bees to do textile and other handiwork, to spin fairytales and other stories, to guess riddles, sing, and dance. In the Christian tradition Christmas is the birth of God's son, but in traditional Latvian culture it is the rebirth of the Sun maiden.
During Christmas rooms are decorated with three-dimensional straw or reed ornaments that are vernacularly known as lukturi, puzuri, krīği, putni, and so on. Evergreen branches, junipers, colored rags, wood shavings and other natural materials are also used in the decorations.
The best known Christmas tradition is mumming. In some regions these ķekatas are called budeļi, kūjenieki, preiļi, kurciemi, čigāni, or kaladnieki. The mumming period for Latvians is from Martinmas to Shrovetide, but the most intensive mumming activities occur around Christmas. The mummers are costumed and in different masks. The most common traditional masks are bears, horses, cranes, wolfs, goats, haystacks, tall women, small men, death, fortune-tellers, and living corpses. Led by a "father", the mummers travel from homestead to homestead or from village to village. The mummers bring a home blessing, encourage fertility, and frighten away any evil spirits.
Another characteristic Christmas tradition is dragging the Yule log. This is explained as the symbolic collecting and burning of last year's problems and misfortunes. The Yule log was either dragged by the people of one farmstead or several neighbors together. This was accompanied by songs, singing games, and various sounding instruments. If people from different farmsteads came together, then it was burned in the last farmstead.
An integral part of Christmas was a generous banquet, whose most characteristic food included a pig's head, which was boiled together with barley mashed with a pestle. This food was called ķūķis, koča, or kīķas. Christmas Eve was sometimes called Ķūķi evening. Other traditional foods were peas, beans and barley sausage, which because of their round, curved appearance were seen as symbols of the sun or the year.
In our time Latvians bake gingerbread cookies and decorate a firtree with lighted candles. The decoration of the Christmas tree is a tradition that was borrowed from Baltic manor lords several hundred years ago.