About Latvia Celebrations

Winter Solstice Traditions in Latvia

For millions of people around the world, Christmas is closely tied to Christian beliefs, after all, it is a celebration commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, in many languages, the word for the celebration itself has to do with Christ or birth. Not so in Latvian where we celebrate “Ziemassvētki”, literally the “winter festival”.

You see, until the German crusaders arrived in the 13th century, the people of the Baltics were the last pagans of Europe. To this day many traditions survive from the ancient pagan celebrations of the winter solstice – the longest night of the year. Over the centuries these old pagan traditions, characteristic to many Northern European countries, have blended and mixed with the Christian ones.

Let me tell you a little about a few of the most interesting winter solstice traditions, several of which are still alive today.

Home Decorations

For the winter solstice homes are decorated with evergreens, most commonly fir branches and fir trees. Did you know that the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree most likely originated in the Baltics? Traditional decorations are made from straw, colored yarn, bird feathers, as well as dried flowers or dried fruit. These look nothing like the modern-day brightly colored and sparkly decorations, it is a more natural and subtle beauty.

Puzurs – a traditional Latvian Christmas decoration | Photo credit: Spekozols, Wikimedia Commons

Rolling the Yule Log

Another tradition that is supposed to scare away evil spirits, as well as to bring fertility and good luck, is rolling the yule log. The log, usually a sturdy oak with attached ropes, is rolled through the whole village or town to gather all the failures, the bad thoughts, and deeds of the passing year. At the end of the procession, the log is burned in a bonfire thus symbolically burning all the misfortune and sorrow to make a fresh start into the new year. Rolling of the log is a joyous event attended by many villagers or townspeople and often includes some singing and dancing as well. If you happen to be in Riga around Christmas time you should participate in the festivities!

Masque Processions

This particular tradition is known by different names in different parts of Latvia – budēļi, ķekatas, kaļadas – and is rather similar to Halloween. People dress up, paying special efforts not to be recognized, and go from house to house singing, dancing, and playing games. The traditional masks are varied – they can be animals (e.g., a bear, or a crane), people (e.g., a gypsy – fortune teller), or supernatural creatures (e.g., the death or a devil). The masque procession is believed to bring luck for the households that they visit, as well as to scare away evil spirits, so they are usually warmly welcomed, feasted and given small gifts.

A traditional masque procession | Photo credit: Spekozols, Wikimedia Commons

Fortunetelling

Apparently, the solstice was seen as the perfect time for forecasting the future as we Latvians have plenty of ways and means of predicting (and influencing) what may come both for the summer and the winter solstice. Here are some of the winter solstice ones:

  • Want to know who you will marry? Stand with your back to a fireplace and bend forward to look into the fire through your legs and you might see him!
  • Want to know if you will have a good harvest next year? The more stars you can count in the sky on the solstice night, the better your crops will be!
  • Want to have a lot of money? Find yourself a black cat and carry it around the church!

Do you know any non-Christian Christmas or winter solstice traditions? Please share in the comments!

winter solstice (2)


This post is a part of the Multicultural Kid Blogs Christmas in Different Lands blog hop. Click the photo to read many wonderful contributions about Christmas traditions around the world!

  1. Leanna Alldonemonkey

    I love this post! What fun traditions, and I love learning about the pagan influences that still exist. Thank you!

  2. These are Metenis male masks in the picture, not the Winter solstice masks (certain animals + death). Each type have different ritual meaning tied to a certain part of year.

    • Thanks for the clarification! So would these be the autumn / veļu laika masks?

    • Jānis Jasjukevičs

      Dažas neprecizitātes, masku grupa budēļi nekad neiet Ziemassvētkos. Budēļi, tāpat kā ķekatas ir pavasara masku grupas. Šī senā tradīcija ir pazīstama Zemgalē un daļā Kurzemes, budēļi ir auglības gari , kas nes svētību un modina pavasari. Jau pats vārds budēlis saistīts ar budināšanu, modināšanu. Budēļos iet tikai tikai vīri. Foto no Starptautiskā masku tradīciju festivāla, redzama masku tradīciju grupa – Budēļu kiligunda ( Grodu budēļi ).

      • Paldies par informāciju! Par pavasari patiešām vēl nekad nebiju dzirdējusi, ne šo tradīciju redzējusi. Ķekatnieki mūsu mājās ir piestaigājuši tikai Ziemassvētkos. Cik biju lasījusi, parastais laiks esot starp Mārtiņiem un Meteņiem un Ziemassvētkos.

        • Latvijā ir ap 70 dažādu masku gājienu nosaukumu, kuri ir atšķirīgi gan izskata, gan izdarību ziņā. Maskojās arī dažādos laikos, ir rudens petioda masku grupas, ziemas un pavasara. Ar Meteņiem parasti noslēdzas masku gājieni. Plašāk par šīm tradīcijām var lasīt Aīdas Rancānes grāmatā “Maskas un maskošanās Latvijā”. Latvijā ik gadu notiek Starptautiskais masku tradīciju festivāls. Katru gadu citā vietā. Nākamgad 15. – 16. februārī nu jau divdesmit pirmo raizi notiks festivāls. Šoreiz Līvānos.

  3. Paldies!
    Proud to be Latvian!

  4. B.D. MacMahon

    They look like the west of Ireland’s Straw boys which is another winter Solstice tradition and also seen in weddings. The crusaders came they forced their religion on the people. The church was backed by the Roman Empire when they did it to Ireland. Convert or die.

    • Same story pretty much anywhere, isn’t it? I will definitely check out Straw boys, sounds like a fascinating tradition

  5. Paldies!
    Proud to be Latvian!

  6. Hello Ilzele, Paldies !
    i used to live in Latvia, now i am coming back to the Baltics for shooting my own documentary movie about this fascinating part of Europe !
    could you recommend me please someone that is going to experience this winter tradition ?

    • Check for Bluķa vilkšana in Riga, it usually happens every winter solstice. And perhaps also the Brīvdabas muzejs could give you some leads

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