Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 18 - Latvian Christmas Music

Day Eighteen of the 24 Days of Christmas features Heather MacLaughlin Garbes. Heather is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Mägi Ensemble, an eight-voice women’s vocal ensemble that focuses on performing and recording music from the Baltic region. She is also currently a post-doctoral researcher in Baltic music at the University of Washington, where she works the Baltic Choral Library collection.

When I was asked to guest write about Latvian Christmas music, I was both honored and a little overwhelmed because I realized that I didn’t know that much about the music traditions for Christmas in Latvia. I have a favorite choral CD that I listen to each year that is Latvian, but I really didn’t know much about the traditional repertoire.

There are so many creative and dynamic Latvian choral composers, but due to Soviet era restrictions and obligations of what subject could be used, songs written specifically for the Christmas season seem to be a more recent addition to the choral repertoire.

I talked with Ambassador Peteris-Karlis Elferts and Iveta Grenberga during the Ambassador’s visit to the University of Washington and asked them what were their favorite musical Christmas traditions. Both thought for a moment and then timidly replied, “ You can look at some solstice songs?”  The older Latvian Christmas tradition focuses on the celebration of the winter solstice: events that highlight the darkest time of year. Thinking about the wonderful connection of pagan and Christian traditions in Latvia, solstice songs would be an important part of the season.

From Lilija Zobens in the Musica Baltica collection “A Baltic Christmas”, she describes winter solstice celebrations as,

“Groups of masked dancers, or mummers, disguised usually as animals such as a bear, wolf or goat, or as gypsies, and lead by the budēļu tēvs (father of the mummers) would visit all the homesteads in their locality, singing and dancing to drive away evils spirits and bring good luck, happiness and prosperity to the homes they visited.”

Two examples of winter solstice Latvian folk songs that I found are “Duido” and “Kaladō”. “Duido” describes the arrival of Christmas with a feeling like the season is actually a person, arriving in a decorated sleigh. The home welcomes Duido with warm lights and an open door. “Kaladō” sets the stage for what happens as Christmas arrives: a spotted cow in the barn, a grey foal in a stable and a sack of sausages on your back. It tells of how if you don’t behave, you won’t get the special treats that are being presented for Christmas.

Both texts show the wonderful balance of nature and Christmas traditions and expectations (Budēļu tēvs = Santa Claus) which in turn, I believe, show that balance with Latvian Christmas music traditions overall.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my favorite Christmas CD is ChristmasJoy in Latvia: Latvian Christmas Cantatas (Ziemassvētki Sabraukuši) by the New York Latvian Concert Choir and their conductor, Andrejs Jansons.

It’s a beautiful mixture of the folk song feeling and style of singing along with lush choral singing and orchestration. The pieces on the recording are:

Vilnis Salaks (b.1939): Ziemas Svētku Vakarā (On Christmas Eve) 

Uģis Prauliņš (b. 1957): Ziemsvētki Jaunajā Pasaulē (Latvian Solstice in the New World)
Bruno Skulte (1909-2000): Ziemassvētkos (At Christmas Time)
Paul Dambis (b.1936): Nākat iekšā Ziesmassvētki! (Welcome, Christmas)
Juris Karlsons (b. 1948): Ziemassvētku Kantāte (Christmas Cantata)
Rihards Dubra (b.1964): In nativitate Domini

My absolute favorite movement is “Mans daiļais linu lauks” (My Lovely Flax Field) from Uģis Prauliņš “Ziemssvētki Jaunajā Pasaulē”. It has such a wonderful combination of the choral sound, but the starkness of winter with the very simple solo melodic line and then even the accompaniment is very simple and static which really paints an amazing picture of the crispness and bareness of the landscape in winter.

I also want to note the ages of the composers. A majority of them are still living and all of them are 20th or 21st century composers. I know that this is a small sample size, but I believe that it is telling about the lack of holiday music that was produced in earlier times.

I also came across scores for holiday compositions by Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) and Rihards Dubra.  Ēšenvalds composes with many different focus and his Christmas works are based on many different elements and text, including Gregorian chant (O Emmanuel). Dubra is known for his church choral compositions and his pieces represent elements of the Catholic church liturgy.  Both are quite popular in the international choral world due to their beautiful writing, but also that these pieces are in Latin or English which makes them more accessible to choirs worldwide.

This exploration into Latvian Christmas music was such an enjoyable journey for me. I continue to learn more about the rich history of Latvian traditions through the music and language and look forward to continuing my study for many years to come.

Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus!

Thank you Heather! Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus to you as well! I’m always excited to put on the Latvian Christmas music because it is so different than the holiday music we hear everywhere else this time of year. Tomorrow on Day 19 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we welcome Marianna from Latvija!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 17 - Kūčia

Day 17 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas features a recipe from the website Beata’s Kitchen (in Lithuanian, Beatos Virtuve).

Mano šeimos receptas, tradicinis Kūčių patiekalas ir geriausiais šios šventės desertas su grūdais, spanguolėm, medum ir aguonų pienu.

