Veļu laiks is one of the most important festivals in the Latvian solar calendar.
Autumn, the harvest is over. Nature prepares itself for winter sleep. Leaves change color and eventually fall. Frost sparkles on grass and the edges of leaves reminding us that winter is on its way. Longer nights encourage peacefulness and rest. It is a time of healing and reflection.
Veļu laiks is the Time of Spirits, a festival honoring the dead. It is believed that at this time of year the veil that separates the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest allowing dead souls to visit their living descendants. The dead souls are hungry. They need to be fed. Sound familiar? Many such festivals are observed all over the world. Allhallowtide, which has been shortened to Halloween is one such festival. The traditions have changed along with the name. Are the dead expected to bob for apples? The Celt’s celebration, Samhain is another such fest. There is Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico and South America. Zhongyuan Festival in China is known as Hungry Ghost Month. These are just a few such observations.
In 1570 the church fathers and other authorities in Kurzeme (Courland) were informed that they must no longer tolerate this pagan behavior on the part of the peasants. No more offering of food and drink to the dead. This was such an effective dictum that the feasting of the dead continued into the mid-19th Century. Even in the 21st century many people still follow these ancient traditions. So much for the authority of the dukedom of Kurzeme.
Researching this post showed me just how much variation there is in Latvian terminology and customs. Veļu laiks is known by at least a dozen different names depending on the region or town. Veļu laiks is the most widespread name but it is also called, Time of Ancestors. Time of Wraiths, Time of Ghosts, Time of Little Spirits (affectionate diminutive) Time of the Deities, Time of Grandfathers. Iļģi, Time of Longing, and similar designations. Those who insist on one particular name or spelling for any tradition, custom, or recipe must be unaware of the many variations. All you have to do is look at the number of iterations of folk dress to see that variety is the spice of life in Latvia.
Sources don’t even agree about the dates of Veļu laiks. Some say it begins on the autumn equinox and goes through Martinmas, November 10. Others say it doesn’t begin until September 29th and ends on October 28. Still others say it continues until Christmas. Whichever, Veļu laiks is now.
No commerce or smithing was allowed. No major work was to be done, especially no threshing since grain threshed during this period is believed won’t grow. Household chores and handiwork are allowed. No noise making, including singing. That must have been particularly rough on Latvians who love to sing in t Quiet activities such as telling riddles and stories and sharing memories are okay.
The father is supposed to summon his family’s deceased ancestors and friends to feast. He carries a candle to light their way and loudly calls to them. Food and drink for the visiting spirits were to be left on the well-swept floor or in the outbuildings on the farm, including the granary and pirtiņa (yes, there’s even an affectionate diminutive for sauna). Water and clean towels were provided for the ghosts so they could wash up before eating. Dead or alive, Latvians have a thing about cleanliness. After the spirits have eaten, they’re sent back to where they came from. Whatever food is left is consumed by the living. No doubt mice, rats, and other critters loved Veļu laiks, no need to forage in cold weather.
In some areas, the head of household drove a wagon to the cemetery, opened the gate for the dead to get out. The spirits climbed into the wagon and were driven to the feast at their old home. After they’d had their meal they were driven back to the cemetery. Dishes from which veļi have eaten must not be washed with well water for it will make the water bitter.
People went to bed at nightfall and were not supposed to get up even if they heard noises coming from outside. Walking around after dark was not allowed because it was believed that veļi would lead people astray. Thieves often took advantage of this rule to do their dirty deeds.
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