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Folklore and traditions

Latvia boasts a rich folklore heritage that has been maintained even in modern times. Even though Latvia is a predominantly Christian country, many of the old pagan traditions celebrated by ancient Latvians several centuries ago live on today and are celebrated as holidays. One of the most widely celebrated holidays is the summer solstice on 23 and 24 June, which in Latvia are called Līgo and Jāņi. This holiday is celebrated in Latvia as widely as New Year’s Eve is celebrated elsewhere.

Latvian folk dance group in Old Riga.
  • Fall Celebration, Riga
  • Photo: V.Balckare
Craftswoman weawing traditional Latvian ornaments.
  • Weaving
Midsummer night celebration in traditional farmstead.
  • Andrupene farmstead. Krāslava Region
  • Ancient ethnographic symbols along the "Jāņkalnu" path
  • Photo: Talsi TIC

Another pagan holiday is the winter solstice – this is celebrated by dragging around the yuletide log. This is the pagan Christmas or the night of the yuletide log. In February people celebrate Meteņi and in spring they celebrate Easter, which of course has no lack of ancient pagan rituals like egg-cracking wars and swinging on the Easter swing.

Ancient Latvian traditions are not only kept up by ethnographic museums. On winter solstice, the yuletide log is dragged around Old Riga, after which there is dancing, singing and burning the log on a bonfire to symbolise getting rid of all things negative. People also participate in ķekatas (like mumming). On summer solstice during Jāņi, almost every hilltop across Latvia is alight with a bonfire and resonates with the sound of Līgo songs. However, Latvia's most popular traditions aren't limited to all things ancient and purely Latvian. Take Masļeņica, for example, which is an Orthodox holiday celebrated at the end of winter and seven days before the big fast. This is also the time market kiosk counters buckle under the weight of various sweets; but the most important elements are pancakes and dressing up in costume beyond recognition – or you can wrap yourself up in a large fur from head to toe. There are also many modern traditions.

Visitors to Latvia also have the opportunity to participate in ancient Latvian traditions. Places like the Ethnographical Open-air Museum in Riga not only celebrate traditional holidays, but also give visitors the opportunity to participate in other traditions and even learn a few ancient crafts. The museum provides visitors the chance to come before Jāņi to learn about the holiday's traditions and songs, thus helping them prepare to more fully experience the mysteries behind the shortest night of the year. The Ethnographical Open-air Museum frequently holds demonstrations of ancient crafts, during which everyone can participate.

A unique element in Latvian folklore are the hundreds of dainas or folk songs that are still sung and recited today – there is nothing else like them in the world. Dainas are four-line verses that are impossible to translate precisely into other languages. They are lyrical, witty and philosophical, are similar to aphorisms and contain thousand-year-old wisdoms of the world. Folklorist Krišjānis Barons put a great amount of work at the end of the 19th century into collecting and codifying these dainas by writing each one down and filing it away in a large cupboard. Now the Cabinet of Folk songs contains over two million dainas and is Latvia's national treasure –NATO's science and culture organization UNESCO has included it in its list of Man's Spoken and Non-material Culture.

Latvia has also been organising Song and Dance Celebrations since 1873. During these celebrations, latvian amateur collectives from all over the world travel to Riga once every four years to join together in a giant mixed choir, or to perform folk dances. Foreigners have said – those who haven't seen a Song Celebration haven't seen everything there is to see of the amazing heart and soul of Latvia.

For several decades, it has been possible to head to the ancient seaside fishermen villages for the Fishing Festival, when visitors can enjoy seafood, pay tribute to Neptune, eat, drink and be merry. In turn, Riga's new tradition is the unconventional “Go Blonde” parade at the beginning of summer. More than 1 000 blondes from around Latvia, dressed in stereotypical pink and with lapdogs in hand, hit the streets to raise money for charity. Another event that can be considered a new tradition (although it has ancient beginnings) is the “Naked Run” in Kuldīga. This event takes place on the eve of Līgo and involves around 50 brave souls who race buck-naked across the Old Venta Bridge.