Cake Evening: A Latvian Winter Celebration

This is a mocha torte similar to the cakes that were served at Latvian gatherings during my childhood. They were baked by Latvian ladies. The frosting on the sides had fancy swoops.

I have to admit that I did not know that in ancient Latvian tradition, Christmas Eve was also known as “Cake Evening.” Until I started researching my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart, serving nine special foods on Christmas Eve was a part of the celebration. Each food has a magical meaning. Considering that feasting is a major part of holiday traditions everywhere, “Cake Evening” and nine special foods conveying sympathetic magic should come as no surprise. 

1. Peas and beans, so you don’t cry. 

2. Pīrāgi, so you’ll always have a nice surprise. They’re little bacon buns filled with diced bacon, Canadian bacon, onions, salt, and pepper. These days there are vegan variations.

Pīrāgi can also be made with ground meat (beef, maybe) so you can still enjoy a Latvian treat, even if you can’t have bacon.

3. Beets and carrots for good health.

4. Pork for good luck.

5. Poultry for success. Would that be because hens cackle to announce their success in laying an egg?

6. Sauerkraut in order to be strong. Rinse and squeeze before cooking in bacon fat, butter, or even olive oil, with or without onions, sliced thin. Some people like to add shredded carrots. Add caraway seeds and brown sugar to taste. You don’t use much liquid. The fat is mostly to give it flavor. There’s enough liquid in the kraut to cook it until it’s a light golden brown.

7. Fish, so you’ll always have money. The scales resemble coins.

8. A round cake. Its shape symbolizes the sun.

9. Piparkūkas, so you’ll always have love. The literal translation is “pepper cakes,” but many other spices go into them, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom. Usually, they’re just little brown cookies with a slice of almond pressed in the middle but they can also be decorated with icing.

The little nut-like thing is a cardamom pod. I remember grinding the seeds with a mortar and pestle before cardamom was available already ground.

I don’t know why piparkūkas symbolize love. The dough is rolled out thin. Many are cut into heart shapes, but they’re also cut into star, bell, Christmas tree, and ginger people shapes. Or maybe the cookies symbolize love because baking them is a labor-intensive labor of love. Perhaps because spices are expensive, so the cookies are baked for those you love and traditionally only at Christmas time.

It was July when I visited Latvia for the first time. I went to a public event I no longer remember. I do remember the piparkūkas that were offered to guests. I took a cookie shaped like a bunny, decorated with pink, white, and green icing. Instead of eating the cookie, I took it home in a little cough drop tin. I kept it for years, but somehow, during one of my moves, it got lost. Bunny tears.

Because this is a celebration of light, whatever its symbolism means to you, candles are included in the decorations.

Welcome Winter Solstice

At dawn in winter, the sun peeks over the right shoulder of Mt. Rainier. Today it begins its journey back north.

Winter Solstice

Winter arrived in the Northern Hemisphere today with a veil of white–fog–rather than a blanket of snow. It’s been so blah outside that the day reminds me of Thomas Hood’s poem, “November,” which I posted in an earlier blog.

Today may be the beginning of winter, but that’s not how it looks like here. This is aphoto from last February.

I looked and looked for a poem to share with you, but found nothing that pleased me. Poets wrote about “bleak December,” breaking boughs, blowing winter winds. Not even Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” conveys what I have in mind. 

For me, the Winter Solstice is a time to celebrate the return of light. We are approaching a time of new beginnings, a time to put behind us the mistakes, sorrows, and bad thoughts of the old year. I turned to my Latvian heritage to find what I was looking for.

In Latvia, this is a time for reflection. A time to look into yourself. It’s a calm, quiet time of year. A time to seek inner peace and to connect with nature. It’s the time of the rebirth of the Sun Goddess. A fire festival. A flaming wheel of straw is rolled down a snowy hill as a symbol of the sun’s journey.

For centuries Latvia has been an agrarian society. As in the other seasons, the fertility of the land and people was essential. Work for the season was over, so there was time for young people to meet, visit, and get acquainted. If a girl went to bed hungry, she was bound to dream of her future groom. Presumably, someone who would be able to ensure that she and their future children would always be fed.

In the olden days, evil spirits were presumed to roam the earth during the darkest time of the year. To scare the evil spirits people dress up in costumes portraying creatures such as cranes, foxes, the devil, etc. The mummers (budēļi) 

roam from house to house, raising a ruckus, the more noise the better. In return, they expect to be served food and drink.

These are only a few of the many traditions and rituals with which our Latvian ancestors welcomed the return of the sun. Soon green growing things will also reawaken.

Some plants don’t go dormant and keep winter from being so bleak.

This is the spirit of revelry and celebration I was looking for. I can watch this video over and over. This is a fine way to welcome the sun and longer days. “Kaladu” is simply a nonsense word like “tra-la-la.

Latvians are a singing and dancing people even in snow at this cold, dark time of year. This video is worth sharing again and again.

Mummers celebrating the arrival of winter.

The woman in the green shawl is wearing a necklace of “barankas.” They’re like a cross between bagels and pretzels. On a string like this is how “barankas” are sold in Latvia. When I visited my relatives there and told my uncle how fondly my mother used to reminisce about gnawing on “barankas” he brought me a string of them the very next day.

Those are sashes the dancers are leaping over. Normally they’re worn with folk costumes, wrapped two or three times around the waist (depending on the girth of the person) and tied in front.