"The Star"

By Jheri St. James

According to one story, Martin Luther, walking through a Riga forest in 1510, was touched by the beauty of the moonlight glistening on the branches of a fir tree. He chopped a little one down and brought it home for his children. He attached candles to its branches to recreate the moonlight and, viola, the word’s first decorated Christmas tree was recorded in Riga, Latvia. This story is included in the internet’s “Christmas traditions” and CNN did a piece on it.

J.C. Cole, American businessman and long-time Riga resident is hoping that Latvians themselves will get excited about this bit of Yuletide history. “Latvians are still coming to terms with their identity,” said Aldis Tilens, another Latvian resident who sells handmade souvenirs in Latvia and abroad. “Is it an event, a cultural difference or geography that sets them apart? This is something that could be a source of pride.”

The story is disputed, however; other folks believe the Martin Luther incident actually occurred in Northern Germany and the lighted tree came decades later. But all agree that Christmas trees unite all those who celebrate northern European winter solstices; that candles are lit to celebrate the return of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, on the shortest day of the year; and that huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word “Yule” itself means ‘the wheel of the sun’. Trees were often used as religious symbols and burned in sacred ceremonies in large bonfires. The Riga legend includes paper flower decorations on the tree and burning it on the bonfire after the ceremony.

According to Countess Maria Hubert von Staufer of the Christmas Archives International organization based in England, “Riga is very important in the History of the Christmas Tree.” There is even a domed plaque in the bricks in the down square that says, “The First New Year’s Tree in Riga in 1510” in eight languages.

Who is right? Who can prove it? (Aren’t those the questions that cause all the problems in the world?) And is it events, culture or geography that sets Latvia apart from the rest of the world?

The Republic of Latvia is a country in northeastern Europe, bordering on the Baltic Sea, and sharing borders with Estonia north, Lithuania south, and Russia and Belarus east. In the west, Latvia shares a maritime border with Sweden. Riga is the capital of Latvia, and the country has been a member of the European Union since May 1, 2004. Since the year 2000, Latvia has had one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe, so Christmas may be celebrated more heartily now than it was in the past.

Because of its strategic geographic location, Latvian territory has always been famous as a trading crossroads, making it coveted and invaded by other larger nations, and these events have defined the fate of Latvia and its people. The location of the Baltic Sea and the Daugava River makes Latvia a natural for the shipping trade. Town Hall Square, developed in the middle of the 13th century, is located just meters or yards from this river, and was initially a marketplace where all the city and country celebrations and business took place. The most splendid buildings in the square are the House of Blackheads—originally built in 1334, and rebuilt in 1995-1999— and the town hall building across the square, also rebuilt in 2003.

The House of Blackheads


All this rebuilding was necessary because of the centuries of warfare and destruction that occurred on Latvian soil. At the end of the 12th century, Christian German traders founded Riga and gradually it became the largest and most beautiful city in the southern part of the Baltic Sea. In the 1500’s, the territory then known as Livonia (a blend of Latvia and Estonia) struggled under religious wars between the Christians, Lutherans and Catholics. After the Livonian War, today’s Latvian territory came under Polish-Lithuanian rule. The Lutheran faith was accepted in Kurzeme, Zembale and Vidzeme, but the Roman Catholic faith maintained its dominance in Latgale, as it still does today.

The 17th and early 18th centuries saw a struggle between Poland, Sweden and Russia for supremacy in the eastern Baltic. Sweden took Riga in 1621 and the term “Swedish era” is still synonymous with beneficent rule. Though serfdom was not abolished, it was strictly regulated and a network of schools was established for the peasantry. In 1721 Vidzeme was given to Russia. The Latgale region remained part of Poland until 1772, when it too was joined to Russia. Courland, Latvia, became known as a “paradise of the nobles”, the code granting privileges to the German nobility declared the country a social paradise. Courland then became a Russian province in 1795, brining all of what is now Latvia into Imperial Russia.

The promises Peter the Great made to the Baltic German nobility at the fall of Riga in 1710 largely reversed the Swedish reforms. A century later, the “emancipation” of serfs took place in 1817-1819 and dispossessed the peasants of their lands without compensation. By the end of that 19th century, the social structure had changed dramatically with a new class of independent farmers able to repurchase their land. In the middle of the century the Young Latvia movement laid the groundwork for nationalism against the prevailing German-dominated social order. All this foment and ferment exploded in the 1905 revolution.

