Saturday, December 24, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 24, Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus!

Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus! Linksmų Kalėdų! Häid jõule! May your holidays be warm and bright, and may the New Year bring health and happiness!!!

I’m very grateful to everyone who contributed to this series; in the form of posts, photographs, illustrations and ideas. As to the readers, the friends who commented and translated, and those who put me in contact with bloggers and authors all over the world, a heartfelt paldies - the series would not have been a success without you. A special thanks to Inga, whose beautiful logo is gracing each post in this third iteration! There is a Latvian saying trīs lietas, labas lietas (three things are good things), and truly this third year of the Baltic Christmas series has been ‘a good thing’ for me… On this final day of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas I’ve put together a chronology of all the posts we’ve seen this month; I hope it helps facilitate a revisit to your favorite post, and serves as a reminder for any that you might have missed.

After kicking off the series on December 1st, Day 2 brought a rundown of all the Baltic Christmas markets scheduled for the month. On Day 3 we visited a market that had already taken place – Seattle’s Bazaar – through Inta Wiest’s photos.

On Day 4 the Lithuanian Honorary Consul Dr. Roma Kličius shared photos of the Lithuanian Christmas tree at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The following day (Day 5) we traveled to the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago where all three Baltic countries have Christmas trees displayed as part of the Christmas Around the World Celebration.

Author Daiva Venckus returned to the series on Day 6 with her post on
Lithuanian pre-Christian rituals and superstitions in today’s Catholic celebration. Then on Day 7, the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas gift guide, followed by Inga’s Latvian Honey Torte recipe on Day 8.

Day 9 was musings on modern day piparkūku baking, and Day 10 featured a Latvian Christmas story by Margarita Stāraste Barvika, introduction by Inga.

On Day 11 we headed into Latvia’s National Forests with Māris and Nora in search of a Christmas tree. Then on Day 12 Karl Altau joined us with his post Wishing you a Mixed-up Estonian Melting Pot Christmas!

The Kristaps Porzingis Santa ad was on Day 13 (along with some other fun things concerning the Latvian Knicks player), and then on Day 14 we welcomed Lithuanian author Jenn Virskus with her memories of making žagarėliai with Teta.

Day 15 brought a quick round-up of a few Baltic drink options ranging from cocktails for a themed holiday dinner party to a digestif for a quiet after-shopping gift wrapping session with your husband.

Daina, from the blog Latvian-American Adventures and Opinions joined us on Day 16 with a post on celebrating the winter solstice. On Day 17 I touched on a Latvian favorite holiday staple, pelēkie zirņi (or grey peas).

Let the Journey Begin’s Ilze explored the Rīga Christmas market with us on Day 18.

On Day 19 we welcomed Catherine Nurmepuu, a first-generation Estonian-American, to the series. She wrote about Christmas with her Estonian grandparents, and shared a way for us to include our ancestors in our holiday celebrations.

It was back to Lithuania on Day 20, to visit the Vilnius Christmas market with Elizabeth from the blog In Search Of. Day 21 brought us Inga’s recipe for Aleksandra torte, as baked by Holden’s test kitchen.

I was delighted to have my grandmother join us on Day 22 with her comparison of Christmas past and present! And finally on Friday (Day 23) I shared five links for you to check out while taking a break from your final Christmas preparations.

I hope you enjoyed this third year of counting down the days to a Baltic Christmas! We’re so thankful to have been part of your holiday preparations this month, and hope you found some Christmas spirit here on Femme au Foyer. I wish you and yours a very merry Christmas and a fantastic New Year.

Until next year,


Friday, December 23, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 23

Five for Friday, 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas edition

Only two days left in the countdown! With everyone in the throes of final preparations before Christmas Eve, I leave you with these five links on Day 23 of the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas...

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, represented by MSI Christmas trees

1. Estonia and Latvia have kicked it up a notch with the feud over which was the site of the world’s first decorated Christmas tree. Rīga says it was first, in 1510, Tallinn claims a much earlier tree (1441), and Lithuania, “though (it) has no claim to the first Christmas tree… hopes to compete with even larger and more elaborate presentations…” Read all about it in yesterday’s New York Times article “Who Tossed on the First Tinsel? Two Baltic Capitals Disagree.” Then eat some piparkūkas and wish your Baltic neighbors priecīgus Ziemassvētkus, putting the feud off until next year.

