Latvian Christmas Merges Christian and Pagan Customs

Lido, Riga, Latvia

Giorgio Minguzzi/ Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

If you are a U.S. resident visiting the Baltic country of Latvia at Christmastime, you will likely feel at home, as this country's most important traditions are much the same as those in the U.S. Like many in Europe, Latvian Christmas customs are a combination of Christian traditions and Pagan (beliefs outside of the main world religions) celebrations of the winter solstice, which occurs just a few days before Christmas.

Latvia celebrates Christmas on December 25, and many locals mark the 12 days leading up to the holiday with presents, much like the beloved 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 ClausZiemassvētku vecītis (Christmas Grandfather) is the country's name for the jolly character—who brings their presents ​and puts them under the Christmas tree. Gifts are usually opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. 

The Christmas Tree Tradition

No one knows for sure where the tradition of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas originated, but Germany is often given the credit. Latvians lay claim to beginning the tradition. Although various countries state that they started the custom, the one thing that can be agreed upon is that it was first done somewhere in Northern Europe.

Legends tell of the first Christmas tree being erected and decorated in 1510 on Town Hall Square in Old Town Riga, Latvia’s capital. 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 put up and decorated on the spot where legend dictates the custom began.

In their homes, Latvians often decorate their trees with ornaments and candles. Natural elements like straw and branches are also used both for ornaments and home decor during the holidays.

The Symbolism of 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. The log is dragged and then burned to symbolize the destruction of the bad events that happened in the past year.

The Typical Christmas Dinner 

As in most countries where Christmas is celebrated, a big family feast is central to the holiday. Christmas dinner in Latvia traditionally includes 12 dishes, typically including some kind of roasted meat and a dish called gray peas, which are rehydrated dried peas cooked with onion, barley, and bacon. Special treats in Latvia are bacon rolls and gingerbread cookies.

Old Riga Christmas Market

If you are in Riga during December, check out holiday decorations and sample Latvian Christmastime foods at the Old Riga Christmas market open from November 30, 2019, through January 8, 2020. You can munch on gingerbread and sip mulled wine while you peruse stalls offering hand-knitted items like shawls, scarves, mittens, and candles.

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