Christmas is a major holiday season in Latvia with three official public holidays provided. 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 have been revived.
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Many families attend special church services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. However, much of the holidays are spent at home 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 6 January. 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.
Christmas trees are also common in Latvia, and in fact, Latvia is said to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree. Though popularised by Germany, the first Christmas tree on the historical record was put up in Riga, Latvia, in 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.