Jheri St. James
to one story, Martin Luther, walking through a Riga forest
in 1510, was touched by the beauty of the moonlight glistening
on the branches of a fir tree. He chopped a little one down
and brought it home for his children. He attached candles
to its branches to recreate the moonlight and, viola,
the word’s first decorated Christmas tree was recorded
in Riga, Latvia. This story is included in the internet’s
“Christmas traditions” and CNN did a piece on
American businessman and long-time Riga resident is hoping
that Latvians themselves will get excited about this bit of
Yuletide history. “Latvians are still coming to terms
with their identity,” said Aldis Tilens, another Latvian
resident who sells handmade souvenirs in Latvia and abroad.
“Is it an event, a cultural difference or geography
that sets them apart? This is something that could be a source
is disputed, however; other folks believe the Martin Luther
incident actually occurred in Northern Germany and the lighted
tree came decades later. But all agree that Christmas trees
unite all those who celebrate northern European winter solstices;
that candles are lit to celebrate the return of the pagan
Sun God, Mithras, on the shortest day of the year; and that
huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word “Yule”
itself means ‘the wheel of the sun’. Trees were
often used as religious symbols and burned in sacred ceremonies
in large bonfires. The Riga legend includes paper flower decorations
on the tree and burning it on the bonfire after the ceremony.
to Countess Maria Hubert von Staufer of the Christmas Archives
International organization based in England, “Riga is
very important in the History of the Christmas Tree.”
There is even a domed plaque in the bricks in the down square
that says, “The First New Year’s Tree in Riga
in 1510” in eight languages.
right? Who can prove it? (Aren’t those the questions
that cause all the problems in the world?) And is it events,
culture or geography that sets Latvia apart from the rest
of the world?
of Latvia is a country in northeastern Europe, bordering on
the Baltic Sea, and sharing borders with Estonia north, Lithuania
south, and Russia and Belarus east. In the west, Latvia shares
a maritime border with Sweden. Riga is the capital of Latvia,
and the country has been a member of the European Union since
May 1, 2004. Since the year 2000, Latvia has had one of the
highest GDP growth rates in Europe, so Christmas may be celebrated
more heartily now than it was in the past.
of its strategic geographic location, Latvian territory has
always been famous as a trading crossroads, making it coveted
and invaded by other larger nations, and these events have
defined the fate of Latvia and its people. The location of
the Baltic Sea and the Daugava River makes Latvia a natural
for the shipping trade. Town Hall Square, developed in the
middle of the 13th century, is located just meters or yards
from this river, and was initially a marketplace where all
the city and country celebrations and business took place.
The most splendid buildings in the square are the House of
Blackheads—originally built in 1334, and rebuilt in
1995-1999— and the town hall building across the square,
also rebuilt in 2003.
House of Blackheads
rebuilding was necessary because of the centuries of warfare
and destruction that occurred on Latvian soil. At the end
of the 12th century, Christian German traders founded Riga
and gradually it became the largest and most beautiful city
in the southern part of the Baltic Sea. In the 1500’s,
the territory then known as Livonia (a blend of Latvia and
Estonia) struggled under religious wars between the Christians,
Lutherans and Catholics. After the Livonian War, today’s
Latvian territory came under Polish-Lithuanian rule. The Lutheran
faith was accepted in Kurzeme, Zembale and Vidzeme, but the
Roman Catholic faith maintained its dominance in Latgale,
as it still does today.
and early 18th centuries saw a struggle between Poland, Sweden
and Russia for supremacy in the eastern Baltic. Sweden took
Riga in 1621 and the term “Swedish era” is still
synonymous with beneficent rule. Though serfdom was not abolished,
it was strictly regulated and a network of schools was established
for the peasantry. In 1721 Vidzeme was given to Russia. The
Latgale region remained part of Poland until 1772, when it
too was joined to Russia. Courland, Latvia, became known as
a “paradise of the nobles”, the code granting
privileges to the German nobility declared the country a social
paradise. Courland then became a Russian province in 1795,
brining all of what is now Latvia into Imperial Russia.
Peter the Great made to the Baltic German nobility at the
fall of Riga in 1710 largely reversed the Swedish reforms.
A century later, the “emancipation” of serfs took
place in 1817-1819 and dispossessed the peasants of their
lands without compensation. By the end of that 19th century,
the social structure had changed dramatically with a new class
of independent farmers able to repurchase their land. In the
middle of the century the Young Latvia movement laid the groundwork
for nationalism against the prevailing German-dominated social
order. All this foment and ferment exploded in the 1905 revolution.
