Ancient Latvian Festivals

Latvians belong to the Baltic group of peoples within the Indo-European stock. Since prehistoric times (about 6000 B.C.) they have inhabited the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea in northern Europe, where the present-day Latvia is found. Of the original Baltic group, only Latvians and Lithuanians, who inhabit the territory south of Latvia, have been able to maintain their ethnic and cultural identity. Latvian and Lithuanian languages are the only two living Baltic languages with roots in the original Indo-European family today.

The gathering of Latvian folklore began mainly in the 19th century. These materials represent a rich source of information about the ancient Latvian customs, religion and way of life. Especially valuable are the “dainas”, Latvian folk poetry and songs, which can be compared to the Vedas of India. The dainas depict every aspect of the ancient Latvian life, but more importantly they should be regarded as the expression of their creators’ religious beliefs and rituals. Until the 19th century, the dainas were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Because of its religious nature, some information contained in the dainas has remained unchanged and can be traced back to the Stone Age, e.g., some elements of the burial rituals or ways of conducting the name-giving ceremony.

The interpretation of the dainas requires the recognition of symbolism, which is widely used form of expression therein. The dainas constitute the main source of information for research here.

The ancient Latvians used the Solar Year as the basis for their time-reckoning system. The four ecliptical points provided recognizable clues that could be observed in nature, thus laying the foundation for the division of the year into smaller units. The four ecliptical points were observed by festivities, and further equally spaced divisions of the four periods of time coincided with the approximate beginnings of the four seasons, creating a system of eight festivals, recognized as the Annual Order of Festivals. Each festival was identified by its name and required specific rituals. The resulting eight periods of time between the festivals represented the largest divisional units of the year, the “laiks” (time), each of which was 45 days long. Their proper names were formed by the addition of a seasonal characteristic to the term “laiks”, e.g., Ziemas laiks (Wintertime) or Siena laiks (Hay time).

The positioning of festivals in the year was as follows:

Ziemassvētki – Winter Solstice
Lieldienas – Spring Equinox
Jāņi – Summer Solstice
Miķeļi – Autumn Equinox

The remaining four festivals were positioned among the above in the following manner:

Meteņi – between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, marking the beginning of Spring.
Ūsiņi – between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, marking the beginning of Summer.
Māras- between Summer Solstice and Autumn Equinox, marking the beginning of Autumn.
Mārtiņi – between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, marking the beginning of Winter.

Ancient Latvians depended on their livelihood on farming. Their festivals were celebrated at the end of a 45-day period that was for the most part spent taking care of the farmstead and tending crops. The festivals were thus a welcome diversion from their labours, filling the need for recreation and relaxation. On the other hand, the festivities had another important function: they included activities and rituals with symbolic meaning that were performed to assure bountiful crops and the future welfare of the people and livestock, as well as express appreciation for benefits received in the past.

Reflecting the differences imposed upon them by seasonal traits, the festivals appear to have little in common besides their recreational and ritualistic qualities mentioned above. However, closer scrutiny of the festivals reveals a number of common properties, including some very meaningful steps in their evolutionary process and a sharing of some qualities with the ancient Indo-European peoples in the remotest antiquity. Here we find that personification was used as a tool to bring the astronomical changes within the Solar Year down to the level of human perception.

In Latvian mythology celestial bodies and other natural phenomena were personified as mythical beings sharing a common name, Dieva Dēli (Sons Of God), and some of them become an integral part of The Annual Order of Festivals. The designation Dieva Dēli is somewhat misleading and requires clarification. Ancient Latvian religion is based on concept of one Supreme Being, known by the proper name Dievs (God). This God has nothing in common with the Christian god. The feminine part of his divine nature is represented by the Mother Goddess Māra (Mother of Earth), and another quality is expressed through the Goddess of Fate – Laima. However, Dievs has no sons or daughters, his solitary state is defined in many instances in the dainas. This apparent misuse of the term “Sons of God” can be explained by considering the ancient usage of the word “dievs”: at one time it designated both the Supreme Being and the heaven. Therefore, the celestial bodies and natural phenomena, arising in the sky, in their original concept were easily perceived as the “Sons of Heaven”. This assumption is reinforced by the fact that a small number of Latvian dainas still show this interchangeable property of the noun “dievs”.

