1 January — New Year’s Day
Ancient Latvian traditions of welcoming the New Year are similar to Christmas traditions. Abundant feasts were prepared, with such traditional dishes as pig snout, fish, bacon rolls, porridge, and beer. And bread, of course. Bread had to be on the table as a symbol of prosperity. People wore masks and went from home to home (Latvian: ķekatas), played games, told fortune, and had fun. Fish scales were placed in the wallet so that its owner would not be short of money in the New Year.
Good Friday is a religious Christian holiday commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death at Golgotha. Good Friday is part of the Holy Week which lasts from Palm Sunday until the last Saturday before Easter. On Good Friday there is no Eucharist in churches, bread and wine is passed out, pipe organs are not played, and no bells are rung. On this day Catholics all over the world walk the 14 Stations of the Cross, which symbolises the walk of Jesus Christ to his death. Good Friday is a day of fasting and silence. In Latvia Good Friday is an official holiday.
Easter Sunday and Easter Monday
An age-old Easter tradition is swatting with pussy willows or birch branches soaked in hot water while saying “round as a catkin, lithe as a branch” or “health in, sickness out”. Eggs are dyed by mainly using natural colours. There are some popular beliefs that concern eating eggs as well: some misfortune will befall a person who eats an odd number of eggs. A person who eats eggs without salt will tell lies the whole year. Trouble and disagreement will prevail in a house where eggs shells are not protected and are crushed underfoot.
At Easter one must participate in egg tapping, and the person whose egg stays intact longer will live longer. On Easter Sunday eggs are cracked together with their narrower, pointy ends, on Easter Monday — with the rounded, blunt ends. One should take a good turn on the swing to avoid horseflies, mosquitoes, and snakes in summer. Exchanging eggs and giving them as gifts has a deeper meaning at Easter — it should be done as a sign of benevolence and to induce friendly feelings in others.
4 May — the Day of Declaration of the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia
Every year there is a wide and diverse programme of celebration of the restoration of independence of the Republic of Latvia. Ecumenical services are held, the flag-raising ceremony takes place at Riga Castle. Senior public officials participate in the celebration. On this day the highest awards of the state are presented. In the course of the entire day various festive concerts take place, wider celebration takes place at 11. novembra krastmala.
This holiday is celebrated on the second Sunday of May, therefore the date changes every year.
Mother’s Day was introduced as a public holiday in Latvia in 1922. In 1938, based on the proposal of the President of Latvia Kārlis Ulmanis, it was renamed Family Day, since family begins with a mother. Mother’s Day celebration included various social activities, charity campaigns and fund raising, children’s mornings, and cultural events for families. Usually children give presents to their mothers on this day. It was also emphasised to remember the mothers who had passed away by taking care of their graves.
23 June — Līgo Day, 24 June — Jāņi
Jāņi or Līgo is a traditional Latvian festival that marks the summer solstice — the shortest night and the longest day of the year. Although the solstice usually falls on 21 or 22 June, the public holidays — Līgo Day and Jāņi Day — are celebrated on 23 and 24 June. The day before Jāņi is known as Zāļu Day or Līgo Day. One of the most important Jāņi traditions is wreath making. Women wear wreaths made of flowers, men wear wreaths made of oak leaves. Singing Līgo songs is often associated with the fertility cult and prevention of misfortune. The practice of burning bonfires from sunset until sunrise at Jāņi reflects the belief that light from the fire will transmit to the next solar year. The bonfire should be made at the highest point in the area. Wreaths from the last year are also burned. One should stay awake through the entire night. An integral part of Jāņi Day is singing Jāņi songs, which is associated with the promotion of fertility and prevention of misfortune. On Jāņi Day people drink beer and make and eat Jāņi cheese, believing that it will promote the growth of crops and production of milk by cows in the next summer.
18 November — Proclamation Day of the Republic of Latvia
Proclamation Day of the Republic of Latvia is celebrated annually on 18 November. It marks the anniversary of the proclamation of independence of Latvia. It is a public holiday. Various cultural events take place all over the country, including concerts, balls, shows, and exhibitions. In Riga the celebration traditionally includes the flower laying ceremony at the base of the Freedom Monument attended by the president and other senior public officials, the military parade of Latvian National Armed Forces at 11. novembra krastmala, a torchlight procession through the streets of the city, and fireworks over the Daugava River.
24 December — Christmas Eve
25 December — Christmas Day, 26 December — Second Day of Christmas
Christmas Eve is celebrated on the day before Christmas Day. In Western Christianity and in the secular world it is celebrated on 24 December. Christmas is a holiday and is also celebrated by people who are not Christians by faith.
Much like ancient Latvians, modern Latvians try to finish major tasks at work and at home, because Christmas is a holiday one must celebrate instead of working through it.
Since the tradition holds that Jesus Christ was born at night, Midnight Mass is held on Christmas Eve, traditionally at midnight, in commemoration of his birth. Various cultural traditions are also associated with Christmas Eve, including singing Christmas songs, decorating and illuminating Christmas trees, wrapping and/or opening gifts, and general preparation for Christmas Day. The story of Father Christmas, who delivers presents to children around the world on Christmas Eve, is also popular.
Often a person is asked to recite a poem or sing a song in exchange for the gift.
A feast is an integral part of the Christmas Eve celebration. However, festive meals are often enjoyed on Christmas Day and on the Second Day of Christmas as well.
Most people observe ancient Latvian traditions nowadays when preparing the feast. They try to put at least nine different dishes on the table to promote prosperity the next year. According to the traditions of ancient Latvians, the feast consisted of grey peas and beans, bacon buns, carrots and beetroot, gingerbread cookies, round cookies, stewed cabbage, poultry, fish, pork or pig snout. The emphasis was laid on round dishes that symbolise the core element of the winter solstice — the sun. Bread, salt and fire had to be on the table as they bring blessing. Since children are eager to meet Farther Christmas as they still believe in his existence and in wonders, unlike adults, they write letters to Farther Christmas in advance to tell him what gifts they would like to receive for Christmas. Such letters help parents to find out what their offspring would like to receive for Christmas. Of course, children are told that the letter is mailed to Farther Christmas personally, who, as Latvian children believe, lives in Ziemupe, or in Lapland, at the North Pole, as children elsewhere in the world believe, but in any case Farther Christmas, as it befits, lives in a cold place where it snows.
Christmas time is a time to visit relatives and friends — people welcome guests and visit others. Usually guests are received on Christmas Day and on the Second Day of Christmas, but Christmas Eve is spent with one’s dearest people, while it can also be the other way round. Nowadays Christmas holidays last three days that can be used for festive visits.
31 December — New Year’s Eve
The celebration of the New Year usually starts on 31 December, known as New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Eve a rich feast is enjoyed to symbolically promote wealth and prosperity in the next year. Until midnight, the actual turn of the year, time is spent in various activities — most often the last hours of the Old Year are spent with one’s dearest and closest people, however, one can also attend various events to celebrate the New Year. On New Year’s Eve people often perform various rituals and try to tell fortune, for example, they write New Year’s resolutions, because they believe in the power of the written word, bake buns with various filling (salt, sugar, coins) or try to divine their future in the New Year by dropping molten tin into water and then reading the shapes. It should be noted that divination using molten metal is also practised after the midnight when the New Year has arrived.