My grandfather was a forest ranger, and before the festive season started, he would saddle up a horse with an open sledge and take all five grandchildren wrapped up in thick winter coats for a ride deep into the woods to find a perfect Christmas Tree.
I still remember how we wrote letters in the snow for Santa, made firewood to keep us warm, ate homemade sandwiches and bonded as a family. Winter Festival is still my all-time favourite thing to celebrate, even far away from home and snow.
While most of the world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas day, in Latvia families and friends, gather together on the eve of 24th to celebrate Ziemassvētkus which literary translates to Winter Festival. This time of the year in Latvia is all about freshly baked gingerbread cookies, long nights, family and fortune telling.
Just like our ancestors, we honour the rebirth of the sun, and when it comes to traditions, old pagan ones are still very much alive and widely used today.
Back in a day, birth feathers, dried fruits and coloured yarn were used to make traditional decorations. Most popular ones called ‘puzuri’ were made from straw or stem of grass. The process is time-consuming, and it required lots of patience, but the result is remarkably eccentric.
How to have the best Winter Festival celebrations Latvian style!
As we continue to learn more about our heritage we wanted to incorporate dishes and traditions that are representative of our roots. That’s the best part of being a grown up, we get to create our own Winter Solstice traditions and strive for something truly magical.
And while a big family feast is at the centre of Winter Festival celebrations as well as loads of fun activities, the most crucial part is to be surrounded by people that you love.
So, this year, be grateful, be present, practice random kindness, love fully and let the light in.
#1. Cook traditional Latvian foods
When it comes to Festive food, first of all, there have to be nine different dishes on the table.
Most important ones – stewed sauerkraut with caraway seeds for strength, grey peas and beans so you wouldn’t cry, poultry for success, carrots and beetroot for good health, gingerbread cookies for love, sausage rolls(speķa pīrāgi) for new surprises, pork for luck and fish for prosperity.
And on top of everything is salt, bread and fire – these three elements promised blessings in the future.
#2. Give and receive presents
A big part of our Winter Festival celebrations is giving and receiving gifts – and we do it in style, usually after dinner! To get them, you have to stand beside the Christmas tree and quote a short poem for each of the presents(preferably Christmas rhymes).
Back in a day, our parents made sure that every year friend or a neighbour would dress up as Santa Claus(as we call him, ‘ziemassvētku vecītis’) and bring all the presents in a big bag!
Don’t forget that giving and sharing is not limited to our loved ones or to Christmas time only. It can be your neighbour, work colleague or even a complete stranger, there are many people not so fortunate in their lives.
#3. Take part in fortune telling
Although fortune telling takes place on New Year’s Eve, it is my favourite part of the festive season, and therefore I decided to add it to the list!
Fortune telling is an ancient tradition, and many Latvians believe that New Year’s Eve is a very appropriate time to look into the future.
A most popular method involves adding molten lead into the bucket of icy water and ‘reading’ funnily shaped figurines by using candlelight. Next year’s harvest, following years fortunes and marriage proposals are always high on the wish list.
#4. Learn few Latvian proverbs
Latvians also love sayings, so I found a few regarding Winter Festival:
- ‘If you want to know what will happen to you in the future, go to a cattle shed at midnight and hide under a manager. Then the horses will speak and tell your future.”
- ‘If the bees are singing on Christmas Eve, it will be a hot summer.”
- ”On Christmas Eve, take a black cat and go to church. Then you will have a lot of money in the next year. Or you can walk around the church three times, carrying the black cat, and bad things will stay away from your house in the new year. ”
- ”On Christmas Eve, when you go to sleep, leave one stocking on. Whoever comes in your dreams and takes it off will marry you.
#5. Have fun at Masque Processions or Mumming
Let me tell you about Masque Processions or Mumming(ķekatas or budēļi). Everyone taking part would dress up, wear different masks, wigs, glasses, basically anything that makes you unrecognisable (according to old traditions, people would dress up as various animals and birds) and go from home to home, from one village to another one, singing songs and dancing.
The mummers are always welcomed and treated with food and drink because it is believed that they can scare off evil spirits and bring fertility and blessings to the household.
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Now over to you!
How do you celebrate Christmas in your country?
Let us know in the comments below!