Ziemas saulgrieži (winter solstice)

About the Latvian Winter Solstice Festival

“Ziemassvētki” or Christmas day in Latvia is a very festive gathering. The Ziemas Saulgriezi (winter solstice) is an amalgamation of ethnic, religious and cultural traditions. This is a truly unique experience for most of the people around the world who celebrate Christmas as marking the birth of Jesus Christ. However, Ziemas saulgriezi according to the pre-Christian Latvian pagan traditions celebrates the rebirth of the Sun Maiden. The Baltic – Christmas day 21 at the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year signaling the arrival of winter. This is also Yule (in Estonia jõulud) and this winter festival has its origins in the pagan solstice festival. It is indeed the precursor to modern Christmas. Therefore, Joulud and the winter solstice are of great significance for the Baltic people. These are the rituals which form the foundations for modern day Christmas. 

Ziemas saulgrieži

Rituals observed at Ziemas Saulgriezi

Some of the usual practices for Ziemas saulgriezi are participating in kekatas, mummying or even dragging the Yule log. Even though both these traditions are different they serve the same festive purpose. The mummers adorn costumes and wear masks that feature animals and other such horrific figures. These include corpses or dead bodies to bring blessings to the household, encourage fertility and ward off any evil spirits. The Yule log is then burnt out of goodwill. This gesture helps incinerate any bad luck or misfortune that must have taken place the previous year.

The merging of some pagan traditions with Christianity by the ancient Latvians has been a major innovation. Due to this tradition, decorations of firs on the winter solstice are frequently observed now. Riga is considered as the first birthplace of the Christmas tree. It was put up and first decorated as early as 1510. Even to this day the Latvians put up fir trees and decorate them with candles or other similar ornaments. Houses are illuminated with junipers, branches of evergreen, straw ornaments and other such natural elements. 

Perhaps, the highlight of every Christmas is a special meal which consists of 12 different meals. These lavish traditional cuisines include Christmas roast and gray peas for the main course. Appetizers and desserts include traditional treats like bacon rolls and gingerbread cookies. Nevertheless, despite all the particularities and personalized customs, Christmas has a unifying element. All around the world families get together under the same roof eating on the same table. This can be in a warm church by a cozy fireplace with snow outside. Or even bumming in a snowy countryside with a cold breeze playing. 

Latvian Winters and the Christmas Day

The Latvian winters are mostly cold and dark. Riga, which is on December 21, is mostly dark as the sun rises at 9:00am, and sets at 3:43pm. This calculates to a mere six hours and 43 minutes of daylight. Latvians celebrated the winter solstice on the shortest day of the year before they converted to Christianity. They enjoyed festivities that included songs, food, fire, and various traditions.

This makes sense  when you are experiencing 17+ hours of darkness on a daily basis for several weeks. Creating a celebration that you can look forward to is what makes it worthwhile and optimistic. The traditions are called čigāni, budēļi or ķekatnieki – the name depends on the region in Latvia and the time of the year. These emphasize on the custom of noise making or dress making at home to wear beautiful costumes. People visit the homes of friends and relatives and spend quality time together. This can be seen as similar to the American tradition of Mummers with the exception that the costumes are not very extravagant. 

Since these winter months are very dark and dreary in Latvia this celebration was a way to keep everyone entertained. There is also a myth that evil spirits roam around during these months of darkness. Hence during Ziemas saulgrieži you can scare off the evil spirits by being visited by čigāni or budēļi. Thus the purpose of these costumed travels is fulfilled by making lots of noise and a ruckus. The bad energy is removed and fertility and goodluck are welcomed. For inspecting your house and bringing prayers for good health the budēļi also expect to be treated with food and drink. Ziemassvētki (Christmas) is a mix of various traditions by all different cultures. 

Historical Significance of Ziemas Saulgriezi 

Latvians didn’t get many opportunities to celebrate in the seasonal year. Only exuberant weddings, births and deaths were the family gatherings key events. However, like other agrarian nations, Latvia also considered the winter and summer solstices to mark off important changes in nature. In this pagan ritual the yuletide log is haul around the buildings, the homestead or even the fields. It is then burn which symbolizes the beginning of a new cycle of life. Eventually the Christian traditions and Christmas integrated with Latvian festivals. Therefore for these occasions the fir tree has always considered as the sign for eternal life.

Agricultural events marked significant events in time as the sun moved across the heavens. These rituals included vasaras saulgriezi (summer solstice), ziemas saulgriezi (winter solstice), liela diena (easter/spring equinox) and other autumn harvest festivals (fall equinox). The shortening days and falling temperatures signal the arrival of winters across the Northern Hemisphere. The reason for the solstice and seasons is due to the tilt of Earth. This happens when Earth tilts 23.5 degrees with respect to the sun. Both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres receive unequal amounts of sunlight over a year as the Earth orbits the Sun.

Each hemisphere cools down in turn depending on when the Earth is tilting away from its star. The December solstice occurs with December in the north and June in the south. This arrives when the sun’s tilt is at its most extreme angle. For more than 2 billion Christians the solstice has overshadowed by Christmas. The various solstice traditions color today’s winter holiday celebrations. For instance the Scandinavians once celebrated Juul, or Yule, a multi day feast marking the sun god’s return. Meanwhile In Britain, Druids observed the solstice by cutting mistletoe.