The Dieva Dēli include such phenomena as Pērkons (Thunder) and celestial bodies: Mēness (Moon) and Auseklis (Morningstar). Some other Dieva Dēli, however are characterized by the their cyclical appearance in the midst of people, thus marking the times for the festivals with definite regularity. In this category are: Metenis, Ūsiņš, Jānis, Miķelis, Mārtiņš and the Four Brothers Ziemassvētki. All of them are said to arrive and depart over the hill, symbolizing the movement of the light in the sky. Eventually, manifold interpretations are assigned to their identities: their originally significant signalling of astronomical events is later diminished by another process of personification, whereby they come to represent the days of the festivals. Additionally, their images are endowed with human appearance that reflects the circumstances of the changing seasons, and in this capacity they are treated as the guests of honour at the festivals. The Spring Equinox, Lieldienas, is also personified, but here the personification takes on female form by appearing as a big woman or three (or four) sisters. Māra’s Day is no exception in this order because it is observed in honour of the Mother Goddess Māra, and no personification is involved.

At the festivals the personified celestial beings arrive bearing gifts for everyone. In return people offer them food and gifts in order that the festival participants may receive Dievs’ (God’s) blessing through their intercession. Dievs, Māra and Laima also grace Latvian festivals with their presence although they never are the cause for the celebration.

Besides these common properties at the imaginary level of celestial personification, certain other similarities among the festivals can be found at the level of normal human activity. All festivals are preceded by anticipation and by preparations involving general house cleaning, making appropriate clothing, slaughtering of livestock, brewing of beer, baking of breads, and preparation of different dishes for the feast. The choice of foods is dictated by seasonal availability, but beer is brewed every time. Fire also has important meaning in the rituals, since it provides festive lighting, gives warmth, and helps ward off darkness, which represents all evil. Also important part of Latvian festival activities is singing and dancing.

Meteņi, which marks the end of winter and beginning of spring, is personified by Metenis. His appearance is not revealed in the dainas, but he is known to have five sons and five daughters. Metenis’ arrival at the festival is characterized by his sledding over the hill. The celebration centres on Metenis’ feast. Food includes pork – especially pig’s feet, head, snout, ears – and breads, rolls, barley dishes, and beer. The festival activities include sledding, sleight riding, visiting distant relatives, and masquerading. In Metenis’ dainas, which describe these activities, the adjectives “long” and “far” predominate assuming analogical meaning in relation to next year’s crop of flax: the farther one travels to visit relatives and friends and the longer one stays in motion when sledding off a high hill, the taller the flax will grow next summer. The ceremonial dance performed by the farmer’s wife serves a similar purpose: it is meant to promote the breeding of livestock and the growth of flax.

The day following Meteņi, Pelnu Diena (Ash Day), is the first day of a new week. It also marks the beginning of the New Year. The name Pelnu diena is derived from the fact that fire is kept smouldering in ashes when people move to establish new households on this day.

The festival of Lieldienas is celebrated during the Spring Equinox. The name itself (lit. Big Day) conveys the cause for the celebration: on this day the light of the day begins to gain over the darkness of the night. Lieldienas is a festival that consists of a three-day unit (four days in a Leap Year): the first day is celebrated on Sunday. Lieldienas is personified by three (or four) sisters, denoting the number of days of this festival. These sisters are not directly identified by proper names except for one instance in the dainas, where Lieldienas is given the same name as the one of Māra’s three (or four) daughters, suggesting that Māra’s daughters may be the personifications of the festival days. No description of their appearance is found in the dainas except for the adjective “big”.
The approach of Lieldienas is marked by outdoor singing that is performed by young maidens on quiet spring evenings. Their songs about love, spring, youth and happiness are usually sung on top a hill so they are heard far away. The predominating activity during Lieldienas is swinging. The mythic source of this custom is suggested in the dainas: Dievs’ (‘) cradle is said to have been hung on Lieldienas. Extensive care is taken is taken in every detail at the performance of this activity: the selection of the site and the material for the swing, the choice of men building the swing, as well as choice of partners for the actual performance. This activity is accompanied by songs delivered by onlookers, whereas the swinging parties are identified and described in a manner characteristic of the musical satire described previously.

