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Christmas in Riga: Letts and Russians Celebrate Together

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Christmas in Riga: Letts and Russians Celebrate Together


A quarter of a century after Latvia restored its independence Holy Christmas is officially celebrated here on December 24-25. The Orthodox Christians also celebrate at this time along with Catholics and Lutherans. This was the custom in Latvia since times immemorial. And although the local authorities refuse to recognize the Orthodox Christmas as the national holiday, people can reach common ground.  

Upon the blessing of Moscow Patriarch Tikhon, given to Riga 100 years ago, festive Christmas services have been conducted in Riga’s Ascension Orthodox Church. The service is celebrated only once a year, not in accordance with the eastern calendar, as an exception. This tradition is linked with some local idiosyncrasies, or, as they put it nowadays, this is political correctness aimed to avoid conflicts between the members of mixed families belonging to different denominations.

Although there are quite a few Orthodox Christians among Letts, they cannot persuade the ruling authorities to add Orthodox Christmas, January 7, to the calendar of festive days. Every year a proposal is put forward by the Russian opposition and every year it is traditionally put down by a majority vote, for 20 years in a row. No Christmas miracle happens…

Ziemassvetki, the Latvian for Christmas, is translated as “winter holidays”. In fact these are the solstice days which are loosely related to Christ’s birth. Nevertheless, this is not at all embarrassing to Letts. Therefore a manger in the Catholic church goes hand in hand with the log dragging, eating of swine muzzles and open-air fetes of maskers. This is what Anele Gleizde, the wife of the well-known Latvian photographer Janis Gleizde, born in the early last century in Latgalia on the Russian border, said to the Russkiy Mir portal about the Latvian Christmas:

“Catholics of Latgalia would meet at churches at 7 am for the Christmas worship. Upon our return home we were treated to a Christmas breakfast of 12 courses. Father broke a big loaf of white bread and gave a piece to each of us after crossing the entire food. Placed in the center table was our main national meal: boiled gray peas with lard and a jelly of swine heads, adorned with a snout. And this was going on almost in every family. Surely a home-brew called “shmakovka” by Latgals was in store at every household. Then Christmas visits commenced. Young folks masked themselves as Gypsies and walked from one yard to another, singing and dancing, kids painted their faces, put on self-made masks of different animals, fastening long ears and sheep tails… It was also necessary to put fish scales into pockets and purses to attract wealth next year. In our family Janis and I tried to observe the customs of our ancestors and I still cook pork in jelly for Christmas (though it’s not always possible to get a snout!) and scales rustle in all of my pockets. It helps, make no doubt!

Nowadays only 20% of Latvian residents go to church on Christmas, according to latest polls, but more and more people with each passing year take part in worldly festivities and open-air merry-making. Five years ago, on the initiative of the Riga Duma, the first festival of Christmas tree was held in the Latvian capital. It dawned upon some quick-witted MPs that it would be great to harness the legend that in 1510 the world’s first Christmas tree was decorated in Town Hall Square in Riga. An association of young merchants – the Fellowship of Black Heads – is considered to be the founding fathers of that novelty.

In this fifth year of The Way of Christmas Trees festival, people of Riga and guests of the Latvian capital were given the opportunity to appreciate 74 tree objects created by the artists, designers and students of the Art Academy. Each of those is quite unique and some festival objects can only conventionally be described as fir-trees. But it’s hilarious and funny! People walk over the city, consulting a special map, studying the entire long Christmas tree route and taking pictures near the most amiable and exotic species. And folks also divert at fairs that are open all over Riga at Christmas time until the Orthodox Christmas as a bridge between holidays. Have some mulled wine if you wish, or dance with Santa Claus, or have some piparkukas resembling German ginger cookies, but spicier. Crispy aureate-brown piparkusases decorated with multicolored glaze are an indispensable attribute of Ziemassvetki. On Christmas days they are eaten almost in each Latvian home, regardless of what language its inhabitants speak, Latvian or Russian. The rooms are decorated with straw and reed crafts. In keeping with an ancient Latvian tradition, passionately sustained by the Russian community of Latvia, on the Christmas night you should finish all your business earlier if you want your business to thrive next year. If stars can be seen in the sky on Christmas night this betokens a good harvest. A blizzard is an indication of a good honey harvest. Green Christmas is a promise of the white Easter. And the main rule is to eat nine meals one after another, in which case the year to come will be lucky and wealthy.

Natalia Nechaeva

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