This is the traditional Christmas holiday. Although now it is now celebrated on the evening of December 24th and during December 25th, it appears that it used to be a three-day celebration, beginning on the winter solstice (December 22nd).
The Latvian term Ziemassvētki literally means "Winter Festival": ziemas "of winter" + svētki "festival/holiday". Some of the customs associated with it are:
- eating special foods, especially a boiled pig's snout (cūkas šņukurs); it symbolized ploughing — just as the pig's snout rooted through the soil, so did the ploughshare dig through the earth, in preparation for planting
- other special foods: boiled peas and beans. These represented wealth or riches, and must be eaten up completely — to avoid tears
- food was left out for ghosts of the dearly departed to share; either the common table was left uncleared, or else bread might be taken out and left in the hay barn, stalls, sauna, mill, etc., where it would remain until the new year
- the arrival of masked visitors. This practise is variously referred to as budēļi, čigāni "gypsies, going gypsying", kaladnieki, ķekatas, maski "masks, going masking", nabagi "the poor ones", etc. Although this practise could occur at any time of the winter (between Mārtiņi and Meteņi ), it was particularly common on Christmas eve. It is strongly reminiscent of the tradition of mummers and mummering in Great Britain and Newfoundland.
Latvian "mummers" might dress up as animals (bears, horses, cranes) or as Death. They would go from house to house and were warmly greeted, as they were assumed to drive away evil spirits. They would arrive in groups in front of the house, and sing songs and dance. Then they would be invited in and fed with bacon buns (pīrāgi), butter, sausages, and given ale to drink. They made a special effort to disguise their voices and mannerisms, so that no one would be able to guess who each one was, but if a mummer was correctly identified, he or she would have to "unveil", i.e. remove the cloth which was covering their face.
Latvian stamps showing Christmas "mummers":
Note: these days it is still common for children to be required to recite an appropriate verse before receipt of their presents. There are many, many Christmas verses (ziemassvētku pantiņi) to choose from. To see a small sample, please go to → Folk Songs about Christmas.