War II devastated the country. Demands for self-determination
were at first confined to autonomy (“a free Latvia in
a free Russia”), but full independence was proclaimed
in Riga on November 18, 1918. The War of Liberation that followed
was another very chaotic period in Latvia’s history.
By the spring of 1919 there were actually three governments.
Eastern Latvia was cleared of Bolshevik forces by Polish,
Latvian and German troops in early 1920. A freely elected
Constituent Assembly was convened on May 1, 1920 and adopted
the liberal constitution, the Satversme in February
1922—the constitution that is still in use in Latvia
today, vesting power in the people of Latvia.
17, 1940 Russian forces occupied the country. The ensuing
months would become known in Latvia as Baigais Gads,
the Year of Horror. Mass arrests, disappearances, and deportations
culminated on the night of June 14, 1941. Prior to the German
invasion, in less than a year, at least 27,586 persons were
arrested; most were deported and 945 persons were shot. Police
units established by occupation authority actively participated
in the Holocaust—80,000-100,000 Latvian citizens were
killed during Nazi occupation. The Soviets reoccupied the
country in 1944-45 and further mass deportations followed
as the country was forcibly Sovietized; 42,975 persons were
deported in 1949. Finally on May 4, 1990, the Supreme Soviet
of the Latvian SSR adopted the Declaration of the Restoration
of Independence of the Republic of Latvia, subject to a transition
period that came to an end on August 21, 1991.
Argument between a Blossom and an Ax
Don't scream at the linden.
She will bloom in her time.
If you like it—look at her blossoms;
If you don't—don't look.
That is all you can do.
And, of course,
At any moment you can cut the tree down:
In an argument between a blossom and an ax
The winner will always be the ax.
But after that, don't forget
To wipe your boots in the blossoms.
No silk in the whole world
Is gentler than linden blossoms.
And do not be afraid of those bees
That your boots crush into the ground.
For her stinging your boot
The bee pays with her life.
1990s and early 21st century, Latvia has focused on “rejoining
Europe”; its two major goals, NATO and European Union
membership, were achieved in 2004. After a difficult transition
to a liberal economy and its reorientation toward Western
Europe, Latvia still has one of the lowest standards of living
in the EU, though its economy has one of the highest growth
rates. An argument over the history of the Christmas tree
is doubtless refreshing after such centuries of decimation
View of Riga
* * *
the most revered events in Latvian culture is the Midsummer
Festival of Ligo or Jani—a celebration
of the summer solstice and the feast day of St. John the Baptist.
While ostensibly a Christian festival, its pagan roots are
unmistakable. Ligo takes place every year on the
night between June 23rd and 24th, the shortest night of the
year. It is customary for people to go to the countryside
for Ligo, traditionally wreaths of leaves and flowers
are worn on the head. If a man is named Janis (John), the
wreath will be made of oak leaves. In the early evening of
the 23rd, fires are lit around which people will chat, sing
and dance until the early hours of the following day. It is
considered lucky to jump over these fires. Cheese flavored
with caraway and a drink made from birch sap are traditional
at Ligo firesides. Throughout the night it is not
unusual to see young couples slip quietly off into the woods
in search of a non-existence “fern flower”.
The people, not believing anymore in the power of heaven,
Did not put the roof on the church.
Trees have walked into the church
And pray for our sins.
They pray to the sun and the air
And the waters' holy spirit:
—Blueness, forgive them, for they
Know not what they do!—
The gnarled arms reach toward heaven,
With humped backs the trees are begging,
And perhaps already their prayer has been heard;
For so peacefully sunlit is Ludza
That the reflection of the lakes stately
Walks through the quiet streets
And the crow looks with his blue eye
Into the face of the bypasser
And with a tilted head listens
Whether the aspen's catkins begin to break open . . .
And maybe others don't know it,
But Ludza knows what she does.
story of the soil collection in Latvia is very interesting.
ReGina Norlinde was another in a series of “earth angels”
who came to us through the Doreen Virtue online newsletter.
She collected her soil in Salaspils, 25 kilometers from Riga,
writing, “My relatives and her family helped me out
to collect the soil. Her family has a vegetable garden in
Salaspils. There they live in Latvia’s capital, Riga,
and Salaspils is the closest place for people from the city
to get away and do some garden work. The soil comes from the
Coopezahve Complex Rukt. People who live
in the city come out there to grow their own vegetables, their
chance to be in nature.” ReGina actually lives in Glasgow
but was visiting relatives in Latvia and decided to contribute
her homeland Latvian soil to the Common Ground 191 project.
The interesting part of the story
is that here in Laguna Beach, California, home of the Common
Ground 191 project, a belly dance class is offered through
the Parks and Recreation Department. One night, the teacher
had a new student named ReGina, who was visiting from Scotland.
