As everywhere in the world Latvians celebrate Christmas starting with Christmas Eve on December 24. December 25 Christmas Day is known as First Christmas and December 26 as Second Christmas. This is similar to the English Christmas where they celebrate Boxing Day on December 26 so they too have two Christmases.
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One of the hardest things is to explain is ancient Latvian traditions. Christmas Eve used to be called”Bluka vakars” this loosely translated means” Log Night” The activities that everyone engaged in on this night were log rolling in order to mimic the course of the sun. Some people also called it “Kuku Night” which stems from an old holiday eating ritual. The dish was called “Kukis” and it has no actual translation. It meant that eating this dish on this night would bring the household wealth and prosperity.
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In the olden days, they would take wheat or rye grains and boil them up with half a pig’s head sometimes adding peas and beans. One modern version of this dish consists of one medium-sized onion, lean, smoked bacon (best if in one piece and not strips) and buckwheat. On a dry, hot frying pan scatter in the buckwheat so that it covers the whole pan. Then brown them. Separately take the bacon and onions which have been finely chopped and quickly fry them up in a pan until the onion is limp and the bacon browned but not crisped up. In a casserole you’d put in one layer of the browned buckwheat, then a layer of bacon and onion and so on. The top layer should be buckwheat. Afterward, dissolve a bouillon cube in hot water either beef or chicken and pour the hot mixture over all the layers. Bake at 350° for around 60 minutes. Be sure to watch to see that it doesn’t dry out. When the buckwheat is ready the dish should be dry and the liquid should have soaked up into the buckwheat.
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Another tradition was called “kekatas” which meant that people and children of all ages would dress in all sorts of costumes that were homemade and put together from all sorts of different things. Similar to Halloween but also quite different. The people thus dressed up would go from country village to country village in order to bring blessings to other people and drive away evil demons. Therefore the country folk would be glad to greet them and they would be given food and drink at each house. The head of this group was called the elder or leader and he would carry a twig or stick with him. The twig was meant to be used to spank the people that lived in the houses where they stopped along the way. The twig was thought to have magical powers and when people and animals were touched with the twig the natural energy that was in the twig was thought to enter them.
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In the Kurzeme and Zemgale regions of Latvia, this type of tradition was called ’’budeli” or dancing people. The people dressed in costumes supposedly danced along the country roads. Another thing about the costumes that were worn was that people tried to make the masks to represent those spirits in whom they believed to make the spirits more favorable toward them. One of the most common types of masks were bear masks because the bear with his roar could frighten away all evil spirits. Then there was the ram where horns and a beard were attached so that the mask looked realistic and then the crane and this costume was specially made to resemble the bird with a long beak and the head was movable. Others preferred to dress up as death and made sure that they looked like the real thing scythe and all.
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It became traditional to decorate Christmas trees in Livonia before the 16th century. However, the Christmas tree could only be decorated with ribbons, dried flowers, dolls made out of dried hay and sometimes fruit. The decorated tree was set up in Riga, the capital in the Blackhead Hall Square and after Christmas was over and New Year’s had come it was burned on January 6th right there in the square.
Nowadays each family has its own Christmas tree and they are decorated in all kinds of ways. In the early days, Christmas trees were traditionally lit by candles with holders attached to each branch. Now, of course, there are electrical lights but some people still use candles. Riga has Christmas trees displayed in every square and in the market. Where ever you look you’re likely to see all kinds of differently decorated Christmas trees. The tradition among families has always been to open presents on Christmas Eve and before anyone could take their present they would have to recite a poem or sing a song. Now, this tradition is sometimes only upheld in Christmas school and church celebrations.
Interesting Latvian Christmas folklore:
On Christmas morning you have to get up early so that you will be able to get up early all year round. If on Christmas Eve the sky is full of stars then next year there will be a good harvest. If the sky is cloudy there won’t be a good harvest.
On Christmas Eve you have to eat 9 different foods at one sitting then next year will be a wealthy year.
On Christmas Eve you have to draw crosses with chalk on all your doors then evil spirits won’t enter.
On Christmas Eve you must run around the house three times in bare feet then your teeth won’t hurt.
In order not to run out of money in the New Year then you mustn’t spend all your money at Christmas.
If you go out to a crossroads on Christmas Eve then you will be able to find out everything that will happen next year.
To have lots of money on Christmas Eve you must bring a black cat to church.
If during Christmas there is a blizzard the next year there will be lots of honey.
On the Christmas table under the plates, you must put a piece of bread, a key, a ring, money, and sand. Then each person picks a plate. The one who gets the bread will be well off, the one with the key will be the owner of something, the one with the ring will get married, the one with the money will become rich and the one with the sand will have everything go wrong.
There are many more variations.