Fortune-tellers, bears and goats: Winter solstice celebration in Latvia

by Ilze Dimanta

(“Ziemas svētki” or “Ziemas saulgrieži” in Latvian)

Big seasonal celebrations like winter and summer solstice, as well as Easter (“The Great Day” – Lieldienas) and fall celebration in Latvia are rich in traditions. Rituals and traditions are mostly inherited from previous centuries when the farm work was directly dependent on the length of the day and night, as well as weather conditions. However, ancient traditions now coexist with newer invented and established traditions.

Here I will describe some of the most interesting and vigorous seasonal traditions. I dare to say that I have a broad experience in the season holiday celebrations for which I can thank my family, who has always highly valued Latvian traditions and showed me how interesting and colourful they can be.

My father Jānis Kleperis is the leader of the traditional folk group “Budeli” (‘mummers’ or ‘maskers’ in English).

Briefly: Winter solstice is celebrated when the night is the longest and the day is the shortest (opposite of Midsummer’s night or Summer solstice). Usually it falls  on the 21st or 22nd of December. The Latvians also used to have a special “Winter celebration” (celebration for fertility, also known as the souls and spirits fest) which came right after Winter solstice, but nowadays “Winter celebration” or “Ziemas svētki”  has merged with the Christian Christmas.

Three most important rituals:

1. Mumming (“ķekatas”/”budēļi”)

Originally mumming was not specific to the winter solstice, but was rather associated with the autumn harvest and pigsticking. The mumming period continues from Martinmas to Shrovetide. In some districts people believed that wearing of the masks was a ritual which could decide on the following year’s fortunes. In others – it was considered just as entertainment: to visit neighbours, see their household and to have fun time together during dances and games. Nowadays mumming activities are still alive with different masks and costumes that are worn. Both men and women participate, old people and children, but the most active mummers are young people. Mumming usually has a family character – there is a leading father (”Budēļu tēvs’’), and the other participants are referred to as his children.  The dresses are extremely varied; ranging from animal costumes like bears, horses, cranes, wolfs, goats, to objects such ashaystacks, tall women, small men.  Other common sights are are fortune-tellers,death masks, and living corpses (it was believed that wearing such masks was a good offering to the souls of dead acquaintances). There is also a special music for the mumming activities which mainly consists of sounds made by different noise instruments: old pans, bottles, spoons and etc. By making these noises and singing along, the mummers travel from house to house and from village to village. to the hostess has to welcome the mummers and give them a treat ,because it is believed that they bring blessing to her house, encourage fertility, and frighten away evil spirits. When mummers enter the homestead, they sing and dance around, ask for some food and drinks. They play games and dance between themselves and together with the family members of the household.

Here are two mumming activity stories illustrated (The images are scanned from the amusing book “Latvju Daiņas Reiņa Birzgaļa ilustrācijās”, Liesma 1990, Riga)

2. Dragging the Yule log

Ziemas svētki or “Winter celebration” are also called the ’’Yule log evening’’. Dragging the Yule log is one of the most popular Latvian winter solstice traditions though it is rarely mentioned in Latvian folksongs (dainas). A big oak log is chopped down and dragged by the members of one farmstead or by several neighbours (mummers could also come with the Yule log). By dragging the log from one house to another, accompanied by songs and games, all of the previous year’s problems and misfortunes are symbolically collected and then burned in the last farmstead that is visited.

3. A Christmas feast with nine courses

On Christmas eve an sumptuous, plentiful dinner is eaten with all family (the tradition of eating nine courses nowadays is usually fulfilled on Christmas eve), but several families also do it on the 21st/22nd of December (Winter solstice)). The most characteristic dishes are barley mashed with pestle, peas, beans, roast pork, potatoes, and pastries with bacon. A boiled pig’s head is also served, symbolising the plough used for ploughing the field- just as a pig ploughs the earth with its snout. Modern Latvians also bake gingerbread cookies. After the meal the family will sing and play dancing games.

One comment

  1. Huh, a lot of what you described was ringing a lot of bells for me, until I realised that I’d read about a lot of these traditions before in a children’s book! I can’t remember the name, but it was all mice, and to be honest I had no idea they’d based the little elements like dragging a yule log on anything – just made it up.

    I find it kind of charming though how much time I spent dreaming of those traditions as a little girl in Australia, not knowing they were actually happening somewhere half way around the world : P

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