On the first day of Lieldienas other activities include: getting up at sunrise and rinsing one’s face in running water; making a pretence of chastising each other and especially children with branches of pussy-willow while wishing good health and happiness in the future. The remnants of very old custom can be identified in an activity that was meant to symbolically dispel evil: birds were chased by invading the surrounding fields and woods with a great quantity of noise making and singing.

Eggs, which symbolize the Sun because of their shape, are the mainstay of the feast. For the same reason baked goods with round shapes are also included in the meal. Hard-boiled eggs are taken along to the hill where people gather to participate in the swinging. Here eggs are given as gifts to those who helped construct the swing and are now assisting the participants in the performance.
Most of these ancient customs are still known by the present day Latvians and are practised during the festivities of Lieldienas in addition to the rituals related to Christ’s resurrection. Such unlikely and stupid combinations of rituals can be observed throughout Europe’s history as the result of a traitory policy started by Pope Gregory I in 601. For centuries there-after Christendom tried to gain acceptance for its tenets by retaining the names of the native festivals but superimposing Christian values upon the existing customs. Luckily, people still remember their original past.

Ūsiņi is celebrated midway between Lieldienas (Spring Equinox) and Jāņi (Summer Solstice). This one-day celebration marks the beginning of summer. It is personified by Ūsiņš, whose celestial symbolism involves the concepts of dawn and light. In the Latvian Legend of the Sun, the source of which again is dainas, Ūsiņš is the driver of the Sun’s horses. The translation of these celestial duties into earthly activities render him the patron of horses, especially during summer. His phenomenal success with horses is his most outstanding quality described in the dainas, where he appears as an old man with a beard. He has a wife, twin sons, and an unspecified number of daughters. Ūsiņš himself and his family in many respects bear resemblance to the Goddess of Dawn (Ushas) and the twins Aswins in Vedic mythology.

The important activities of this day revolve around livestock and horses. Ūsiņi marks the first day of the year, when cattle and sheep are herded out to pastures to graze and returned to their stables at sundown. In the evening, horses are taken out to pastures to graze all night and watched over by the younger male members of the household. On the first night of herding, the Eve of Ūsiņi, there is celebration with a feast. While herding the horses, many people as well Ūsiņš himself, gather around the fire to feast, sing and dance. The mainstay of Ūsiņi feast is chicken, eggs and beer. A specially selected rooster is considered an appropriate for Ūsiņš to solicit his help with horse through the summer.

The festival of Jāņi, the celebration of the Summer Solstice, was and still is one of the most joyous occasions observed by Latvians. As the festival approaches, songs of Jāņi with the special refrain “līgo” resound everywhere, awaiting the arrival of Jānis, the Dieva Dēls, personifying the festival of Jāņi. Jānis’ arrival on the Eve of Jāņi is heralded by the sound of horns and drums signifying the importance of the occasion.

Jānis is pictured as a tall and handsome man dressed in beautiful garb and riding on a large horse. On his head he wears a wreath of oak leaves, the traditional adornment for the occasion. Jānis’ exceptionally beautiful wife and their children accompany him to the festival.

Jānis is characterized by many activities that start on the preceding day. Much of the time is spent decorating people’s homes, yards, and livestock with garlands and wreaths made of flowers, foliage, oak leaves and branches, and of all kinds of greens that are found in the fields and gardens. Various adornments are prepared for people as well: all through the celebration men traditionally wear wreaths made of oak leaves, women select wreaths of clover or flowers. These activities, accompanied by the songs of Jāņi, are performed to assure good health, good luck and fertility.