She came back the next week too. Gradually it emerged that
this student was following advice given to her by Doreen Virtue
in a seminar held in Los Angeles—“Go to a belly
dancing class.” ReGina asked the angels to guide her
to a class and she found this one. Imagine the surprise when
the teacher learned that ReGina, the student in her belly
dancing class, was the soil collector for the Common Ground
project. “Hello, hello, the Laguna’s Beach best
Belly Dance Teacher—and I mean “the best”—why
would otherwise Angels would guide me to be there?!”
(This writer is the teacher…)
* * *
song and dance festivals have been held since 1873, normally
every five years and are the most important events in Latvian
social life. During the festivals, exhibitions of photography,
art and folk craft also take place. Many people are awakened
by a singing lady at a quarter to eight in the morning as
a mark of free speech for women. Although usually dainas
and classical choir songs are sung, recently modern popular
songs were incorporated into the repertoire. Most popular
songs are from the 1980’s when songs that made fun of
characteristics of Soviet life and which were concerned about
preserving Latvian identity aroused popular protests against
the USSR; they also gave rise to an increasing popularity
of poetry. Other cultural and artistic expressions include
painting, graphic arts, sculpture, photography, interior design,
ceramics, jewelry and of course writing. In March of 2006,
Latvian-born Mikhail Baryshnikov was awarded a Marcus Lifetime
Achievement Award in San Francisco. Latvia has a professional
basketball, football and hockey league. The Latvian hockey
team has participated in 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics and
all Ice Hockey World Championships since its entry in group
A in 1997. Its best results were the 7th places in 1997 and
2004 World Championships. Ice Hockey World Championships of
2006 took place in Riga. Latvians like hockey best of all
sports. There have been many Latvians in the NHL, such as
Sandis Ozolinsh, Arturs Irbe, Karlis Skrastins and Peteris
The Bear Slayer by Andrejs Pumpurs, one of many literary epics
Large parts of Latvia are covered by forests,
and the country has over 12,000 small rivers and over 3,000
lakes. Most of the land consists of fertile, low-lying plains
with some hills in the east, the highest point being the Gaizinkalns
at 1,020 feet. An inlet of the Baltic Sea, the shallow Gulf
of Riga is situated in the northwest of the country. The capital
city Riga is located on the shores of this inlet, where the
River Daugava flows into it. Other major cities include Daugavpils
further upriver and Liepaja along the Baltic coast. The Latvian
climate is maritime and temperate in nature, with cool summers
and wet, moderate winters. It is known to rain frequently
and heavily every day until May. The rain is a major factor
for Rigans as it supports much farmland and helps with growing
There are 10 ports in Latvia. The three main
ones are Ventspils, Riga and Liepaja – all of them mostly
transit cargo ports. Around 90% of ship transit is through
these ports, mainly from the CIS countries to the west. Latvia
is the main transit trade route through the Baltic Sea region.
Ports of Ventspils, Riga and Liepaja are ice-free all year
round. There are seven small ports in Latvia – operating
basically as fishing and yacht ports, but also handling wood
products. The ports of Riga and Ventspils have operated as
free ports for 10 years. The port of Liepaja is part of the
Liepaja Specialized Economic Zone.
The Tall Ships’ Race started as a race
for square-riggers in 1956, but now has become an annual event
attracting many different types of sail training vessels.
The UK based International Sail Training Association controls
the race, but its venue varies from year to year e.g., the
Baltic countries, Spain, Norway, France, Belgium and Holland.
In 2003 it visited ports in Poland, Finland, Latvia and North
Germany. Approximately 100 vessels took part. The idea of
this race was to give young people the chance to go to sea,
learn to sail, to work as a team and to take part in friendly
international rivalry as well as showing these magnificent
vessels off to the world. Several days were spent in each
port so that crews could mix socially and at sports thus fostering
international understanding. S.T.I rules state that at least
half the crew must be under 25 years; all the trainees under
is a country of people of enormous perseverance, having survived
centuries of bloodshed, now seeking a Latvian identity. This
will emerge with the help of time and evolution. The little
miracle of the belly dance class meeting was a small symbol
of the great work of the universe in Laguna Beach, Latvia
and the world. The soil of Latvia is so unique, as its urban
and rural farmers surely appreciate. The events, culture and
geography of Latvia are like the decorations on a Christmas
tree—some old and cracked, some new and twinkling. One
tree may be burned after the festival is over, but another
tree will always take its place next year. And like the tree
with the star on top, Latvia has her star shining from above,
the angelic domain, or maybe even three--like the Freedom
Monument in Riga. The word for peace in Latvia is miers.