Then World War II devastated the country. Demands for self-determination were at first confined to autonomy (“a free Latvia in a free Russia”), but full independence was proclaimed in Riga on November 18, 1918. The War of Liberation that followed was another very chaotic period in Latvia’s history. By the spring of 1919 there were actually three governments. Eastern Latvia was cleared of Bolshevik forces by Polish, Latvian and German troops in early 1920. A freely elected Constituent Assembly was convened on May 1, 1920 and adopted the liberal constitution, the Satversme in February 1922—the constitution that is still in use in Latvia today, vesting power in the people of Latvia.

On June 17, 1940 Russian forces occupied the country. The ensuing months would become known in Latvia as Baigais Gads, the Year of Horror. Mass arrests, disappearances, and deportations culminated on the night of June 14, 1941. Prior to the German invasion, in less than a year, at least 27,586 persons were arrested; most were deported and 945 persons were shot. Police units established by occupation authority actively participated in the Holocaust—80,000-100,000 Latvian citizens were killed during Nazi occupation. The Soviets reoccupied the country in 1944-45 and further mass deportations followed as the country was forcibly Sovietized; 42,975 persons were deported in 1949. Finally on May 4, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR adopted the Declaration of the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia, subject to a transition period that came to an end on August 21, 1991.

An Argument between a Blossom and an Ax
Don't scream at the linden.
She will bloom in her time.
If you like it—look at her blossoms;
If you don't—don't look.
That is all you can do.
And, of course,
At any moment you can cut the tree down:
In an argument between a blossom and an ax
The winner will always be the ax.
But after that, don't forget
To wipe your boots in the blossoms.
No silk in the whole world
Is gentler than linden blossoms.
And do not be afraid of those bees
That your boots crush into the ground.
For her stinging your boot
The bee pays with her life.
Vizma Belsevica

In the 1990s and early 21st century, Latvia has focused on “rejoining Europe”; its two major goals, NATO and European Union membership, were achieved in 2004. After a difficult transition to a liberal economy and its reorientation toward Western Europe, Latvia still has one of the lowest standards of living in the EU, though its economy has one of the highest growth rates. An argument over the history of the Christmas tree is doubtless refreshing after such centuries of decimation by warfare.

Aerial View of Riga


* * *

Culture and Sports

One of the most revered events in Latvian culture is the Midsummer Festival of Ligo or Jani—a celebration of the summer solstice and the feast day of St. John the Baptist. While ostensibly a Christian festival, its pagan roots are unmistakable. Ligo takes place every year on the night between June 23rd and 24th, the shortest night of the year. It is customary for people to go to the countryside for Ligo, traditionally wreaths of leaves and flowers are worn on the head. If a man is named Janis (John), the wreath will be made of oak leaves. In the early evening of the 23rd, fires are lit around which people will chat, sing and dance until the early hours of the following day. It is considered lucky to jump over these fires. Cheese flavored with caraway and a drink made from birch sap are traditional at Ligo firesides. Throughout the night it is not unusual to see young couples slip quietly off into the woods in search of a non-existence “fern flower”.

Thaw in Ludza
The people, not believing anymore in the power of heaven,
Did not put the roof on the church.
Trees have walked into the church
And pray for our sins.
They pray to the sun and the air
And the waters' holy spirit:
—Blueness, forgive them, for they
Know not what they do!—
The gnarled arms reach toward heaven,
With humped backs the trees are begging,
And perhaps already their prayer has been heard;
For so peacefully sunlit is Ludza
That the reflection of the lakes stately
Walks through the quiet streets
And the crow looks with his blue eye
Into the face of the bypasser
And with a tilted head listens
Whether the aspen's catkins begin to break open . . .
And maybe others don't know it,
But Ludza knows what she does.
Vizma Belsevica


* * *


The story of the soil collection in Latvia is very interesting. ReGina Norlinde was another in a series of “earth angels” who came to us through the Doreen Virtue online newsletter. She collected her soil in Salaspils, 25 kilometers from Riga, writing, “My relatives and her family helped me out to collect the soil. Her family has a vegetable garden in Salaspils. There they live in Latvia’s capital, Riga, and Salaspils is the closest place for people from the city to get away and do some garden work. The soil comes from the Coopezahve Complex Rukt. People who live in the city come out there to grow their own vegetables, their chance to be in nature.” ReGina actually lives in Glasgow but was visiting relatives in Latvia and decided to contribute her homeland Latvian soil to the Common Ground 191 project.