The celebration starts on the Eve of Jāņi. It begins at the house with a feast and continues through the night at a previously selected central place, usually on top of a high hill. At this location a large bonfire is prepared that burns all night. An additional fire is made by burning a keg of tar or dry wood placed on top of a high post. Usually, neighbours gather around one of these fires bringing along food and drink to last through the night but very often guests come from far away. Traditional food is cheese and beer, and it is offered to everyone participating in the celebration.

The festivities are not limited to one location only: groups of people called “children of Jāņi”, visit their neighbours, and gathering more participants, continue to go from house to house, finally ending their procession wherever there is a Jāņi fire burning. Such wandering through the night of Jāņi is enjoyed by young people who take this opportunity to look for the ever evasive fern blossom, which is said to bloom on this night. Whoever finds it, will have god luck, love and happiness all year long. Many new romances that begin on this night lead to a wedding in fall.

The main celebrations, however continue around the Fire of Jāņi with singing and dancing; cheese and other food is consumed in large quantities along with the traditional drink: beer. A ritual dance, symbolically led by Jānis, is performed around the fire or a special oak tree. The dance is completed by the farmer’s wife who usually leads it into the house to bring good luck to the household and ward off evil forces that roam about in the night.

Since Jāņi is celebrated on the shortest night of the year, dawn comes quickly. Festivities are still in full swing when it is time for Jānis to depart. This is expressed in songs, which people sing at sunrise, bidding farewell to the departing Jānis and reminding him to return next year.

There are three separate holidays observed during summer, every one of them having a special meaning, but not necessarily involving a celebration. The first one of these is Pēteri, the day following Jāņi, which is the first day of the next 45-day period, called Siena laiks (Hay time). Since it is a workday, no celebration is involved. The personification of this day is Dieva Dēls Pēteris, who quite approximately is primarily associated with hay-cutting and hay-gathering activities.

Laidene is observed on the Sunday following Jāņi, and may be regarded as a holiday. The celebration may have been similar to Jāņi but on a much smaller scale. It is primarily marked by various activities performed by young maidens considering marriage, who try to predict the future and their chances of getting married the same year. A single quality of the Goddess of Fate Laima, namely choosing of marriage partners for girls, may be expressed in the personification of Laidene.

Jēkabi is a limited holiday associated with the beginning of the harvest. The reaping of rye usually precedes other crops, and this event can occur at different times depending upon weather. Thus, the actual celebration date can change accordingly, but it is generally observed on the fourth Sunday of Siena laiks. Before beginning the reaping of rye, a brief ceremony is performed in the field by the farmer in gratitude to Dievs (God) for the crop. A feast is held on the following Sunday or when the harvesting of rye is finished. Food includes freshly baked rye bred and rye porridge representing the new harvest.

Māras or Māras’s Day is celebrated between Jāņi and Miķeļi and marks the beginning of autumn. This festival is not personified, but is celebrated in honour of Māra, who, as the divine extension of Dievs’ material characteristics, is also known as the Mother of Earth. This festival is also observed as the Bread Day, the Market Day, and the Cattle Day because all these endeavours are in Māra’s care. The celebration consists primarily of a meal prepared from the new harvest.

The celebration is celebrated during the Autumn Equinox. Here, two different causes for celebration are distinguishable. The first one is created by the arrival of Dieva Dēls Miķelis, whose celestial origin makes him the interpreter of astronomical events, even though his earthly image has changed to represent the bounty of the harvest season. The dainas depict him as a stout, prosperous man who has a rich wife.

The second cause for celebration, connected exclusively with the harvesting the crops, consists of thanksgiving ceremonies and fertility rituals. Here the personification of the concept of life and reproduction called Jumis (Fertility) is the centre of attraction. His projected image reveals a man of small stature, whose garments resemble ears of wheat, barley and hops. His wife has similar attire. His symbolic presence, however, is found in nature as double ears of wheat or other crops that have been joined together in the growing process.