2. The Latvian and Estonian winter solstice celebrations often feature mummers, costumed figures who are thought to bless the households they visit, encourage fertility, and frighten away evil spirits. Meanwhile in Austria, the traditional “Perchten” groups are also chasing away the evil winter ghosts…

3. Need some last minute gift tags? Print out a few sheets of these holiday gift tags by Phoebe Wahl from Taproot magazine! Although a bit more Nordic than Baltic, they’ll holidize and festivate your packages in no time, helping to bling in the New Year...

 4. These photographs by Alexey Kljatov feature snowflakes in extreme close-up, the natural symmetry astounding in detail. View the gallery before going out to shovel snow…

source here

5. Finally, the Christmas card of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid is called 'We Are Stronger Together.' The card was drawn by illustrator Kärt Einasto and the soundtrack is by Maarja Nuut, the arrangement of her song Õdangule specifically made for the occasion.

That's all for today. We’ll see you tomorrow on the final day of our countdown to a Baltic Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 22 and vecmammas svecītes

Today on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas please welcome my grandmother Ilze; longtime reader, first time contributor! 

In the big city I now live in, one definitely knows it is Christmas time as the Christmas lights are everywhere – in stores, malls, trees & windows. Homes are decorated with bright lights of different sizes and colors, some even twinkling. I do like the lights, but in my childhood in Rīga, Latvia, Christmas did not start in late October; it began at the very end of December… and there weren’t strings of lights everywhere. (Yes, we did have electricity!)

There were candles, special small white candles for the trees, sometimes also in different colors. And there were special candle holders that were made to securely fit on the tree branches, which were stored year to year together with the tree ornaments. The family Christmas tree – freshly cut – was set up early on Christmas Eve in the living room. Always a tall tree, reaching up to the 10ft ceiling. Decorated with ornaments, handmade or store bought, elaborate heirlooms. And the small candles, many, many candles.

After supper the family gathered around the tree and the “grown-ups” lit the candles, one by one. It was amazing to watch the room growing lighter. The warm glow of the flickering flames made even the smallest children sit still. A small twig would catch the heat of the flame and the room would fill of the scent of Christmas…

Was it dangerous? Yes. There was one Christmas Eve, I was probably 4-5 years old, when my grandpa walked between the tree and the window and the sheer curtain touched a candle and suddenly went up in flames! I remember screaming and was taken out of the room, and do not know how the fire was extinguished. But later that evening things were back to normal, the candles were relit, we were singing and the children had to recite their poems or perform a piano piece.

I still have a tree every year – a live, “real” Christmas tree – in my living room. It is trimmed with ornaments and strings of lights. But I always have a few candles in it. On Christmas Eve for a brief moment the electric lights are turned off and the candles lit. If only for a few minutes, we let the glow of the candles in a tree spread the magic and warmth of Christmas that only candlelight can give.

Paldies vecmamma! I'm grateful that you were willing to share your memories and impressions with us, just as I'm thankful for each of the songs sung by candlelight around your Christmas tree each year. Christmas Eve has for me been forever characterized by the smells and sights of gathering in your living room for the holidays - from the hot beef bouillon served upon returning from the Christmas service, to the unique table settings, to those minutes spent in the gleam of the candles in your Christmas tree... 

As we approach the end of the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas, I wish each and every one of you a few moments of calm in your holiday bustle, and the simple pleasure of the warmth of candlelight on these dark winter nights. Enjoy your final svētvakara preparations, and we'll see you tomorrow on Day 23 of the countdown!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 21 and Alexander Torte!

