Ancient Latvian Folk Dress

From the 11th to the 14th centuries, CE.

The colorful folk costumes most Latvians are familiar with may seem to have been around forever, but they actually date back only as far as the 19th Century.

“Modern Latvian National Costumes”

Photos of archaeological folk costumes were used with permission from the Latvian National Cultural Center.

These are the garments worn by the peoples from the various tribes that came together to form modern Latvia. The folk costumes, decorations, and jewelry were recreated from fragments found in archeological digs. The clothing shown here is very similar to that worn by other Nordic people.

The word Nordic derives from “nord” meaning “north,” which would include the people of Northern Europe who live along the Baltic Sea.

I love the subtle colors of these costumes, especially the different shades of blue.

Map of Latvia’s different regions.

The regions of Latvia where these folk costumes were worn. Courland. Senigallia. Livonia. Vends, a county by the Venta River. Selonia. Latgalia.
11th Century Livonian (Lībiešu) folk dress.

The woman’s wool cloak is decorated with braided bands and fringe around the edges. She’s wearing a narrow belt that’s the precursor of elaborately woven modern belts of the 19th Century. On her belt, she is wearing small chains that hold tools, such as keys, sewing needles, and amulets. Modesty required that married women keep their hair covered. Rings were made of bronze or an alloy of lead and tin.

The information from the Cultural Center doesn’t specify how the blue color was achieved. However, it was most likely woad, Isatis tinctoria, which was used throughout Europe until the 17th Century. Crafters in our century also use dye from the Isatis tinctoria plant.

11th Century Livonian (Lībiešu) warrior’s tunic.

Decorations on men’s clothing are minimal, except for embroidery at the neckline which is fastened with the same style horseshoe-shaped brooch. He’s wearing a leather belt with a tooled scabbard for his dagger.

11th Century Livonian folk costume for a 2-3-year-old child.

Children were adorned with more jewelry and their clothes were more elaborately decorated than clothes for adults.

The mantle is studded with woven-in bronze studs. The linen shirt and wool shawl are fastened with horseshoe-shaped brooches, a design that is still used in Latvian jewelry. Her torc necklace is decorated with metal tassels that are used to this day in Latvian jewelry design. My mother once has a silver bracelet like the headband the model is wearing.

Unmarried women wear headbands or coronets of flowers, metal, or fabric that are embroidered and decorated with beads and crystals. Each region has its own characteristic designs.

An interpretation of a 12th-13th Century Couronian (Kuršu) simple and practical warriors clothing.

The outfit consists of a shirt, trousers, tunic, and cloak. In the days before buttons brooches were used to fasten garments. The warrior’s status in society was indicated by his weapons–helmet, sword, and shield.

14th Centurļļy Latgalian (Latgaļu) recreated costume.

The Fourteenth Century brought many changes to clothing. The mantle is more ornately woven of wool and linen in more intricate patterns and decorated with fringes and fiber tassels, instead of metal ones. The bracelets are more delicate. The coronet is decorated with yellow glass beads.

Photos by Mārtiņš Cīrulis

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Love at First Sight. For Real?

Love at first sight, followed by happily ever after, is a popular trope in romance novels but is it something that can only happen in fiction?

The two main characters, a World War II Latvian refugee and an American fighter pilot, in my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart fall in love at the first touch of their hands as they gaze into each other’s eyes and sparks fly. My Latvian beta reader thought that was unrealistic. In fiction, it happens all the time but can it happen in real life? I told my reader my favorite anecdote about a true life love at first sight story. This is how I remember hearing it so my words may not be exact but the facts are.

They made beautiful music together may be a cliche but it can happen.

Internationally famous Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was being interviewed on a radio show about his marriage to opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya.

Host: “Mr. Rostropovich, I understand that you and your wife married a week after you first met.”

Rostropovich: “Yes. It was a big mistake.”

Host, taken aback, stammers, “A m-mistake?”

Rostropovich: “Yes. We wasted a whole week.”

I love this story. Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya were married for fifty-two years, until his death. Though it may be rare, love at first sight, followed by a happily ever after does happen in real life.

The flowers may fade but not the love.

Most of the time, it seems to me, a declaration of love can be premature. Some guy I once dated said that he loved me way too soon. I was not enchanted or bowled over. I said that he hardly knew me so how could he possibly love me? We hadn’t had any deep discussions or revelations of the secrets of our hearts. But he kept on declaring his love. Ove and over and over. Bleh. Maybe if he’d been the right guy I’d have been more receptive, even delighted. My advice, don’t date someone just because you’re lonely, bored, or depressed. Under such circumstances a “happily ever after” ain’t likely. If you meet a gem like Rostropovich or Vishnevskaya, go for it. Don’t settle for a rhinestone.

Life’s a bowl of cherry pits but at least the beer’s not flat.

How do the love birds in my novel know they’ve found someone they can love forever? There’s an immediate sense of familiarity as if they’ve known each other forever. During their first evening together, they spend hours just talking. They open their hearts, tell each other things they’ve never told anyone else, things that reveal character.

As Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” It certainly can’t in a novel, so it doesn’t in A Home for an Exile’s Heart.

A toast to love.

Latvian Love Words

Valentine’s Day is known among Latvians as Sirsniņdiena, which can mean Sweethearts Day, as in lovers, but also anyone you love. My mother called me, Sirsniņa. My aunt called me, Sirds, which means heart, as a term of affection.