These two personifications set the stage for this festival. Although the main celebration occurs on Sunday, the days directly preceding and following Miķeļi are included in the festival, thus causing it to be a three-day celebration. The first day is marked by activities in the fields finalizing the harvesting of crops. Jumis is caught hiding in the last bit of uncut crops. These stalks are used to make a wreath symbolising Jumis, which is brought home and placed in the granary until the next spring, when Jumis, along with the sown seeds, is returned to the fields. In the evening an outdoor fire is lit in honour of Miķelis, and singing and dancing takes place around it. The feast includes chicken, which is considered a fitting gift for Miķelis.

The second day of Miķeļi centres on a thanksgiving feast, where freshly baked bread, along with multitude of other food reflecting the bounty of the season, is served.

The third day of the Miķeļi festival is the Market Day. Besides the obvious purposes of buying and selling, the market provides a meeting place for young people. According to the ancient wedding customs, this day is also known as the last day when young men can come courting. If a proposal of marriage is not received by this day, then a girl has to wait until the next year.

Mārtiņi is a one-day festival marking the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. Mārtiņš, whose image is poorly developed in the dainas, personifies the festival. However, in some respects his image appears to be similar to the Ūsiņš, and these similarities reach into their earthly activities: while Ūsiņš cares for horses in summer, Mārtiņš looks after them in winter. In addition Mārtiņš has some qualities that reflect the need for protection against marauders, who are the active during wintertime.

The Mārtiņi festival marks the conclusion of all preparations for the coming winter: mainly storing of grain and other crops. Therefore, the feast is essentially a thanksgiving dinner where food, drink, and other good cheer are plentiful. Mārtiņi also marks the beginning of characteristic winter activities, primarily masquerading, which lasts until Meteņi, reaching its culmination at Ziemassvētki (Winter Festival).

Of all Latvian festivals, Ziemassvētki (Winter Festival) is by far the most festive occasion: in the dainas Ziemassvētki is referred as to Dievs’ (God’s) time of birth. The return of light at the Winter Solstice is heralded by the arrival of the celestial beings Dieva Dēli, the Four Brothers Ziemassvētki, who represent the number of days allotted for the celebration. Their images remain undifferentiated, and stress is placed on their prosperity and bringing of gifts.

In anticipation of the four-day festival, great quantity and variety of food is prepared, and the house is decorated with characteristic wintertime decorations. Candles are lit to welcome Dievs and Four Brothers Ziemassvētki. Fire is an integral part of the festivities, especially visible in the log burning ritual, which symbolizes the destruction of all sorrows and misfortunes of the past year. Some references in Latvian dainas indicate a possibly older meaning of this ritual, suggesting that the log burning aids the ascent of the Sun. A gathering of people perform this ritual by pulling the log about the homestead during the day and burning it at night, accompanying this ritual with the performance of Ziemassvētki songs with the refrain “kaladū”. On the Eve of Ziemassvētki the feast starts when Dievs (God) is invited to sit at the head of the table. In the dainas his presence in the midst of people is stressed at this festival, and many songs praise his benevolence.

The table is set with an abundance of the traditional foods of Ziemassvētki: pork, pig’s snout and feet, a variety of breads and rolls, some with fillings. Included are dishes prepared of whole grains, beans, and peas. The traditional drink is beer.

During the festival people sing, dance, and engage in many indoor and outdoor activities and games. Almost all of these activities are accompanied by songs of Ziemassvētki, which have the characteristic refrain “kaladū”. Some of the games incorporate the idea of the return of the light; others are concerned with the prediction of the future. Ziemassvētki is also time for visiting. A favourite pastime of children is sledding. A traditional occurance during the Ziemassvētki season is the encounter of “kaladnieces”, groups of women, who go from house to house performing songs of Ziemassvētki and receiving treats and gifts in return. Masquerading is also a typical festival activity that lasts throughout the winter, reaching its culmination at Ziemassvētki. Groups of people in different disguises go from house to house providing entertainment. They are made welcome and offered treats because masqueraders are regarded as well wishers from the Realm of Shades (also known as Otherworld, the World Beyond), and they are supposed to bring wealth and prosperity to the homestead.

