Jāņi (summer solstice)
Jāņi is the most popular Latvian festivity. It is a day when cities vacate and every civil servant and bank clerk shows their pagan side. It originated as an ancient fertility festival celebrated after sowing the crops and before gathering harvest.
Latvians sing, dance, eat and are merry during Jāņi. Cheese with caraway seeds, meat patties and beer are a must for every table. People light bonfires, jump over them and celebrate until the sunrise. Romantic couples leave the crowd to look for the “flower of the fern”, which is alleged to bloom only in the night of Jāņi.Families get together in their countryside homes. They make bouquets and wreaths out of herbs, flowers and leaves. Women traditionally wear flower wreaths, while men have theirs made of oak leaves or twigs. The livestock and fences are adorned with wreaths. Gates and rooms are decorated with birch, oak, and rowan branches.
The celebration used to take place during the longest day and the shortest night of the year, June 21. The Christianization of Latvia moved the date forward to the eve of June 24, the St. John Day. The Soviet authorities prohibited the celebration altogether in the 1960’s as nationalistic. Many defied the ban and went on to express their national identity through the traditional festivities.
Jānis is the most popular Latvian personal name. Currants are called “jāņogas” (“berries of Jānis”) in Latvian, as they mature around Midsummer.
Ziemas saulgrieži (winter solstice)
"Ziemassvētki" or Christmas in Latvia is marked by an inextricable mix of ethnic, religious and modern traditions making it a truly unique experience. While most in the western world celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ, according to pre-Christian Latvian pagan traditions it is the rebirth of the Sun Maiden. Typical ethnic Christmas traditions include participation in ķekatas or mumming as well as dragging the Yule log. Both these traditions, though different in character, serve a similar purpose. The mummers, who are costumed and wear masks of animals and such macabre figures as living corpses and death, bring blessing to the households, encourage fertility, and frighten away evil spirits. The dragging and subsequent burning of the Yule log symbolizes incineration of last year's problems and misfortunes.
Ancient Latvians integrated pagan rituals into Christianity, what resulted in new traditions like the decoration of firs on Winter Solstice. Rīga is recognised as the birthplace of the first Christmas tree, put up and decorated as early as 1510 by some accounts. Today Latvians still decorate natural fir trees with lighted candles and ornaments. Others decorate their houses with straw ornaments, evergreen branches, junipers and other natural materials.
An integral part of every Christmas is a lavish meal, consisting of 12 foods which usually include such traditional dishes as a Christmas roast and grey peas, as well as traditional treats such as bacon rolls and gingerbread cookies.
Still, no matter the particularities, celebrating Christmas around the world has one unifying element - family. Either it is in a church, by a cosy fireplace or out mumming in the snowy countryside, Christmas is about family and being grateful for what we have.
Every Latvian is happy to celebrate the day of their name, as marked in the calendar. It rivals the scale of birthdays and is at least as popular. Each day in the Latvian calendar includes up to four names, and there is a date – May 22 – to celebrate the names not included in it. The tradition is somewhat related to the church calendar of the Saints, however is practically secular today. The State Language Agency updates the calendar every two years.
The bearers of the name receive flowers, congratulations and small presents. They celebrate with families at home and with colleagues at workplaces. Different from a birthday, it is customary that anyone can join a name-day party without an invitation.
“One may not attend the cemetery festival only if one is dead.”
/A woman in Latgale/
Peculiar at first sight, these community get-togethers show the respect of Latvians towards their ancestors. Most every cemetery gathers extended families on specific summer weekends, especially at the countryside. Latvian customs similar to the festival nowadays were documented by immigrant German Catholics as early as 1428.
Families dress up and visit the graves of their loved ones. They tend the graves and adorn them with fresh flowers and candles. A priest gives a sermon and local musicians perform afterwards. The festivals are more flamboyant in Latgale and Vidzeme than in Kurzeme.
© The Latvian Institute; Photos: © Ivars Bogdanovs - laikraksts „Bauskas Dzīve”, Andris Tone, Jogita Cinkus - lsm.lv, lvportals.lv, Kārlis Dambrāns, David Kapatsa