In recent years Alexander cake has seen a rebirth of popularity, garnering recognition in contests such as the annual Chicago Tribune Holiday Cookie Contest where Aelita Kivirist recently won an Honorable Mention with her version of the Latvian recipe. Dare I say it, but the torte is yet another case of a dispute in origin, just as the Estonian/Latvian Christmas tree debacle - the Finns also claim Alexander cake as their creation, their version called Alexanderbakelsen. The stories are remarkably similar; the czar of Russia, Alexander the First, visited the capital city Rīga/Helsinki somewhere around 1814/1818 when he was served this shortbread layered cookie/torte on his birthday, named in his honor. And although Wikipedia gives credit to the Latvians for Alexandertorte, the dessert also goes by the names Alexander Torte, Aleksander Torte, Aleksandra kūka and Aleksandra torte, so I’m not sure there’s any definitive answer. Meanwhile, Estonians have their version (Aleksandrikook), justifying its appearance today on Day 21 of the Baltic Christmas series, and I'll add that in Denmark it is known as hindbærsnitte, just to mix things up a bit… The truth of the matter will not be unearthed in this 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas post (surprise!); instead, Inga is sharing her recipe as baked by Holden’s Test Kitchen…

Most every Latvian femme au foyer has her own go-to Alexander Cake recipe, and they come with a variety of toppings and crusts. However, the key is in its simplicity; the torte is just two layers of crust sandwiching a layer of raspberry jam and topped with a lemon juice glaze. The tartness of the lemon juice provides a perfect contrast to the sweet shortbread, and although the layers can be tricky to size perfectly, the end result is cut into bars which helps hide any imperfections.

Aleksander’s  Torte


(For the cake)

FLOUR                              2 cups       
BAKING POWDER               1½ teaspoons
CINNAMON                        ½ teaspoon
SUGAR                              ¾ cup
UNSALTED BUTTER            ½ cup
SALTED BUTTER                ½ cup
EGG                                 1

(For the filling)

RASPBERRY JAM                 ½ - ¾ cup

(For the glaze)

LEMON JUICE                     from 2 lemons
POWDERED SUGAR             1 pound

1. Preheat the oven to 375°.

2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and sugar.

3. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork.

4. Cut all the butter in small pieces, add to the flour mixture. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until crumbly.

5. Add the beaten egg to the flour and mix with a fork until blended.  Form the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, chill in the refrigerator about ½ hour.

6. Divide dough into three equal parts.  Roll out each piece fairly thin onto a lightly greased cookie sheet.  Poke a few holes with a fork (so the dough does not bubble off of the sheet as it is baking), and bake in the preheated oven about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

7. When the cake sheets have cooled slightly, spread one with half the raspberry jam.  Place second cake sheet on top of jam, and spread remaining jam.

8. Place third cake sheet on jam, and cover with glaze:

9. FOR THE GLAZE: Squeeze juice from the lemons.  Add juice in small amounts, slowly, to the powdered sugar, constantly mixing it in, until the glaze is the “right” consistency.

10. When the torte has cooled completely*, cut it into small squares with a very sharp knife.

*This torte tastes best when allowed to stand a few hours or overnight, to let the flavors meld.

A special thank you to my mother for allowing me to share her recipe, and to Holden’s Test Kitchen for the photographs and another test-run! This is another one of those recipes that often finds itself on the holiday dessert table, because it can be made ahead, is relatively easy to put together, and provides wow-factor for the taste buds and in appearance. Whenever we make Aleksandra torte it always disappears off the plate – the kids and adults just can’t seem to get enough! 

As we count down the final days to Christmas, I want to express my gratitude to all of our readers for helping make this year’s 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas series a success. Thank you for all of your comments, shares, likes and words of encouragement; that’s the driving force behind it all – to share our Baltic Christmas with the world…

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 20, the Vilnius Christmas market

Today on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we journey to Lithuania with Elizabeth from the blog In Search Of. Elizabeth writes that she loves visiting the Christmas markets in Europe, but especially loves the one in Vilnius...

