Christmas trees, Christmas markets, and family gatherings—Christmas in Latvia is a bright, cheerful time of year, both in public and in the privacy of the home.
Let’s discover what makes Christmas in Latvia special and how Latvians celebrate Christmas.
Table of Contents
- Celebration of the Winter Solstice
- The First Christmas Tree
- Latvian Christmas Decorations
- The Latvian Santa Clause
- The Yule Log Tradition in Latvia
- Latvian Winter Solstice Superstitions and Beliefs
- Latvian Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
- Two Christmases in Latvia
- Christmas in Latvia for Travelers
Celebration of the Winter Solstice
Like Christmas in Estonia, Christmas in Latvia is closely wrapped up in Baltic pagan traditions. In fact, even the Latvian word for Christmas, Ziemassvētki, means “winter festival” rather than “Christmas.”
Pre-Christian peoples lived their lives by the cycles of the sun, moon, and seasons. Just like the Baltic countries celebrate Midsummer Day in the summer—which corresponds with the summer solstice—they also marked the winter solstice as an important time of year.
This night of the year is the inverse of the summer solstice. Rather than being the longest, brightest day of the year as is Midsummer, it’s the darkest and shortest. You can imagine that, in a world without electricity or forms of heating besides fire, how the passage of this day would be surrounded by superstition and marked with relief at the lengthening of days, particularly in the northern latitudes that Latvia occupies.
The First Christmas Tree
Latvia and Estonia have something of a rivalry over their claim to the first Christmas tree. However, Latvia’s claim is the better known.
The story takes place in Riga on Town Hall Square in front of the House of Blackheads. The House of Blackheads served as a merchants’ guild. It is said that the members of the guild decorated an evergreen with flowers made of paper, placed it on the square, danced around it, and then put it to flame.
The first mention of such a ritual happening appeared in 1510. When you visit Riga, you can see the marker for the first Christmas tree embedded in the stone pavement to commemorate the event.
In honor of the first Christmas tree, every year a tree is erected on this same spot during the month of December for Christmas in Latvia.
Latvian Christmas Decorations
Latvians love natural Christmas decorations—also a reminder of times past. While they may bring a live tree into the home to decorate, they also buy or make wreaths from evergreen branches. The Advent wreath is especially important to Latvian Christmas decorations.
Puzurs are another traditional Christmas decoration. Lithuanian folk art has them, too, and they’re called “straw chains” or “straw gardens” in English. These hanging mobiles are made with straw connected with string into intricate, 3D geometric shapes.
Turning lazily in the air currents when hung from the ceiling or even the Christmas tree, they’re a beautiful addition to the home no matter what the occasion. But they have another use: as symbols of the universe, through their spinning, they suck negative energy out of the room. Very handy!
Before the house could be decorated, however, it had to be cleaned. Therefore, the days before the celebration was spent sweeping, dusting, and polishing to make the home ready for the holiday as well as for decorations.
The Latvian Santa Claus
Latvia’s Santa Claus is called Ziemassvētku vecītis (Grandfather Christmas). He lives in Ziemupe, South Kurzeme Municipality and can be reached by post, according to Latvijas Pasts, the Latvian postal system.
The Latvian Santa Claus, like Santas in many countries, visits during the night to leave presents. These presents are opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Like in many other European countries, children may have to perform by reciting a poem or singing a song in order to receive their presents.
One day of the year—the Santa Claus charity run—sees hundreds of Santas gather in the center of Old Town Riga to raise money for a good cause. The “real” Santa, however, may be present for children to meet and take photos with, too.
The Yule Log Tradition in Latvia
Latvians have a strong yule log tradition, which also links them to pagan rituals of the past. The yule log becomes a symbol of burden and labor, and as people drag the yule log from one point to another or all around the yard, it wards off bad luck and negative thoughts and promotes healthy soil for plants to grow.
Burning the yule log is wrought with symbolism. It promotes fertility. It banishes evil. And it represents the power of light during the darkest night of the year, the winter solstice.
Public yule log burning celebrations can be attended throughout Latvia, in cities such as Riga and Ventspils. People wear masks, folk ensembles play music, and people may burn oak leaf crowns as a way to promote good fortune. It’s a way to send out the old year and ring in the new as the days grow longer and all of the old year’s work has come to an end.
More importantly, perhaps, is the way the yule log fire symbolizes the sun, which means food for the coming year as planting begins and harvesting commences—all dependent upon sunlight.
