Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 4 - Čigāni

Budeļi by Linda Treija

Day 4 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas is by Imanta at travelivenjoy. Originally from the US, Imanta is currently living in Latvia, teaching English & making music after a teaching assignment in France.

As a child, I remember my mother having a box of costume clothes. I wasn’t too fond of them since they weren’t the typical costume clothes a child looks forward to- princess skirts and tiaras. Instead they were a bit frightening, a man’s facemask and a big furry cloak, like bear’s fur, mixed in with bright patterned scarves.

I remember being a guest in a home where we usually celebrated Latvian events, calmly sitting in the living room and singing songs for one reason or another. I wasn’t explained much, but I was always told to listen. Then there was the time when, while at one of these events, I had been playing with the other children and all of a sudden was called upstairs to see what was happening. A big ruckus had arrived, noise, singing, drums beating and people in costumes that looked awfully familiar to the ones in my mother’s box. They made us dance with them and poked fun at us. The adults seemed entertained, even offered them food and were not at all scared. Halloween was long past; it was closer to Christmas… who were these people? Why were they doing this?

Eventually, through Latvian school lessons and parental explanations, I finally got an answer to this strange tradition, which has many names. Čigāni, budēļi, ķekatnieki, and many more depending on the region in Latvia and the time of year, all symbolize the procession of noise making, dressing up in costumes, visiting homes and making a ruckus for others. Some might find it similar to the American tradition of Mummers, but the costumes are far less extravagant.

Čigāni - photo credit Kristīna Putnis
The key to the costumes is that no one recognizes your face or voice. It can be as simple as dressing as the opposite sex- a man dresses like a woman, or a woman like a man. Animals are also popular costumes, such as bears, goats, horses, and storks. Even spirits join in the game and people can dress as Death, God, the Devil, ghosts, the Tall Woman, etc. In Latvia today, people have competitions to come up with the best costumes and masks for these events.

One can go budēļos from Mārtiņi to Miķeļi, in calendar terms from the middle of November to the middle of February. Why such a long time? These months of winter are very dark and dreary in Latvia, so, for the most part in the past it was a way to keep entertained. It is also believed that evil spirits roam the dark months and so, by being visited by budēļi, čigāni or the like, you scare away the evil spirits. This is also why it’s important to make a lot of noise when going on these costumed travels. By making noise, you scare away the bad energy. These special guests also are believed to bring good luck, good health and fertility. So, you better let them in and you better have something ready to give them! In addition to inspecting your house and your quick wit, budēļi expect to be given food and drink. This is to give them energy in their continuing quests.

Today in Latvia, the tradition continues with its modern twists and civilized social settings. Events to go budēļos are usually planned in advance and organized by folklore groups, however some people do still get together and surprise their neighbors. The music and the songs of this wintery tradition are very lively and always allow for listener participation- even if it’s only by whistling and clapping! So don’t fear if you hear bells and whistles coming towards you- know it’s good fortune and brings good tidings in the wintery months!

Here are some links to folk groups who have recorded some songs about this tradition. Laiksne, is a post-folk group from Riga, who takes traditional melodies and puts a modern spin on the tunes. Using traditional instruments like the kokle, Jew’s harp, drums and violins, the women of this group enjoy adding their own flair to the music. They often perform for traditional festivals, but also accompany newlyweds for Latvian wedding ceremony traditions. Their latest album, Es čigāna meita biju (I was the daughter of a gypsy), highlights a combination of Christmas songs and songs about this tradition of going čigānos.

At Laiksne’s anniversary concert in December 2013, the ladies made masks to surprise the audience with a festive song. Listen to Svatki guoja for the noise ruckus of this fun and a bit eerie tradition!

Skandinieki are a group that have been actively reviving and continuing Latvian traditions for many years.  Their arrangements of songs are much more true to traditional melodies and arrangements, they pride themselves on upholding these traditions for future generations.
Laid māmiņa; a song which represents the čigāni coming to the house and asking to be let in. Listen to it here -

A video of the XV Mask festival parade, in February 2014, in Rīga will show you some excellent examples of the costumes and masks people put together.  It’s long, so I recommend jumping around to see the most variety. At around 40:30 to the end you can see a traditional program of songs, dances and games.

Thank you Imanta! To read more about Imanta's musical musings please visit her other blog, Harmonic Prose, and follow her on twitter @iiimanta. Stay tuned for tomorrow's post on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas - the recipe for piparkūkas...


  1. A post with music - yayyy! :) Paldies, Imanta!

  2. Purchase the LAIKSNE album here:


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