If you are an American visiting the Baltic country of Latvia at Christmastime, you will feel at home. This country's most important traditions are much the same as those in the United States. Latvian Christmas customs, like many in Europe, are a combination of Christian traditions and pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, which occurs just a few days before Christmas.
Latvia celebrates Christmas on December 25, and many Latvians mark the 12 days leading up to Christmas with gifts, much like the beloved Christmas carol, "Twelve Days of Christmas," that tells of the tradition of giving gifts for 12 days.
Like most children in the U.S., children in Latvia believe in Santa Claus who brings their presents and puts them under the Christmas tree. Gifts are usually opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.
Christmas Tree Tradition
No one knows for sure where the tradition of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas originated, although Germany is often given the credit. Latvians lay claim to originating the Christmas tree tradition.
Legends tell of the first Christmas tree being erected and decorated in Old Town Riga on Town Hall Square in 1510. This tradition continues in full glory every Christmas in this Baltic country, where it is an essential part of the holiday celebration. Every year a Christmas tree is still put up and decorated on the spot where legend dictates the custom began. Trees are often decorated with ornaments and candles. Natural elements like straw are also used both for ornaments and home decor during the holidays.
Although various countries claim the Christmas tree custom as starting with them, the one thing that can be agreed upon is that it was first done somewhere in Northern Europe.
The Yule Log
Yule was the name pagans gave to the celebration of the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—which falls a few days prior to Christmas. Yule symbolized the sun, and so Yule logs were burned and candles were lit to honor the sun god and encourage him and the sun to come back on the shortest day of the year. For Latvians, the yule log is still an important Christmas tradition. It is a way to clean the slate, making way for the New Year. It is dragged and then burned to symbolize the destruction of the bad events that happened that year.
As in most countries where Christmas is celebrated, a big family feast is central to the holiday. Special treats in Latvia are bacon rolls and gingerbread or gingerbread cookies. A Latvian dinner table nearly always holds some kind of roasted meat and a traditional dish called gray peas, which are dried peas that are rehydrated and cooked with onion, barley, and bacon. Christmas dinner in Latvia traditionally includes 12 dishes.
If you are in Riga during December, check out holiday decorations and sample Latvian Christmastime foods at the Riga Christmas market. You can munch on gingerbread and sip mulled wine while you peruse stalls offering hand-knitted items like shawls, scarves, mittens, and candles.