Vilnius’ Enchanting Christmas Market and Charity Bazaar

As my expat home for the past four years, I’ve been able to enjoy Vilnius’ wonderful Christmas markets and yearly Charity Bazaar since 2013. Actually, Vilnius’ was the first Christmas market that I had the opportunity to experience, so though it’s much smaller than other European Christmas markets, it remains one of my favorites. This year, the Vilnius Christmas market is the best yet because it really brightens up the grey days and long nights with sparkling white lights and a massive tree decorated with green lights. The sparkling white lights are strung in such a way that they connect from the tree to the surrounding cottage-like market stalls, enveloping you under a sparkling sky. I’m really impressed with the 2016 Christmas market.

The market stalls this year have also really stepped up their game, and you’ll find tasty snacks, such as dried meat, mulled wine, spurga (mini donuts), and bubble waffles, knit goods, bow ties, and other little gifts to bring home.


Another wonderful yearly Christmastime event is the International Christmas Charity Bazaar, which takes place on one day only in early December. This yearly event is held in the Rotuse (Vilnius City Hall), and last year the bazaar raised 142,235 euros. The money is donated to improve facilities for children across Lithuania, with a focus on hospitals and schools. So, you’ll be able to purchase wonderful Christmas gifts and the money will go to a great cause!


This year, the Vilnius Christmas market runs until December 29th, so if you are in Vilnius for the holidays you should visit!

Thank you Elizabeth for your insight into the Vilnius Christmas scene! Elizabeth writes about her Baltic and international travels on In Search Of, and you can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. The photographs from the 2016 market first appeared here - In Search Of: Photo Diary From Vilnius, Lithuania's 2016 Christmas Market - and are reposted with permission. Elizabeth also has a gorgeous post on this year's Tallinn Christmas market, which can be found here... Tomorrow on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas is a popular Latvian dessert recipe – please join us for some Aleksandra kūka!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 19, Christmas with the Ancestors

Catherine Nurmepuu is a first-generation Estonian-American. An attorney, award-winning essayist, healer and history teacher, Catherine lives in an 1840s home in historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. She was recently able to reclaim her grandfather’s ancestral land in Estonia, and seeks to be a bridge for her family traditions on both continents. Happiest outside, she enjoys bog trekking in Estonia as well as playing on the heights of the Appalachian Trail… Please help me extend a warm welcome to Catherine today on the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas!

Christmas with the Ancestors

Holiday time at my Estonian grandparents’ home in Appalachia was marked with all the usual regalia -- the tree, the handmade straw ornaments, the tiny knitted mittens, the curious smells in the kitchen, and of course, the dead people.

Yes: The dead people.

Tiny faces and places in smudged black and white or sepia tones, smuggled out of a war zone and now tucked into five-for-a-dollar K-mart picture frames, marched out at Christmastime onto bookshelves and end tables. My grandparents had fled their homeland of Estonia during World War 2, and presumed most of their family to be dead. Born in 1970s America, I could not understand much of this, but I understood the pictures were stories: of people, places lost, but still loved dearly.

So I learned about Tallinn’s towers covered in snow, about farms hidden in deep forests, about sleigh rides and songs, and most of all, about the people lost but loved. My grandparents’ happy family memories of far-away and long-ago became the holiday legends of my youth, as cozily traditional as Charlie Brown’s tree or Rudolph’s great quest.

As it turns out, the idea of bringing one’s ancestors nearer during the winter holiday is far from new.

In old Estonian folk calendars, the “Souls’ Visiting Time” was often attributed to a variety of holidays throughout the late harvest season, when the days grew shorter and shorter, commencing around November 1 and lasting through Christmastime.

Modern folklorists describe an ancient understanding of family ties stretching beyond the grave. In some parts of Estonia, deceased relatives were thought to continue working the family’s farm, for good or ill. If a farmer truly wished for a successful new growing season, it was important to ensure one’s ancestors felt appreciated!

A common practice involved setting out food for the spirits of ancestors, often in unusual places, like high in the farmhouse loft. A mark of good manners was to let the spirits’ plate sit a while, allowing unseen guests to have their fill before the living would join the feast. (I cannot help empathizing with the children of this period, who must have been driven quite mad by all the delicious smells wafting about the home, and the rule of waiting -- and waiting -- and WAITING -- to eat!)

