Culture of Latvia

Culture of Latvia: Ethnicities, Religions and more

Germans

Many of the prettiest buildings in Latvia have been conceived or funded by ethnic Germans: the palaces, the castles, the churches… Having came to Christianize the land Germans amassed immense power, becoming the lords of the land.

Remains of Bauska castle
Remains of Bauska castle, built by German crusaders in 15th century. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Germans lost sovereignty over Latvia in the 16th century, even under the subsequent alternating Polish, Lithuanian, Swedish and Russian regimes they remained the elite, controlling Latvia’s lands and businesses. They were known as “Baltic barons” and still made up 6,2% of population in 1897.

Urbanization and enlightenment of the Latvian peasantry ~1900 broke the German monopoly on leadership and culture. After Latvian independence (1918) emigration and lower birth rates made German share decline to 3,2% by 1935.

Fraktur script in Kuldīga
Restored German Fraktur sign in Kuldīga. This script was well-visible in Latvian cities well into 20th century. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

But the complete end to the Latvia’s German community came with World War 2 and the subsequent Soviet Genocide, which all but destroyed the German community. Germans had to flee the land that was their home for centuries, those who couldn’t or didn’t were murdered. Much of the remaining cultural heritage in Latvia was destroyed. Since then Germans make up merely 0,1% of Latvia‘s population.

Historically Germans were primarily concentrated in southern and western Latvia (Semigallia and Courland) as well as Riga. Well into the 20th century they made 25%-50% of population in many towns and cities there. Beyond the city limits however there were very few Germans.

Rundale palace of dukes of Couralnd and Semigallia
Rundale palace of German dukes of Couralnd and Semigallia (18th century) is arguably the prettiest building in Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Irreligiousness (Atheism)

Irreligiousness (Atheism) in Latvia is largely a product of Soviet occupation, when it was heavily promoted.

After occupying Latvia, Soviets have closed and demolished numerous churches and houses of worship, while others came under constant surveillance. On the one hand, being religious in Soviet Latvia was unprofitable as it hampered career, on the other hand it was also difficult as religious education was not available and materials were hardly accessible.

Due to this the church attendances decreased and faiths were not properly passed onto new generations. That is especially said about the smallest faiths (Jewish faith, Islam) and Lutheranism.

A part of the Latvia’s irreligious (especially among ethnic minorities) have adopted the doctrine of “Soviet atheism”, which was arguably a fundamentalist faith on itself. While deeply critical of any thought of God, it regarded Marxist-Leninist doctrines as indisputable truth (the non-recognition of which may have even led to one’s forcible treatment in psychiatric wards). Some still follow “Soviet atheism”, some others have replaced it by similar “Western far left atheism”.

While Latvia remained among the most irreligious states of the world, irreligiousness has actually declined after independence with some people refinding their forefather’s faiths while others joining new (mostly Christian) religious communities led by enigmatic preachers whose sermons just became legal.

Kuldīga synagogue
A post-independence billboard calling for rebuilding an Orthodox church in Jūrmala that was demolished by the atheist Soviet regime. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Currently some 15-30% of Latvia’s population is irreligious. It is difficult to draw the line, as many Latvians are “almost irreligious”, believing in just those few tenets of their faith that were passed onto them by their parents.

Gypsies (Romani people)

Gypsies are a traditionally nomadic community originating in Medieval India. In Latvia, however, they have settled down long ago and have no villages nor camps.

Throughout the 20th century Gypsies was an extremely rapidly growing community due to high fertility rates: Gypsies would often marry in their teens and have many kids. In 1935 there were 3839 Gypsies in Latvia (0,2% of total), increasing to 5427 by 1970 and 8205 by 2000 (0,35%).

After Latvia joined European Union and free migration was permitted, many Gypsies left for the richer states of the West.

Largest communities of Gypsies exist in Riga and Ventspils, each having ~900 people. In Ventspils, Gypsies make the biggest impact as they have a population share of 2,1%.