Beata writes “My family recipe, a traditional Christmas Eve dish and the best holiday dessert with cereals, cranberries, honey and poppy seed milk.”


100 g of oat grits* 
100 g rye groats**
100 g wheat grain, polished
100 g chopped hazelnuts
1 cup poppy milk ***
1 tablespoon honey
a handful of dried cranberries, chopped
a pinch of salt

1. Stir the honey into the poppy milk in a large bowl, adding a pinch of salt
2. Mix the oat, rye and wheat grains together, then add to the milk mixture
3. Add hazelnuts an cranberries, then stir to combine
4. Serve and enjoy!

If the video below does not appear on your device, it can be viewed on Beatos Virtuve here

* 100g is approximately 3.5 ounces
**Groats are the hulled kernels of various cereal grains such as oat, wheat, and rye. Groats are whole grains that include the cereal germ and fiber-rich bran portion of the grain as well as the endosperm.
*** Old traditions dictate that no animal products be consumed on Christmas Eve, hence the poppy milk. Milk may possibly be substituted, although instructions on making poppy milk can be found here.

Tomorrow on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we return to Latvia with Heather Garbes on Christmas music!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 16 - PUZURIS – An enchanting little decoration

For Day Sixteen of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we welcome back Inga on the topic of puzuri!

Puzuri and ķisti are among some of the oldest known Winter Solstice decorations that ancient Balts made – and not only for Christmas, but for other special life events, such as weddings, and to bring blessing and grace to a home. They are believed to be a symbol of "wholeness", and their constant slow movement when hanging scares away or traps evil spirits. As with Native American dream catchers, they should be aired every so often, and burned in the New Year's bonfire to guarantee an evil-free year. In different areas of Latvia, they are also called lukturi, krīģi, spurguļi; and other Scandinavian and Northern European countries call them himmeli – from both Swedish and German himmel (sky, heaven).

A single puzuris is made of twelve segments, possibly representing the twelve months of the year, and is a wonderfully simple Christmas tree decoration. To create a mobile hanging, puzuri of different sizes may be combined by connecting corners, the end result limited only by your imagination! Hanging from the ceiling, the mobile spins and twirls with the slightest draft from opening a door, walking by, warmth from candles, magically creating interesting geometric patterned shadows.

The Lithuanian tree at the Museum of Science and Industry; a detail of a Lithuanian puzuris; the Chicago Latvian girl guide and boy scout volunteers with the Latvian tree at the museum.

Traditionally, puzuri were made of rye straw or reeds by grandmothers with their grandchildren. The straw must be hollow to allow threading. The straw or reeds were gathered in the fall, carefully laid out to dry, then peeled of the papery outer layer, any knots or ugly spots cut out. Straws must then be cut into segments, length determined by the size of puzurs you are making. I find straws very difficult to cut without damaging, and after trying every implement from embroidery scissors to box cutters to single edge razor blades, I found that soaking the straws overnight makes them stronger and less prone to split. After soaking, I was able to cut them with a sharp pair of small scissors with little loss. Inherently fragile, working with straw requires patience and a steady hand. Beginner puzuri-makers may use paper or plastic straws (like those tiny coffee stirrers?), as these will be sturdier and less apt to split or bend, and paper or plastic straw is easier to find than natural straw. Colored thread or yarn, feathers, twists or cut-outs of paper, even bits of eggshell are used as embellishment – there are no rules, other than to use what you have at hand!

To make one puzuris, you will need: 
     12 straw segments of equal length,
     a piece of thin yarn or embroidery thread a bit longer than the combined length of all 12 straws,
     a longish needle thin enough to fit through hollow straw,
     colored thread or yarn, scraps of fabric, twists or cut-outs of paper for embellishment

1) Thread three straws, knot. 
2) Add two more straws, secure at corner. 
3) Add two more, secure again.

4) Add two more straws, secure at corner.
5) Add one straw, secure at corner as shown – puzuris starts becoming three-dimensional!

6) Secure the corner – one half of your puzuris is complete.
7) Thread one more straw and secure as shown.
8) Add the final straw as shown, and knot the end to the beginning!

There are many other decorations that can be made with straw, but the easiest might be a chain to hang over a doorway, or around your tree by threading straws alternating with cut paper (or birch-bark, if you happen to have some handy) shapes – as long or short as you like.

Another type of chain – simply keep adding triangles!

Sources for purchasing natural straw:
Nova Natural

Thank you Inga! All illustrations are from "Vārdu klētiņa" by Inese Ruberte (Zvaigzne ABC 1997). For more information on The Museum of Science and Indstry and the Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light exhibit, please visit the MSI website. If in the Chicago area make sure to stop in and visit the Baltic Christmas trees! Tomorrow on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas, a Lithuanian Christmas recipe...

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 15 - Holiday crafts

Today on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we discover the beauty of decorating with nature’s bounty and make birdfeeders with pine cones!

