Many travelers have discovered the mystery, the magic and beauty of spending the winter solstice in Riga. This is how locals celebrate it and how you can join them.
There are really special “Christmas” travel experiences that don’t necessarily include Christmas markets. One of these is the celebration of the Winter Solstice in Riga and in the suburbs and, in general, in Latvia.
Let’s see how people celebrate the Winter Solstice in Riga and in Latvia, why these rites are so important and where this traditions come from.
How people celebrate the Winter Solstice in Riga
A peculiarity of Latvia and Latvians is that here, strong pagan and pre-Christian traditions still very much alive in local life.
The rituals of the Winter Solstice come from far away, from that paganism that has always been so strong in the local soul. Let’s see what’s so peculiar in Latvian celebrations of the longest night.
Yule Log dragging
In Latvia and, of course, in Riga, on the day of the winter Solstice, while waiting for the longest night of the year, people drag logs through the streets and transported them to a common pyre, where the trunks are set on fire.
This practice, called Yule Log, comes from ancient times when the trunks, dragged from one farm to another, collected all the misfortunes of the closing year, thus all the negative thoughts and energies were burned with them.
It is therefore not difficult to understand why, in many countries, one of the most traditional Christmas dessert is a log shaped cake, is it?
In addition, Latvian have, still today, the habit of decorating houses, pubs and public places with firs and evergreens. Once upon a time, the pine branches were decorated with feathers, the last dry leaves, dried fruit, colored threads; it is from here, from the Baltic countries, that the tradition of decorating fir trees at the end of autumn comes: the German crusaders of the thirteenth century brought the fir trees decorated as a tradition in Central Europe and made it our Christmas tree.
Wander from house to house dressed as animals (mumming)
Even today, both in the city and in the suburbs and in the countryside, groups of people challenge the cold weather to go from house to house disguised as animals, be it real or imaginary ones.
People dressed up as animals or strange creatures are always welcome because with their songs and rhymes they scare and send away evil spirits. These people who knock on doors and sing and scream rhymes are not the crudest and folk version of Christmas Carols, they are indeed their true origin.
Predicting the future with small rituals
The longest night of the year, despite being the opening door on the long and dark Baltic winter, is still the beginning of the lengthening of the daylight and this was no small thing in a peasant past when crops and human lives also depended on the light and the harshness of the winter time.
So, Winter Solstice was a moment to predict the fate with small rituals.
For example, among fortunetelling rites there is counting the stars to quantify the harvest of the coming year or bringing a black cat to go around a bonfire to make money.
Over the centuries the tradition of the black cat has shifted from a “walk around the bonfire” to a walk around a church and it is wonder why the Catholics Church, from the fifteenth century onwards, didn’t like black cats so much and many people in the Mediterranean (and strongly catholic) countries still believe that these beautiful animals bring bad luck.
Why are these very ancient traditions still so strong?
All these traditions are still practiced in Riga and Latvia during the day and night of the winter solstice. The Baltic countries were the last to be “Christianized”; the first contacts with Christianity were with the crusades of the Germanic area in the thirteenth century and there has been, here, much less pressure in the transformation and christianization of the old pagan rites.
What to do if you are in Riga for the Winter Solstice
But let’s face the practical aspect: what to do if you are in Riga and its surroundings for the Winter Solstice?
All these wonderful traditions are practiced exactly like they were in the oldest time in the ethnographic museum of Riga.
It is one of the largest and most beautiful outdoor ethnographic museums in Europe. On December 22nd, from 12 am to 4 pm, at the cost of two euros, it is possible to relive the magic of Yule log, the rituals of fire, decorations and bring with it some positive energy for the coming new year.
Moreover, in the old city of Riga, on Dec. 22nd there is a mumming processions where mummers drag their trunks, and then burn them all in the town hall square.
Follow the party full of bells, rhymes and songs to the final pyre, burn all the negativity that has clung to you like mud on the wood and then give yourself new energy.