Before ringing in the New Year, we joined in on Latvia’s winter solstice celebrations at the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, a short distance outside Riga. According to local websites, the event would be marked with singing and dancing Latvians wearing animal masks and culminate with the burning of a yule log. I knew this was not to be missed.
German crusaders didn’t introduce Christianity to Latvia until the 11th century and it wasn’t fully enforced until the 1200s. The Latvians, however, held onto many of their pagan beliefs and traditions, simply incorporating them into the new faith. So while everyone celebrated the birth of Christ, the Latvians also honored the Sun goddess, who was reborn every December 22. The night before, on the shortest day of the year, the Latvians gathered to make merry and honor the past.
In the spirit of rebirth, they would also shed the previous year’s misfortunes. This was done by dragging a yule log through the village, gathering everyone’s painful memories, hardships and failures along with it, and then setting it on fire. All that sorrow would go up in a puff of smoke!
I was surprised by the large turnout and level of crowd participation at the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum. Many people were dressed in folk costumes and animal hats, and even those not in costume seemed to know the songs and dances. It’s heartwarming to see this dedication to cultural traditions in our modern world.
The Museum is actually a collection of 118 historic buildings that have been relocated to an 87-hectare park on the shores of Lake Jugla. Visitors can enter the restored and furnished structures to get an idea of what life was like for ancient Latvian farmers and fishermen.
Have you ever celebrated the Winter Solstice? What’s the most unusual custom in your neck of the woods?