Inviting nature into the home is a recurring theme not just for Christmas, but many of the Baltic holidays. Latvians weave wreaths from conifer branches to celebrate advent, hang garlands of greens throughout the home and decorate their Christmas trees with straw and other natural ornaments. For our family, living in the southeast means decorating our home with branches of holly from the backyard and sprigs of mistletoe gathered from the enormous oaks in the neighborhood. The boys gave me an amaryllis bulb this year that has slowly been shooting greenery up preceding the unveiling of its showy red flowers. Even the fruit we eat this time of year serves to colorfully decorate the table: pomegranates, tangerines and cranberries among the last apples of fall.

It is also tradition to decorate the exterior of the home, and although Christmas lights are modern favorites, the customary decorations are not giant blowup Santas, nor are they plastic reindeer. The time-honored decorations are found in nature, the beauty of the forest brought to your door. We made our own wreath this year, using plants found in South Carolina. Notice the purple beautyberry, the red holly berries, the (naturalized) sawtooth oak acorns and sweetgum seeds. Orange slices can be dehydrated in the oven to make colorful additions to a wreath or garland.

Another of my favorite ornaments for use in the outdoors are pine cones. We were visiting a friend and discovered a horse pasture full of longleaf pine cones – large, round, with sturdy scales, perfect for our uses. Do note many species of pine (including longleaf) have cones with armed umbos – this means there is a sharp projection at the scale tip of seed-bearing cones. But this just means a little attention must be paid while working with the cones.

Using string or craft wire one can wire cones into their wreaths, or hang them from a Christmas tree. Our favorite pine cone activity this year was to make birdfeeders. Materials needed include: a pine cone, peanut butter, birdseed, string. The kids spread the peanut butter on the pine cone and then roll in the birdseed, after which the parent helps tie a string around the tip of the cone to hang it from a tree for the neighborhood birds to enjoy. If you can't find pine cones try using a piece of stale bread and a cookie cutter, as on the table in the picture above. Such an easy project, but the results are still pleasing to the eye.

However you choose to bedeck your home these holidays, remember to keep your eyes open as there are materials everywhere! Whether they be dried grasses or flowers found on an evening stroll, fallen acorns, seeds or pine cones from the tree down the street, or simply a branch from a tree or shrub in your backyard, the simplicity of natural decorations is an integral part of a Baltic Christmas.

Our friend's horses - Wik, Zen and Huck

Day Sixteen on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas – more on Christmas trees and their decorations and DIY puzuri!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 14 - Latvian Christmas ornaments

Day Fourteen of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas is by Laima, a first-generation Latvian living in Wisconsin. By day she coordinates software development and testing, and much of the rest of the time, she plays with art!

Latvian Christmas ornaments, like many other traditions in the world these days, have been changing and shifting over the years. Originally they tended to be all natural, made from things any person could find while out on a walk: berries, pinecones, straw and the like. 

It was at one time not uncommon to light actual real candles on your tree, too. (Though in today's world, even lighting this ONE candle for approximately 10 seconds to take this picture was about 9 seconds too long for me.)

Eventually, as you can see by the variety of geometric designs above, with a little bit of creative effort, even "natural" becomes fancier and fancier. You will find straw ornaments like these all over eastern and northern Europe, and I think it would be very difficult to definitively pinpoint the one place where these straw ornaments originated. Not pictured, but worth trying to make if you have some time, are the Latvian puzuri. These are a more 3D variation on the straw ornaments.

Latvians generally pride themselves on being a resourceful people, so it should come as no surprise that these days a Latvian Christmas tree includes decorations made from many other materials including yarn, string, cookies, beads, wax, and even glass.

The geometric designs found in Latvia lend themselves well to all sorts of applications. Also, the various symbolic meanings of the Latvian designs dovetail well with a lot of the symbolism included in the period between Christmas and New Year's. By the way, I don't encourage you to ever try to *photograph* mirrored ornaments, but these guys look pretty great sparkling in a tree. 

As we learned in an earlier post, Latvians are well known for their amazing mittens and embroidery. And so it is that miniature mittens and other sewn ornaments make an excellent Latvian Christmas ornament! (and teeny mittens are right about the perfect amount of effort for someone like me to make, since I do not particularly enjoy knitting. Both of the pairs pictured were made by my grandmother.)

Many variations for Latvian folk costumes exist; the different patterns, different embroidery, and different colors on each figure indicate what part of Latvia each couple represents. However, we don't always have a lot of opportunities to show them off. As a result, many Latvians (especially Latvians living abroad) enjoy putting these tiny dancing figures on their Christmas tree.

And finally, not pictured, but definitely worth making are some traditional Latvian gingerbread cookies (see Day 5!) to turn into ornaments. Simply poke a small hole in the cookie before you bake it (or right after taking them out from the oven if you have super tough fingers that can take the heat), and later pull string or a ribbon through the hole to add these delicious treats to your tree.

Thank you Laima; I think you’ve just described a majority of the ornaments on our Christmas tree this year! Laima documents her beautiful creations on her site, L-A-I-M-A. Tomorrow on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas a fun craft - hope you'll join us!

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