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Winter holidays in Latvia

Historically alongside it's Baltic neighbors, Latvia has always been a pagan society, and the holiday traditions reflect the beliefs of the times. Even now the word for Christmas is "Ziemassvetki" meaning Winter Holidays. Not many Christian elements are found in these celebrations as Latvians for at least a thousand years have been celebrating the rebirth of the Sun as after Christmas, the days start to get longer. However, the newer Lutheran roots do tend to show up in the celebrations and new traditions.

The nearly month-long celebration begins with Advent, with decorated Advent wreaths and presents on the 12 days of Christmas. Most presents are opened on Dec. 24, and one has to recite poems to get their desired gifts.

Much like Estonia, a Yule (from the ancient word for  "wheel", the wheel being the symbol for Sun) log is rolled around the house to drive away evil spirits. As with most solstice traditions, games are also played and in the countryside, a tradition of mumming, or masquerading in costumes from house to house while singing is also still observed.

 Traditional foods play the biggest part in most celebrations. The typical Latvian Christmas fare includes: pig's snout, pig's feet, piragi, and grey peas and bacon. As with most things, even the food has significance and certain beliefs surrounding it. Eating grey peas gives you good luck and for every pea you eat, you'll cry one less day. Pig's snouts will bring out the writer in you the next year.

The most exciting historical thing to note is that Latvia actually decorated the first Christmas/New Years tree in 1510. It was the first documented time that an evergreen was decorated for use in a winter celebration in Riga next to the Blackheads House. Legend has it that the tree was decorated with paper flowers.

Right in front of the Occupation Museum today, there stands a plaque dedicated to the location of this first tree. Nowadays trees are decorated with handmade straw ornaments and little gingerbread cookies as well as the usual twinkle lights.