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Christmas

Christmas 2017 and 2018

Christmas was banned in Latvia for five decades during the Soviet era, and the appearance of “Frosty Greybeard” at New Year’s took the place of “Father Christmas” for some time. Now, however, Christmas has been “restored” to Latvia, and many of the old traditions are still alive.

YearDateDayHoliday
201724 DecSunChristmas Eve
25 DecMonChristmas Day
26 DecTue2nd Day of Christmas
201824 DecMonChristmas Eve
25 DecTueChristmas Day
26 DecWed2nd Day of Christmas

First, many families will attend special church services on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or on December 26th. Much of the holiday will be spent at home, however, and in a relaxed but festive manner. Most do not feel the need to keep up a hectic pace this time of year.

In Latvia, Santa Claus brings Christmas presents on Christmas Eve as in other countries, but he also brings gifts for the full “12 days of Christmas” from Christmas Day until Epiphany, which comes on January 6th. Santa is often called “Ziemassyetku Vecitis,” meaning “Old Man of Christmas.” He often puts the presents below the Christmas tree while the family is at church, and they are discovered by children upon returning home. Before a child can open a present, however, it is often required that he or she recite a memorised poem, sing a song, play an instrument, or do a dance.

Christmas trees are also common in Latvia, and in fact, Latvia is said to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree. Though popularised throughout the world by the Germans, the first Christmas tree on the historical record was put up in Riga, Latvia, in A.D. 1510. Latvians decorate their trees with many different kinds of ornaments, but one unique and highly traditional method is to make ornaments out of straw.

On Christmas Eve, there is the first Christmas feast, and on Christmas Day, a second feast is consumed. The difference is that the first one is traditionally to be meatless, while meat dishes abound during the second meal. Common dishes include: grey peas and bacon sauce, cabbage with sausages, bacon rolls, gingerbread topped with honey, and hot mulled wine.

Those touring Latvia around Christmas time will find there are plenty of events and activities to take part in, including the following:

  • Shop and enjoy the festive atmosphere at the Riga Christmas Market, which runs throughout December. You will have opportunity to taste authentic Latvian Christmas foods and to shop for traditional Latvian Christmas decorations and other unique souvenirs.
  • See the Christmas tree set up in Riga’s “Old Town” at Town Hall Square just in front of the House of Blackheads. This is the very spot where the first Christmas tree stood over 500 years ago.
  • Witness a “mummer ritual” in any of numerous Latvian villages. On Christmas Eve, people will dress up in costumes and masks, often like animals such as bears, wolves, and goats, and then go door to door singing folk songs. They will also often roll “yule logs” from door to door and go on “kekatu walk” processions through the town. The tradition has pagan origins and was originally meant to scare off evil spirits, sicknesses, and bad luck. The yule logs are later stacked in a big pile and burnt. All in all, it amounts to a Halloween-like Christmas Eve that ends with a bonfire.
  • Peruse the Ethnographical Open Air museum in Riga’s Old Town district. There, you can see real yule logs and mummer ritual masks and costumes. You will also find a large array of artefacts and exhibits that present all manner of Latvian cultural traditions. The museum is very popular and is full of endless objects of interest.

Christmas is a prime time to tour Latvia and learn of many of Latvia’s holiday and cultural traditions. There are a number of special events to attend, besides the year-round attractions, and you will create memories that will last a lifetime.