When selecting the travel destination, what everyone wants to explore is the culture and traditions of the country they are visiting. Each country has its own set of culture, symbols and traditions that make it unique. And, of course, Latvia is no exception. If you have planned a trip to Latvia, you should definitely get to know the rich culture and ancient traditions that have survived through time and have largely shaped what Latvia is today.
The carefully nurtured and preserved traditions, as well as opportunities to experience them, are what attract the locals – they expand the understanding and knowledge, as well as attract guests from all over the world. Whether it is some celebration, returning to the past several hundred years ago, learning about ancient culture or decorating yourself with the Lielvārde Belt – it is a journey through time, culture and values. So let’s go!
Līgo Midsummer’s Night Celebration
Līgo Midsummer’s Night Celebration or Jāņi is one of the celebrations richest in traditions in Latvia. Every summer it is celebrated on the 23rd of June, marking the changing of the seasons – the onset of summer, and the time when the days become shorter, but the nights – longer. This holiday is based on an ancient pagan celebration that took place between sowing grain and harvesting.
Today, it is a celebration that has preserved ancient traditions such as picking plants in flowering meadows, weaving wreaths, lighting a campfire and jumping over it, and looking for the fern flower.
Midsummer is the time of flowering: in June meadows, cornfields, potatoes, peas and beans bloom in Latvia; therefore, the Midsummer’s Eve is often called Herb Evening or Herb Day. In local culture, each flower and herb has its own application in folk medicine, in fortune-telling, in decorating, and in gifting and weaving wreaths. The night is especially important on this holiday. It is the shortest night of the year, which, according to tradition, should be spent awake. Ancient beliefs say that those who sleep through Līgo night will sleep all summer. And in the morning of Jāņi, women have to wash their faces in the dew to be beautiful, and men have to wade through the dew, so that money will pour into their boots.
After so many activities, of course, one has to eat well. The table of Jāņi celebration cannot be imagined without caraway cheese, patties and beer. You will understand this celebration best by experiencing it exactly as the ancient Latvians planned it – filling it with traditions!
Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum
The best way to learn about the history, traditional rituals and ancient crafts of Latvia is to explore it all at the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum in Riga. In this museum it is possible to get acquainted with the traditional way of life of the Latvian farmers, craftsmen and fishermen, to view the ancient farmsteads and their exhibitions, as well as to try your hand at performing traditional crafts, for example, turning.
The museum was founded in 1924, but now it is located in an area of 87 ha in Riga by Lake Jugla. A special added value of the museum are the farmsteads, houses-workshops of craftsmen, windmills, forges, kilns of potters and tar that were typical of the cultural and historical areas of Latvia – Kurzeme, Zemgale, Vidzeme and Latgale. Everyone can view the museum’s exposition in them, which describes the time periods, the craftsmanship in different areas, and the hosts of these homes. And the museum is not only a reflection of ancient times, it regularly hosts various activities – craftsmen work there, Latvian festivals are also celebrated there, and exhibitions of folk applied art studios and museum collections are available in the exhibition hall.
The Liv (the Livonian) Coast
Although the territory of Latvia is mainly inhabited by the Balts, in Vidzeme and Kurzeme one nation of Fenno-Ugrian peoples – the Livs – can be found in some coastal areas. Centuries-old Liv fishing villages on the Liv Coast can be seen in a 50-kilometer long strip along the River Irbe Strait in North Kurzeme. Both the former Liv cultural environment and the sandy beaches and pine forests have remained here.
This is the place where the unique Liv cultural space of Kurzeme was created, which together with the Liv language and ancient customs and the way of thinking can be considered the basis of the traditional Liv culture. The evidence of the Livs can be also observed in modern Latvian culture – the Livs and the Liv heritage are used as a motif in the creation of various works of literature, music, theatre and art. How can one best understand the course of the Liv life and its importance in Latvian culture? Of course, by visiting the Livs themselves! The best time for this is during the first weekend of August when the representatives of the small Liv or Livonian nation gather in Mazirbe for the Liv Festival.
The Suiti of Alsunga
It is said that no one resembles the Suiti! However, one can only make sure of it by getting to know this ancient culture themselves. The Suiti region in the western part of Kurzeme is known for its unique traditions, the Suiti dialect and their special dishes. The Suiti cultural space is a set of cultural traditions important for the identity of the Suiti community and uniting Alsunga, Basi, Gudenieki and Jūrkalne – the neighbourhoods of Kurzeme located by the Baltic Sea.
The Suiti women stand out with bright folk costumes, which are uncharacteristic to Latvia. They demonstrate the pride of the Suiti, their self-confidence and their desire to be noticed. The costumes are characterised by a combination of bright colours – orange, pink, red, yellow – in the woollen shawls and skirt, as well as in the jackets and scarves. When noticing the Suiti women, you will definitely also hear their characteristic polyphonic singing – bourdon (the melody is accompanied by singing with a constant pitch). This type of singing is recognised in Latvia by the accompanying voice with the prolonged sound “ē” (or “ō”) and the mutually mocking songs of the Suiti wives, which have been cleverly created for various situations of life. In addition, the Suiti also have their own Latvian dialect, which is used both in folk songs and in everyday conversations.
Visiting a real Suiti farmstead should definitely be combined with a tour of the steep shores of Alsunga and Jūrkalne – these are the places, where the Suiti themselves have spent their days for centuries. Anyone is free to try the bourdon singing there by the sea!
The Lielvārde Belt
Latvian culture is rich and full of traditions. But is there anything particularly traditional that anyone can acquire for personal use? Yes, there is! It is the Lielvārde Belt. It is not only a beautiful accessory but also outstanding handwork of the folk weavers. It consists of a two-coloured red and white patterned band most often with a green, and less often with blue or purple threads woven in the middle of it or on its edges, with a variable pattern or geometric ornament. It is usually 10 centimetres wide and tends to reach up to 3 metres in length!
Although in Latvia there is a folk costume, colours and patterns characteristic to each region, it is the Lielvārde Belt that has become the basis for a modern myth about the ancient origin of the belt patterns. Sometimes even special abilities of protection are attributed to this belt and its ornaments. Both the richness of the patterns and the embedded mythical legends make the Lielvārde Belt a unique value of Latvian culture today.
The motif characteristic of the belt has become one of the symbols of Latvianness, and it has been used in countless ways – in hats, scarves, gloves, fabric prints, jewellery, pottery and even tattoos. The Lielvārde Belt motif is even included in the citizen passport of the Republic of Latvia.
Is Latvia and its culture and traditions what you will explore on your next trip?