Mumming has a close relationship with caroling, where individuals visit neighborhood houses, singing and generally causing merriment.
Mumming related to Christmas in Latvia is different, however, in that the individuals wear masks, often as animals of the forest, such as bears or wolves. However, the masks may also represent domestic animals such as dogs or goats. Similar masks can be seen during Carnival or Shrove Tuesday, when people don masks and costumes to frighten away winter. In Latvia, the Shrove Tuesday holiday is called Meteni.
For Yule Night or during the general Christmas season until New Year, mummers would dress up in costume and visit people of the village with song and dance in exchange for treats. Sometimes, they would enter people’s houses and “spank” them with a bundle of twigs. The tradition varied from region to region
Latvian Winter Solstice Superstitions and Beliefs
Superstitions and beliefs commonly accompany times of year as the winter solstice, and because Christmas in Latvia and the solstice overlap, so do some superstitions and beliefs.
Some ancient Latvian winter solstice rituals included:
- Counting the stars to ensure a good harvest for the coming year
- Placing wool at the bottom of beehives to encourage bees to do their job
- Carrying around a black cat to bring good fortune in the form of money
- Running around the house three times to protect health
- Predicting the coming year’s weather according to the weather on the winter solstice—for example, a Christmas without snow meant Easter in Latvia would have snow.
In earlier times, the winter solstice was also associated with going to the sauna to wash away both dirt from the body and negative thoughts. This cleansing ritual mirrors that taken to cleanse the home in preparation for this important time of year.
Latvian Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
Like in the Lithuanian Christmas tradition, Latvians place more importance on Christmas Eve, December 24.
Families gather together and eat a large meal on both days for Christmas in Latvia. For Christmas Eve, the menu should consist of nine traditional dishes. Nine dishes reflects the ancient Latvian belief that the number nine had magical powers as a multiplier of the number three, which was also an auspicious number.
In the pagan Latvian tradition, nine was also the number of the beginning of the world. Because the winter solstice birthed a new year and started the cycle of longer days, sowing seeds, harvest, and the gradual march to winter again, this association makes sense.
The Latvian Christmas meal often consists of peas with bacon and sauerkraut, piragi (filled dumplings), and a main course that consists of pork or carp. Of course, other dishes made from the year’s harvests were traditionally present on the table, such as carrots, beets, potatoes, and bread. In the past, Latvians accompanied their meal with beer, kvass, or buttermilk.
Some families attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Two Christmases Celebrated in Latvia
Though the majority of Latvians are Lutheran or Protestant, both branches of Christianity that follow the Western church calendar, a good portion of Latvians follow the Russian Orthodox faith.
The Russian Orthodox Church follows a different calendar, so its holidays fall after those on the Western church calendar. That means that, while Orthodox Christmas is not a national holiday in Latvia, those who are members of this church celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6 and Christmas on January 7.
Christmas in Latvia for Travelers
If you’re visiting Latvia during the Christmas season, you’ll be able to enjoy plenty of Christmas spirit. It’s one of the best things to do in Latvia, whether your trip starts and ends there or you’re traveling the Baltic countries more broadly to experience Christmas in Lithuania and Estonia.
Christmas trees and decorations light up old town Riga and other cities throughout Latvia. Of course, it’s worthwhile to pay a visit to the Christmas tree set up on Town Hall Square, which represents the first Christmas tree recorded back in the 16th century in front of the House of Blackheads.
Another main Christmas tree is placed on Doma Square, where Riga’s Christmas market also takes place.
At Christmas markets in Riga and throughout Latvia, you can shop for souvenirs, handmade gifts, Latvian folk art, Christmas decorations, and seasonal food. You’ll also be able to enjoy entertainment—folk ensembles and other musical groups liven up the atmosphere even more.
The Latvian Open-Air Ethnographic Museum is another great way to learn about Christmas in Latvia. Here, the winter solstice is celebrated according to folk tradition, complete with burning of the Yule log. Be sure to dress for winter in the Baltics if you decide to enjoy this outdoor event!
The long and sophisticated culture around Christmas in Latvia is only one reason to visit Latvia during this time of year. December in Latvia will also see plenty of concerts and performances. You’ll also be able to enjoy cozy restaurant settings with traditional Latvian food. And if you get into the countryside, a winter wonderland awaits.