So what’s Christmas like in Latvia? Well that depends on your like or dislike of gingerbread cookies (piparkūkas) and mulled wine (karstvīns). If you like the stuff then you’ll have no problem enjoying yourself in Riga. If you’re more of an eggnog kind of person you might have a tough time getting into the holiday spirit as this delicious concoction is as yet unknown in these parts. You also might be thrown by the fact that locals love their pork more than any other meat, so a turkey or any other poultry for that matter will definitely not be on the menu at most Latvian homes, or restaurants either. Instead you’ll probably see pig snouts and ears as a starter before a pork roast. Pīrāgi, little pastries filled with chopped pork and onions, are another classic Christmas appetiser and many Latvians spend the morning baking them before the big event. Yes, Porky Pig is the king of cuisine in Latvia and it would probably take the second coming to change that fact. Riga’s more upmarket dining establishments will probably also have them on the menu.
If you’re lucky enough to celebrate Christmas at a Latvian home then we’d be remiss if we didn’t warn you about two things. When locals receive a gift, they have to sing for their supper, so to speak. In fact, Latvians recite a folk song or poem before accepting a present so brush up on ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. A football chant will do in a pinch. A traditional Christmas tree will also include burning candles so try not to knock it over and keep an escape route in mind.
Although the majority of Latvian Christians are Lutheran, there are also quite a few Catholics, especially in the eastern part of the country. The nation’s Russian-speaking population, most of whom are Orthodox Christians, celebrate the same religious holidays a couple of weeks after the Protestants. That’s also why the Yuletide atmosphere lasts well into January in Riga, a positive fringe benefit of multiculturalism.
Of course, Latvians were one of the last ethnic groups in Europe to accept Christianity. Teutonic knights arrived on the heathen shores of the Baltic in the late 12th-century and spent the next 100 years subjugating local Latvian and Liv tribes who were too divided to mount a proper resistance. Some were killed, some were converted and others moved south into a unified Lithuania that was a little too tough for the pious Germans. Today, Latvians still honour their ancestors by acting out the pagan rituals of old such as dragging the yule log. The farmers of old would drag a log around their property to soak up all of the year’s bad luck and then they would burn it as a symbolic gesture. If you’d like to drag the log and soak up some pagan Winter Solstice cheer then head out to the Ethnographic Museum on December 22 from 13:00 - 17:00 for traditional celebrations and warm drinks in the cold.
Christmas cheat sheet
If you’d like to absorb as much Christmas as possible with the least amount of effort then here are a few suggestions. Find the perfect gift at one of the city’s three Christmas markets, especially the one on Doma laukums in the shadow of Riga Cathedral, and soak up the ambience with a gingerbread cookie, a tasty sausage or a cup of mulled wine. If you’d like some suggestions for affordable lightweight Latvian gifts that will definitely fit in your carry-on bag then check out our feature. Art lovers on the other hand can stop by the Latvian Art Academy for its annual Jarmarka Student Art Fair from December 15 - 30 (closed December 23, 24, 25 and 26) to pick up some interesting paintings from the nation’s up-and-coming artists. To get into the holiday spirit and to see world-class ballet for incredibly cheap, buy a ticket to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at the Latvian National Opera for either the 12:00 or 18:00 performance on December 1, 16 or 23. You can also embrace your inner Kris Kringle by participating in Santa’s Charity Fun Run on December 9 on Doma laukums at 11:30. A €15 donation will get you a Santa costume and lots of Yuletide spirit.
Holiday shopping tips
If you’re an expat living in Riga or just an adventurous traveller who decided to spend the holidays in the Latvian capital, it might be difficult finding some key Christmas ingredients, so we have a few suggestions. For wrapping paper, bows, decorations and other gift supplies we recommend Tiger on Dzirnavu or Duni on the corner of Barona and Lāčplēša. You can by a fresh goose, duck or turkey in the meat pavilion of the Central Market or a frozen bird at Stockmann. Finally, that most important of Yuletide accessories, a Christmas tree, can be bought at the Bērnu Pasaule department store on the corner of Barona and Matīsa and at most of the big shopping centres on the outskirts of town beginning roughly a week before the 25th.
The Cathedral Square Christmas market will be spreading holiday cheer on Doma laukums every day (open 10:00 - 20:00, Fri, Sat 10:00 - 22:00; Dec 24 open 10:00 - 18:00; Dec 31 open 10:00 - 02:00) until January 6. It’s the most authentic market in Riga and will offer dozens of crafts and food stalls, as well as a giant Christmas tree. Visitors can buy traditional Latvian gifts such as linen tablecloths, wool sweaters, socks and mittens, furry hats, ceramics, wooden toys, jewellery and other souvenirs. Local food like grey peas with bacon and sausages with sauerkraut, not to mention gingerbread cookies, will also be available and the kids will have plenty to do because Santa Claus will visit the market every day. They can also feed barnyard animals like sheep here, while grown-ups imbibe karstvīns (mulled wine) or hot Black Balsams cocktails. For more information visit www.vzt.lv.
You’ll find another market on Līvu laukums with red, brown and blue stalls selling all of the usual Latvian Christmas gifts as well as mulled wine, grog and other hot drinks. A unique wooden Christmas tree illuminated by real candlelight will be on the square and you can even sit indoors next to a roaring fire with some food and drink. Yet another market will offer similar gifts and libations next to the Orthodox Cathedral on the Esplanāde until January 6, but it has the added benefit of a so-called rabbit village. Yes, the wee ones can get up close and personal with dozens of the furry creatures living in a scale model of a chocolate box town.
First Christmas tree?
An historical account of the Blackhead’s Guild recorded in 1510 sheds some interesting light on Riga’s claim to Yuletide fame. According to the medieval document, the guildsmen placed a decorated tree on the town square on Christmas day and then set it ablaze at the end of the holiday season. The Blackheads were also notorious drinkers, so the event may well have been rooted in revelry rather than piety. Today, a commemorative marker and a bronze tree approximate the spot on Rātslaukums (Town Hall Square). In recent years the city has been promoting itself as the birthplace of the Christmas tree, to the annoyance of its northern neighbours in Tallinn who produced an ancient document that describes a Christmas tree erected in Tallinn in 1441. The Latvians then unearthed another account of a decorated tree from 1476, 35 years short of the Estonian claim. No matter. Riga’s politicians and marketing gurus have never let the truth impede a good yarn, so they’ve created a shiny representation of this ancient pagan symbol near city hall. You’ll find Christmas trees on Dome Square, Town Hall Square and Līvu Square throughout the holiday season as well as the so-called Trail of Christmas Trees (from 07.12.18 - 13.01.19) which are artists’ interpretations of what these nostalgic symbols would look like if they had their way.