According to friends I should have just called this series a nature-inspired 24 Days of Christmas, because so many of the ornaments aren’t purely Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian… While this may be true, I have to underscore the importance of nature/the natural in the Baltics. The most important holidays of the year (Jāņi, Ziemassvētki, Lieldienas for Latvians...) are all tied to the change of seasons, and these rythms of the natural year carry over into everyday life. Historically so much depended on the natural world (the harvest especially), and so the Baltic peoples lived life close to nature: eyes open for signs that seeds could be sowed or harvested, the livestock let out to graze for the season, for animal behavior that might signal weather patterns. They were also practical folk, decorating their homes with what was on hand, such as evergreen branches, pine cones and dried grasses in the winter. Latvians were drinking bone broth and birch tree juice before they were featured on trendy NYC menus, and teas and herbal remedies have been a way of life for hundreds of years.
The traditional brown and green ceramics of Latvia certainly reflect these ties with nature, as do the traditional symbols that often adorn pots and vases. Some symbols, directly represent plants and things found in nature, such as the Jumis and Skujiņa (I talked more in depth about Jumis here). The Skujiņa (evergreen needle) symbol is repetitive lines running parallel to one another, similar to the needles on a fir or spruce. When you draw the stem in down the middle it is called a Laimes slotiņa (Laima’s broom), Laima being an ancient Latvian goddess of the life cycles of people. With her broom she would sweep away all that’s bad from a life story...
With some Sculpey oven-bake clay that we found on sale we settled on yet another nature-inspired craft that could easily be made more Baltic by incorporating some of the traditional symbology. We rolled out the clay on a work surface, cut out shapes using cookie cutters, and then experimented with pressing various branches, leaves and seeds into the clay. The boys had fun collecting on a recent hike, the task made more enjoyable by trying to guess what would leave identifiable marks and designs on the clay.
Some items such as sweetgum seeds did not work as well, as they tended to tear holes in the clay without leaving any particular pattern. Meanwhile, evergreens left beautiful skujiņas and Laimas slotas, delicate arrangements worthy of display on our Christmas tree. The consensus was to leave our ornaments very natural this year; other than baking to harden the clay, and tying a piece of raffia and maybe a seed or bell on to hang the ornaments with, we left them alone.
In addition to painting the finished product, one could also press some of the other traditional symbols into the clay: Ūsiņa zīme, Mārtiņa zīme or an auseklīts. We’ve used lace doilies to imprint patterns, but in my opinion the most beautiful ones come from nature: western red cedars and their latticework of needles, ferns and dried seed heads, leaves with distinct veins reflecting entire trees on their surfaces… Most importantly have fun making them, and do it together as a family or group of friends – you’ll find the time together to be just as beautiful as the end result. See you tomorrow on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas for a hearty Estonian winter's meal.