Holidays / Celebrations of Latvia

Holidays and celebrations in Latvia

Holidays and Festivals: Introduction

Most of the most celebrated Latvian holidays are Christian (Christmas, Easter). Some however also have roots in ethnic culture (Līgo).

In independent Latvia numerous days were designated as national (patriotic) holidays, commemorating both happy and sad historical events. The popularity of celebrating such days varies but many of them are days off work.

Public holidays

These are public holidays in Latvia (when the offices close down):

New Year Day – January 1st
Great Friday – Date set by Catholic tradition
Easter Sunday – Date set by Catholic tradition
Easter Monday – Date set by Catholic tradition
Labour Day – May 1st
Independence Day – May 4th
Līgo – June 23rd
St. John’s Day – June 24th
Republic Day – November 18th
New Year Eve – December 31th

Prolonged periods of rest

As many of the public holidays come one after another, this gives Latvians multiple longer periods of rest (“long weekends”):
Easter period in Spring – 4 days (Friday to Monday)
Independence day period in May – 3 days (when it falls on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday), at times may join with Labour day to provide 4 days of rest
Līgo period in June – 2 days (up to 4 if it falls next to a weekend)
Republic day period in November – 3 days (when it falls on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday)
Christmas period in December – 3 days (up to 5 if it falls next to a weekend)
New Year period in December – 2 days (up to 4 if it falls next to a weekend)

When two holiday periods come one after another with just a couple of days inbetween, the work during these days may also be limited as many workers would take their paid leave then in order to have prolonged holidays.

Christian holidays

Christian holidays are the ones that have the most traditions and are celebrated the most eagerly in Latvia.

The pinnacle of the year is Christmas (December 24th-26th). Christmas trees that are decorated in town centers and people’s homes are the most well known tradition of Christmas worldwide. It has originated in Latvia where it evolved from an older tradition of burning a tree. Other traditions are Santa Claus who supposedly brings presents to children, often placing them under the Christmas tree.

Christmas is called in Latvia by a more secular name Ziemassvētki (literally: “Winter holiday”) but its Christian nature is undisputed, despite of new traditions. Symbolic nativity scenes of Jesus Christ birth are erected in town centers next to the Christmas trees.

A stylized nativity scene of Christ bith in Ventspils Old Town
A stylized nativity scene of Christ bith in Ventspils Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Easter (commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) is even more important than Christmas for the religious, but it has less secular meaning. Secular traditions involving Easter eggs are common. However, it too has many traditions.

Easter eggs line the main street of Daugavpils
Easter eggs line the main street of Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvia is a multidenominational Christian country, and two out of four largest denominations (Russian Orthodox and Old Believers, over 20% of population) follow a Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas and sometimes also Easter at different dates. That “Eastern Christmas” is celebrated on January 6th-8th and involves many Russian tourists arriving as these days are public holidays in Russia but not Latvia.

During the Soviet occupation the celebration of Christian festivals was persecuted in Latvia. Soviets attempted to transpose some Christmas traditions onto New Year Day (e.g. Christmas tree would have become a New Year tree).

A 'bunny city' in Riga built for Christmas
A ‘bunny city’ in Riga built for Christmas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

National (patriotic) holidays

As a nation with unfortunate history of numerous invasions and occupations, Latvia has a fair share of patriotic holidays that celebrate its liberations and cessations of persecutions (often temporary, as later history would show).

Most patriotic holidays have their key celebrations at or near the Freedom statue in Riga, a monumental symbol of the nation.

Two main independence days (both public holidays) are:
*Proclamation Day of the Republic of Latvia (November 18th), commemorating the declaration of the Republic in 1918.
*Resoration of Independence day (May 5th), commemorating the redeclaration of Latvian independence from the Soviet occupation in 1991.

Other days commemorate less important events.

*Lāčplēsis Day (November 11th) commemorates soldiers who fell for independence of Latvia (1918-1920). The date coincides with the Latvian victory over Bermontians in battle over Riga (1919). Latvians celebrate the festival lighting candles and marching with torches in evening parades.
*Day of de facto independence of Latvia (August 25th) commemorates the final collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 when the Latvian independence seemingly became irreversible. The commemoration is mostly official.

Celebrations of 'De facto independence day', August 25th at the Freedom monument in Riga
Celebrations of ‘De facto independence day’, August 25th at the Freedom monument in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvian patriotic holidays tend to divide Latvia somewhat. They are eagerly celebrated by ethnic Latvians, however they are often ignored by ethnic Russians. That’s because it was the Russians who the ones who oppressed Latvians necessitating the liberations and victories that the independence days commemorate.

No Latvian patriotic holiday is however as despised by Russians as the Latvian Legion day (March 15th). It commemorates the World War 2 Latvian Legion and falls on the date when this legion fought the only Latvian-led battle of World War 2 (against the Russian Red Army which sought to occupy Latvia).

Latvian Legion supported by Nazi Germany which sought to repulse Soviets just as much as Latvians did. To ethnic Russians the fact that Latvians eagerly fought against Red Army lengthening the Nazi German occupation instead of restarting Soviet one destroys their national myth that “Soviet Union had liberated Latvia”. Therefore Russian media (sometimes repeated by Western media) to this day regularly portrays the event as a pro-Nazi one.

To Latvians however, Latvian Legion was their own army and not pro-Nazi: it did not participate in any Nazi war crimes and it was projected by Latvian elite to succeed as the army of independent Latvia should both Germany and Russia be defeated (as happened after World War 1). Moreover, Soviet occupation was much more deadly to Latvians than was the Nazi occupation.

Nevertheless, the Latvian Legion day was stripped of its official status in order not to annoy Russians, but it is still celebrated every year by patriotic Latvians who march to the Freedom statue in Riga and the Latvian legion cemetery, carrying flags. As the years pass by and Legionnaires die out, they are replaced by young patriots in these parades.

Līgo

Līgo (June 23rd) is the main traditional ethnic festival in Latvia. It celebrates summer solstice and is followed by Jāņi (St. John Day) on June 24th. Both are public holidays.

The festival is mostly Pagan in origin. Its traditions are mostly nation related. They include wreath weaving out of grasses (these wreaths are then worn on one’s head or used to decorate one’s cars and homes) and bonfire burning.

Līgo decorated car in Latvia
Many Latvians have their cars decorated in wreathes for Līgo (June 23rd), which is their primary ethnic festival. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Līgo has various Latvian folksongs associated to it, as well as several myths. Among those are that witches come alive on that day and that fern flowers. The Līgo festival has also traditionally some risque activities such as boys intermingling with girls.

In contemporary world, just as in the Pagan times perhaps, these are not really controversial, however in the devout 18th or 19th centuries that would have made Līgo unique.

New Year

New Year in Latvia is one of the key annual festivals.

The night between December 31st and January 1st competes for the status of the most important year of the night with Christmas.

Firework displays and celebrations where a large number of friends gather together are a typical way to “meet the New Year”. On December 31st evening beforehand various concerts and gigs are offered.

While Latvia is secular, some 20% of population belong to religious minorities that follow Julian calendar rather than Gregorian one. To them New Year begins on January 14th. They are mostly ethnic Russians and thus the date is known as the “Russian New Year”. While it has no state recognition, it is popular among Russians.