For my Valentine’s Day post I’m writing about the words Latvians use to express love. These words are used much more conservatively than the terms of endearment I wrote about before.

Latvians are a reserved people. It used to be, and maybe still is in some circles that Latvians’ idea of a proper public display of affection was to go to church and get married in front of God and the congregation of family and friends. Latvians don’t say the words “love” or “I love you” lightly. People don’t generally use such expressions as, “I love this pair of shoes” or “I love pizza.” They like the shoes. They like pizza. “I love you” is reserved for spouses or fiancées/fiancés. They’re not even used for one’s parents, children, or other family members. 

An embrace like this should probably be kept private even when married.

I remember overhearing a parent criticize an in-law for saying “I love you” to his young daughter. It’s not a phrase I remember hearing around my house when I was growing up. It should be enough that love is demonstrated by providing food, clothes, and a roof over one’s head. Some might say such an attitude is outdated, Things have changed, the world has changed. But I got criticized in a Latvian social media group for saying people should say, “I love you” much more often. That happened not only in this century but as recently as last year.

Here are those very exclusive words.

Mīlestība = Love

Es mīlu Tevi = I love you

Mīlulis = loved one

Mīlīgs = lovable

Mīļošs = loving 

Mans Mīļiotais = my lover 

These next diminutives are okay to use with adults, children, and even pets.

Mīlulītis = my little loved one

Mīļumiņš = my little loved one (smaller and thus more dear)

Sieva = wife (the diphthong “ie” is pronounced like the “ea” in “ear.”

Sieviņa = my dear little wife. It can be used affectionately, but depending on context can also be belittling.

Vīrs = husband (veers)

Vīriņš = dear little husband. Most likely used only in private. The word could also refer to a little old man.

Possessives:

Mans = (pronounced “muhns”) My. Masculine. But it refers to the subject,  not to the person who is speaking. e.g. “Mans vīrs” is what a woman would say when introducing her husband.

Mana = My. Feminine, also refers to the subject. A man introducing his wife would say, “Mana sieva.” 

A Latvian friend and I had a discussion about whether a declaration of love should include the word, “es” (pronounced like the letter “S.”) meaning “I.” He said that “es” = “I” is understood, so it’s enough to say, “mīlu Tevi.” Technically, in English, the word “I” would also be understood nevertheless people say, “I love you.” To me, just saying “mīlu Tevi” sounds abrupt, like you’re eager to get on to the next thing, maybe “What’s for dinner?” This rule could be a familial difference or a regional one.  My choice would include the first person singular pronoun,

Have fun with these loving words. Use them however you please on Valentine’s Day or any other day you want to tell someone you love them. Some rules are meant to be broken. 

Hearts can break when they don’t hear these words. And stay broken even though hidden.





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Candle Day: Latvia

February 2 Sveču Diena, affectionately known as Svecīšu Diena

February 2 is a cross-quarter day. It’s the day that marks the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Depending on which hemisphere you’re in the cross-quarter day could also fall on February first. In the northern hemisphere, it means that winter is on its way out and spring is just around the corner.

Halfway to spring. Winter is going.

In Latvia, February second is called Candle Day. In fact, all of February is known as Candle Month. I’m not sure why maybe because it’s a dark month requiring more candles to brighten things up.

For many centuries Candle Day was a day for making candles out of wax or tallow. I imagine that by the time winter was half over the store of candles had been used up and needed to be replenished. Candles that are made on this day are supposed to burn bright and last long.

Flames can assist with meditation.

Candles are symbols of warmth and light. A flame is magical; it bears the powerful energy of light. It can calm and cleanse, but it can also destroy.

Candle Day traditions and practices vary from region to region. 

The most important thing is to be jovial to laugh and sing so you’ll be jovial happy, and full of laughter all year. To help the jollity along one must drink a great deal of beer and eat a lot.

Spending lots of money on this special day means you’ll be prosperous for the rest of the year.

Weather forecasting on this day in Latvia doesn’t involve rodents.

Dripping eaves mean a lovely spring.

A hard freeze means don’t expect a warm spring.

Fog on February second indicates that a rainy summer is in store.

Frost on trees predicts a bountiful summer.

Some of the information I found was consistent across more than one site. Other information was unique to one site. I admit I didn’t check all sites, there were many too many.

Don’t blow out the candle to get your wish. When you make it imbue it with positive thoughts.

A handmade candle is a special gift to make a special friend happy. The person who makes the candle should hold her hands over the wax and concentrate on the positive things she wishes the recipient of the finished candle to have–happiness, well-being, prosperity, love. These positive thoughts should continue while pouring the melted wax into the mold. When the candle is finished the maker should hold it in her hands while continuing to think of positive wishes for the recipient.

The candlemaker should tell the recipient of the positive wishes that the candle brings with it that way when he lights the candle he will think of her and the positive things she wishes for him. Sounds like a bonding ritual.

The candle should be lit naturally, that is with a match, not a lighter.

The flame is not to be blown out because you might blow away all the good wishes. Instead, it should be pinched out with moist fingers or with a snuffer.

Candle-makers were supposed to be in a good mood while at their task. That’s where feasting, beer-drinking, singing, and laughing come in. If the candle-maker is in a bad mood the candles will sputter and burn with a dim light. Another example of sympathetic magic.

There is so much candle lore it’s hard to fit into one blog post and still publish it on February second.

Happy Candle Day. dear readers. Be sure to eat, drink, sing, and laugh.

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