Estonians

Estonians and Latvians are neighboring but extremely different nations. Estonians speak a non-Baltic and non-Indo-European language, more similar to Finnish.

Despite such differences, Estonia and Latvia were ruled by the same powers for centuries and before 1918 there was never any official border between the two countries.

Border delimitation was difficult and at heart of these difficulties laid the Walk city. Populated by both Latvians and Estonians, it was partitioned in two: Estonian Valga and Latvian Valka. Despite such careful considerations and radical measures, thousands of Latvians and Estonians remained on the “wrong sides of the border”. Latvia had some 7000 Estonians in 1935, or 0,4% of population.

A map of Valka/Valga city with Estonian/Latvian boundary crossing in the middle
A map of Valka/Valga city with Estonian/Latvian boundary crossing in the middle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Throughout the 20th century, however, the numbers of Estonians were on a constant decline, both due to assimilation and migration to Estonia. There were 4334 Estonians in 1970 (0,2%) and only 2652 in 2000 (0,1%).

Recently though the numbers of Estonians may have somewhat risen again, as Riga reasserted its role as the capital of the Baltics and European Union removed migration restrictions.

Livonians (Livs)

Livonians are the dying-out indigenous inhabitants of Latvian coastlines.

In Medieval era they were a significant community with entire region consisting of today’s Latvia and Estonia named “Livonia”.

While a larger Latvian nation was able to retain its culture despite centuries of foreign persecution, a smaller Livonian community have been much less successful at this. 13th century defeats against crusading knights sent them on a long continuous decline and assimilation, reducing their areas to several fishermen villages in Courland (“the Liv Coast“) over the centuries.

Liv farmstead in Latvian ethnographic museum in Riga
Liv farmstead moved from their shoreline to Latvian ethnographic museum in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Since 1990s Latvian independence there have been considerable government attempts at saving the community. The Livonian minority has been protected by discouraging non-Livonian settlement in the Livonian homeland and adding Livonian to some school curriculum.

It may have been too late however, as the last native speaker of Livonian language died in 2013. Still, approximately 250 Latvia‘s inhabittants (0,01%) claim to be Livonians. In comparison, 1925 census still enumerated 1268 Livs (0,1% of population). However, some of the remaining self-described Livs attempt to learn the language (which is more similar to Estonian than Latvian) and culture from scratch. The interest rebounded after historic lows during the Soviet occupation, when merely 48 people claimed Liv ethnicity during 1970 census.

Liv community house in Mazribe, one of historic Liv villages, opened in 1938, is one of the few remaining Liv institutions
Liv community house in Mazribe (a historically Liv village), opened in 1938, is among the the few remaining Liv institutions. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

Latvian Song Festivals

Latvian song festival (also Song and dance festival) is a rather breathtaking event, held every 5 years, when some 30 thousand “singers” (typically, regular people) sing various Latvian songs together.

To the Latvians, the Song Festival is more than a festival, and more like a major foundation of their nation. That’s because it was the songs and such festivals that launched the Latvian national revival in the second half of 19th century. Having learned about their folk songs, Latvians ceased to regard their own culture as inferior to the cultures of larger nations (German, Russian, Polish) and demanded an equal status to it.

Latvian sogng festival taking place in 1931
Latvian song festival taking place in 1931.

Songs also had an important role in the independence restoration of the Baltic States in 1990. Therefore, while such Song Festivals used to be common in Europe in the 19th century, Baltic States are the only place where they acquired a cult status and continue to this day, and the Latvian event is one of the largest.

Initially a 19th-century grassroots movement, the Song Festivals have been transformed into a government-supported multi-day extravaganza by the independent Latvia. They were recognized as an intangible world heritage by UNESCO. In addition to the “main festivals”, there are various smaller song festivals held, for example, by Latvian diaspora communities.

The recent and upcoming “main” Latvian Song Festivals were or will be held in 2008, 2013, 2018, 2023, 2027.

Song festival mural in Riga
Song festival mural in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.