Information about the ancient Latvian burial customs is preserved in the dainas. This source, in correlation with archaeological findings dating back to the late Stone Age (4000 – 1500 B.C.), provides the basis for reconstruction of the ancient Latvian burial rituals that prevailed for centuries in spite of Christianity and its forceful attempts to eliminate the old beliefs.

The Latvian concept of life and death is defined in dainas. The human being is believed to consist of three components: the body, the soul, and the intangible astral body, called “velis”. Dievs (God) is the ultimate creator, who bestows the soul upon a human being at birth and again retrieves it after death. The care of the body in life and after death is attributed to Māra, the Mother of Earth, who is also known by many other names. She appears as the Mother of Shades (Veļu Māte) when maintaining the Realm of Shades (Veļu Valsts) where she presides over astral bodies of the deceased. After death, the soul returns to Dievs, the body eventually disintegrates, but astral body continues to lead a life very similar to the individual’s previous existence among the living. These astral bodies (Veļi) are invited to return once a year for visit and feast on a prearranged day during Veļu laiks in the fall. Traditionally Veļu laiks is in October, it starts from Miķeļi (29. September) and ends at Mārtiņi (10. November). Consequently, death is not feared by Latvians but is simply considered a transition from life on Earth (under This Sun) to the life in the Realm of Shades (under the Other Sun).
The funeral is a two-day event but sometimes it may be extended to three days. Relatives and friends of the deceased are summoned immediately, while the body is dressed and, along with the necessities of life, put in coffin. The funeral is regarded as the last celebration in one’s lifetime: therefore, an invitation to attend is never turned down. Family members and friends start to arrive during the day bringing along food for the feast, but the wake begins in the evening and lasts throughout the night. The velis of the deceased (his astral body) participates in the wake; indeed, he is considered the guest of honour. Questions are asked about the reasons of his departure, and he is offered beer and morsels of different kinds of food. Appropriate songs are performed throughout the night, and an abundance of tears are shed.

The burial takes place on the second day. The dainas stress the importance of stately horses for the last journey to the family burial ground. Three horses are considered an appropriate number. They are harnessed in a row one behind the other. The dainas show that some members of family escort the deceased to the burial site, while others stay behind watching the departure and closing the gate of the homestead behind them. The escorting party consists primarily of younger male members of the family, while the parents, the wife and sometimes sisters stay behind. They depart with the deceased before noon, because it is believed that the Mother of Shades (Veļu Māte) closes the gate in the afternoon.

At the burial site a farewell feast takes place, and the bedding of the deceased is burned in order to transfer it to the Realm of Shades for his use. Tools, weapons, and other useful objects, including a small jar filled with honey, are placed in the grave. The reason for the latter is explained in the dainas as the means of enticement excercised by the Mother of Shades (Veļu Māte) when inviting humans into her realm. The burial ritual is accompanied by the songs, and the way home a small fir tree is cut; it is meant to represent a substitute for the lost member of the family.

During the feast, which lasts all night long, a ritual dance is preformed. This dance is supposed to obliterate the footprints of the deceased, symbolically erasing the sorrowful memories. Throughout the night songs are sung praising the pursuits and accomplishments of the departed. Excessive mourning is avoided, because the legacy of the Dead, as explained in dainas, requires this very last event in one’s lifetime not only to be a time for reminiscing, but also a celebration worthy of one’s standing in life. The funeral of a single person is regarded as both a wedding as well as a funeral; therefore, dancing is required to re-enact the gaiety of the wedding.

It is customary to follow the wishes of the deceased when distributing his property among the survivors. This task is usually performed on the third day. Small gifts are given to the grave diggers and pall bearers. The remaining personal belongings are distributed among the relatives according to the instructions left by the deceased.