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Ancient manners and customs
In Latvia, longstanding ways and customs are respected and annual celebrations are a part of life’s culture. Therefore, these ways and traditions do not exist only within the walls of museum they can be experienced by a tourist who wants to experience and enjoy the unusual and is ready to join in.
In Latvia longstanding traditions are honoured, hence the longstanding annual festivities are widely celebrated. Latvian traditions are best experienced at the Riga Open-Air Museum. So, what are these celebrations like? The most popular traditional festivities celebrated in Latvia are Līgo night [23 June] and Jāņu day [St. John's day, 24 June]. One should not sleep on Jāņu night or else one will not sleep all summer – this belief is honoured in Latvia and the shortest night of the summer is spent by the bonfires singing, drinking beer and eating Jāņu cheese.
During summer night witches fly and, therefore, the country farmstead has to be defended by placing branches of the rowan-tree around it. A great revelation is experienced when a fern blossom is found – it is said that the flower blooms for a short moment on the shortest night of the year and can be found only when a person looks for it alone. Also, health can be gained, when a person washes in the dew naked at dawn. There are many more Jāņu traditions that can be experienced when celebrating this occasion, for example, in Turaida on the Jāņu Hill together with folklorists or dievturi [God possessors, a reconstructionistic folk religion].
Meteņi day and Winter Solstice
At the end of winter, Meteņi day [Meten’s day, 23 February] is celebrated. Among the festivity’s attractions are activities like singing, bragging, riding a sleigh and a proper feast with a pig’s head and walking ķekatās [mummery, walking in masks]. On the other hand, mutual mocking (a.k.a. častuškas), baking pancakes and burning a straw puppet are traditions that are associated with the Slavic masleņica which is particularly cultivated in Daugavpils.
During the Christmas season, the shortest day of the year, 22 December, can be enjoyed not only at the Rīga Open-Air Museum, but also in Vecrīga [Old Rīga] by participating in walking in masks and dragging a log. For several years now almost a thousand Rīga inhabitants and guests walk and drag logs around Rīga’s old town to later burn those logs and dance to folk music. It is interesting to note that Russian and Livonian folk ensembles of Latvia also take part in this walk with songs in their languages.
Christian Easter traditions have intertwined with pagan traditions. There are many people who attend the Easter morning service in church and do not object to a good swing with the aim of avoiding mosquito bites in the summer, rolling coloured eggs or following the ancient Livonian traditions, go singing to the seaside to chase away birds. Many of Latvia’s children believe that the colourful eggs are brought during the night by the Eastern Bunny and he hides them either in the garden or in an apartment.
Dievturība [practising of the folk religion]
The closest adherents of the pre-Christian traditions are dievturi – the God possessors, a Latvian folk religion. The folklorists and dievturi attend and attempt to reconstruct the ancient Latvian pantheistic deity concept, which in contrast to the Christian teaching, is not based upon a fear of God’s punishment, but perceives God as an endearing, omnipresent force that can be embodied either as a beautiful flower, or materialise as an old man who comes to people to test their true kindness. In Latvia ancient knowledge of sacred spaces and underground water streams [āderes] that are better at conveying not only sound, but also the energy of good thoughts is still alive and well.
Old tree groves, single trees, springs, stacks of stones, hills and valleys – these all are ancient sacred spaces which, according to legend, contain special energy. The sacred spaces of Sunākste are very interesting, but the sacred space of Pokaiņi is perceived as even stronger. According to people who study sacred spaces, this is a unique place in the world. At the beginning of the seventies, both in the USA Space Centre (NASA) and USSR Cosmic Studies Centre, photographs taken of the sources emitted in the microwave range were studied. In these photographs deep circled structures were observed. The most impressive structure had a diameter of 340 km and circles around almost all the territory of Latvia with the centre near Pokaiņi. Over the last few years many tourists visit this forest which is both mysterious and rich with diverse legends.
It is interesting to note that knowledge of the ancient zintnieki [the sages] is strong in Latvia – the ancient Latvian medicine exists alongside traditional medicine. The sage knowledge includes different natural teas, herbs and infusions, presence in energetically strong locations, special magic words and spells; this knowledge is still being used in practice.
A special place in ancient Latvian medicine is the bathhouse. Even nowadays there is a range of small countryside bathhouses that help to restore health according to the old methods and in the presence of knowledgeable bathhouse attendants. Ancient Latvian bathhouses were called „black bathhouses” or steam bathhouses. This is one of the most ancient types of bathhouses. In order to properly warm the stones, the bathhouse has to be heated for a minimum of six hours. When the temperature fit for steaming is reached, the smoke from the fire inside is let out the small bathhouse window and the bathhouse is warmed by the red hot stones.
Traditional singing is performed by a folk group called Trokšņu iela [Noise Street]. Not only do they dance, perform and play, but they also practice traditional crafts, weaving waistbands and ribbons, spinning with a tree, making nets and log houses, also, they heal with natural herbs following ancient methods. This and other folk groups can be met and you can get involved in the old traditions and customs in the folk group’s concerts or festivals that are often taking place all around Latvia.