The interesting part of the story is that here in Laguna Beach, California, home of the Common Ground 191 project, a belly dance class is offered through the Parks and Recreation Department. One night, the teacher had a new student named ReGina, who was visiting from Scotland. She came back the next week too. Gradually it emerged that this student was following advice given to her by Doreen Virtue in a seminar held in Los Angeles—“Go to a belly dancing class.” ReGina asked the angels to guide her to a class and she found this one. Imagine the surprise when the teacher learned that ReGina, the student in her belly dancing class, was the soil collector for the Common Ground project. “Hello, hello, the Laguna’s Beach best Belly Dance Teacher—and I mean “the best”—why would otherwise Angels would guide me to be there?!” (This writer is the teacher…)


* * *


Latvian song and dance festivals have been held since 1873, normally every five years and are the most important events in Latvian social life. During the festivals, exhibitions of photography, art and folk craft also take place. Many people are awakened by a singing lady at a quarter to eight in the morning as a mark of free speech for women. Although usually dainas and classical choir songs are sung, recently modern popular songs were incorporated into the repertoire. Most popular songs are from the 1980’s when songs that made fun of characteristics of Soviet life and which were concerned about preserving Latvian identity aroused popular protests against the USSR; they also gave rise to an increasing popularity of poetry. Other cultural and artistic expressions include painting, graphic arts, sculpture, photography, interior design, ceramics, jewelry and of course writing. In March of 2006, Latvian-born Mikhail Baryshnikov was awarded a Marcus Lifetime Achievement Award in San Francisco. Latvia has a professional basketball, football and hockey league. The Latvian hockey team has participated in 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics and all Ice Hockey World Championships since its entry in group A in 1997. Its best results were the 7th places in 1997 and 2004 World Championships. Ice Hockey World Championships of 2006 took place in Riga. Latvians like hockey best of all sports. There have been many Latvians in the NHL, such as Sandis Ozolinsh, Arturs Irbe, Karlis Skrastins and Peteris Skudra.

From: The Bear Slayer by Andrejs Pumpurs, one of many literary epics in Latvia.


Large parts of Latvia are covered by forests, and the country has over 12,000 small rivers and over 3,000 lakes. Most of the land consists of fertile, low-lying plains with some hills in the east, the highest point being the Gaizinkalns at 1,020 feet. An inlet of the Baltic Sea, the shallow Gulf of Riga is situated in the northwest of the country. The capital city Riga is located on the shores of this inlet, where the River Daugava flows into it. Other major cities include Daugavpils further upriver and Liepaja along the Baltic coast. The Latvian climate is maritime and temperate in nature, with cool summers and wet, moderate winters. It is known to rain frequently and heavily every day until May. The rain is a major factor for Rigans as it supports much farmland and helps with growing the crops.

There are 10 ports in Latvia. The three main ones are Ventspils, Riga and Liepaja – all of them mostly transit cargo ports. Around 90% of ship transit is through these ports, mainly from the CIS countries to the west. Latvia is the main transit trade route through the Baltic Sea region. Ports of Ventspils, Riga and Liepaja are ice-free all year round. There are seven small ports in Latvia – operating basically as fishing and yacht ports, but also handling wood products. The ports of Riga and Ventspils have operated as free ports for 10 years. The port of Liepaja is part of the Liepaja Specialized Economic Zone.

The Tall Ships’ Race started as a race for square-riggers in 1956, but now has become an annual event attracting many different types of sail training vessels. The UK based International Sail Training Association controls the race, but its venue varies from year to year e.g., the Baltic countries, Spain, Norway, France, Belgium and Holland. In 2003 it visited ports in Poland, Finland, Latvia and North Germany. Approximately 100 vessels took part. The idea of this race was to give young people the chance to go to sea, learn to sail, to work as a team and to take part in friendly international rivalry as well as showing these magnificent vessels off to the world. Several days were spent in each port so that crews could mix socially and at sports thus fostering international understanding. S.T.I rules state that at least half the crew must be under 25 years; all the trainees under 19.

Latvia is a country of people of enormous perseverance, having survived centuries of bloodshed, now seeking a Latvian identity. This will emerge with the help of time and evolution. The little miracle of the belly dance class meeting was a small symbol of the great work of the universe in Laguna Beach, Latvia and the world. The soil of Latvia is so unique, as its urban and rural farmers surely appreciate. The events, culture and geography of Latvia are like the decorations on a Christmas tree—some old and cracked, some new and twinkling. One tree may be burned after the festival is over, but another tree will always take its place next year. And like the tree with the star on top, Latvia has her star shining from above, the angelic domain, or maybe even three--like the Freedom Monument in Riga. The word for peace in Latvia is miers.

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