Ancient Easter Traditions Latvians Still Practice
By Correspondent Kristine Fedotova in Riga, Latvia.
When it comes to Latvians and traditions, there is a lot to talk about. This country in North-Eastern Europe near the Baltic Sea has rich traditional culture that hasn’t been destroyed or forgotten. Latvians are proud for living in one of the last areas in Europe that got Christianized and still keen on so-called pagan traditions. Although there are people who attest either one or another considering that they should exclude each other, nowadays both contrasting hallmarks of culture – ancient Latvian traditions and religion – go hand in hand. Christian Easter in Latvia has merged with ancient Latvian spring equinox traditions, and on religious feast dates, when the public holidays are, Easter is celebrated with the elements of ancient traditions.
It starts with Christian Palm Sunday before Easter. Translating literally, in Latvian language it’s actually called Willow-catkins or Pussy Willow Sunday named after a tree that is first to show the signs of life in spring by soft, fluffy catkins. Willow branches with catkins – the symbol of life – are brought to church to consecrate them and, following ancient Latvian belief, everyone in the household has to be birched with these branches to stay physically strong and healthy the entire year. Usually the person who wakes up the first one on Pussy Willow Sunday has the joy to wake up everyone else birching them.
Christian Good Friday (named Big Friday in Latvia) followed by Holy Saturday (named Silent Saturday) are silent days when big parties and festivities are not organized. This is time to prepare for Easter celebration. For Christians 40 days before Easter are for fasting, but those who haven’t done it all those 40 days, fast at least on Big Friday and Silent Saturday giving up eating meat, other people give up other foods as well, living those days only on water and bread or eating only very light meals.
As Easter is public holidays it’s time when families come together. Home has to be cleaned, food for Easter meals has to be prepared, but the main thing is dyeing eggs. At the end it’s all around and about eggs in this celebration: for lovers of ancient traditions and believers of the power of nature egg is the symbol of Sun, awakening of nature, fertility and birth, but for Christians – resurrection.
Many Latvians still dye Easter eggs using ancient methods and natural colorings, such as yellow onion peel, beetroot juice, birch whisk, alder bark or chamomile infusions firmly tying to eggs fresh sprouts, herb leaves, moss and other natural materials for adding colors or patterns to eggs. Eggs in Latvian Easter are used as gifts for others and there are many games that are played with boiled, dyed eggs. The main game is egg-knocking contests: one to one people are competing who will have stronger Easter egg by knocking eggs each to other. Of course, the winner is the one who has knocked more eggs taking with him/her all broken eggs. Sometimes it is way too much than one person could eat what results in the second Easter day meals having a lot of different dishes prepared with eggs.
The morning of the first Easter day for many people starts by going to church and bringing with them salt and dyed eggs to consecrate them, but returning home Latvians switch back to pagan rituals. Before the first Easter meal one egg (often the one consecrated in church) is divided for everyone at the table (usually family members) and sprinkled with consecrated salt. This one first egg is divided for everyone to live the next year together harmoniously, amicably and without arguing, but all eggs on Easter have to be eaten with salt because those, who eat them without salt, will tell lies the entire next year. After the first Easter meal is time for egg knocking, visiting neighbors and relatives, going to concerts and different events the next three Easter days depending on family traditions.
One more important thing that has to be done in Latvian Easter is swinging. Traditionally swings were built especially for Easter in the highest hill or in a beautiful place as swinging was a part of important pagan ritual: attracting wealth, fertility for stands and gardens, a lot of milk for cows or healthy lambs for sheep. The main old belief that people remember the most nowadays as the best reason to have fun swinging is that you have to swing in Easter as much and as high as possible to escape gnat and gadfly bites in the summer.
Of course, there are thick books full of old Latvian spring equinox believes and Easter rituals, but many of them nowadays are practiced only by folklorists and those who have chosen to live their lives in the modern world by ancient Latvian traditions. Nowadays in Latvia Christian Easter and spring equinox has got one name uniting both conceptions – Lieldienas – Big or Great Days. Although different foreign traditions now are blending and Easter celebrations are not as important as several centuries ago, Latvians still love practicing at least some of our spring equinox traditions on Easter.
The pictures were made by Kristine’s friend, Herta.
Kristine F. is a full time writer/ghostwriter from the North-Eastern European country of Latvia. Mostly working on ghostwriting books for life coaches about natural health, relationships and different topics related to human brain. About ancient Latvian traditions Kristine has learnt since childhood as traditional festivities, knowing herbs and natural remedies, and especially traditional music have always been honorable in her family.