As the only Estonian (so far) in my small Appalachian village, things can feel rather lonely at times. Intentionally keeping our family memories close, especially at holidays, is a cozy antidote! Photos are an excellent prompt for sharing stories: my son is very curious to know about the people and places pictured, just as I was!

This year, we’re bringing our ancestors into Christmas by making photograph ornaments.

Small photo frame ornaments are often available at dollar stores, or can be cheaply made with popsicle sticks or twigs gathered from outdoors. If you want to be really fancy about it, here is a tutorial involving resin, which I have found quite easy to follow.

I would suggest using copies of actual relatives’ photos, if possible, but these can sometimes be difficult to locate, or to reproduce at high quality. Another suggestion would be to use photos of places or symbols associated with your relatives: a famous building from a city, the church someone attended, a tree or key feature of the land where they lived, a tool used in their livelihood or hobby. Estonian family names often refer to things in nature, such as a tree, animal, or river, providing additional inspiration. Have fun with it!

Thank you Catherine! We are so grateful to have this beautiful post included in our 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas - what a wonderful way to include our ancestors in present day celebrations... Follow Catherine on Facebook at or on Instagram at ResearchAllTheThings, and please join us tomorrow for the Vilnius Christmas market on Yet Another Baltic Christmas Day 20!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 18, the Riga Christmas Market

Today Ilze joins us on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas straight from Rīga, with an afternoon at the Latvian Christmas market!

A Walk through the Riga Christmas Market

There’s nothing better to light up the cold and dark Latvian winter than Christmas decorations and Christmas markets. They fill the air with smells of mulled wine and smoke from fires where meat is frying and almonds are roasting. You can find local handcrafts of all kinds while sampling various treats and enjoying festive music.

The main Christmas market in Riga opens annually on the weekend of the 1st Advent in Doma Laukums at the heart of the city. The beautiful Dome Cathedral serves as a beautiful backdrop to the Christmas market magic.

The various stalls offer everything you may need for Christmas gift shopping. There are stands with local handcrafts like colorful wool mittens and socks, wooden toys and kitchen utensils, beeswax candles, unique jewelry from silver and amber, and much more.

Other stalls offer healthy, and often quite innovative, delicacies from local honey and berries, as well as a variety of Latvian meats. Blood sausage with lingonberry jam anyone?

Of course, a Christmas market would not be complete without such classic treats as gingerbread, that comes both in traditional and modern styles.

If you are getting hungry, there is plenty to warm your tummy, often cooked in open fireplaces. Other stalls offer a considerable variety of berry mulled wines.

After spending a little while in the market, our two-year-old suddenly exclaimed: there’ s a rooster on top of the Christmas tree! Yes, indeed there was, and not only on the top of it.

Speaking of our daughter, her favorite stall at the Christmas market had nothing to do with food or handcrafts. She loved the small barn with sheep and bunnies so much that we stopped by three times so that she could feed them with fresh hay.

The market also gives an opportunity to learn about Latvian Christmas and winter solstice traditions. While we were visiting, a folk music group was singing traditional songs and everyone was invited to participate in dances and games (rotaļas).

While Christmas markets in countries such as Germany promptly close on the afternoon of the 24th December, the Riga Christmas Market stays open until January 6th. Visit if you have the chance!

Thank you Ilze! My boys would love visiting the barn, as well as to join in the rotaļas – how fun!

Ilze is a social researcher and an intercultural trainer, a mom and a blogger. Originally from Latvia, her path of education brought her to Northern Germany where she met her future husband and decided to stay for a little longer. Ilze blogs about her adventures in expat life, as well as trilingual and multicultural parenting at Let the Journey Begin, and can be found on facebook and Instagram. Thanks for joining us today on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas, and we hope you’ll return tomorrow for an Estonian Christmas with the ancestors

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 17, pelēkie zirņi with bacon!

It’s hard to write about something when you don’t even know what to call it! Grey peas? In England they are also known as maple peas, Carlin peas and pigeon peas, but in Latvian they’re pelēkie zirņi, the thought of which for me immediately conjures up memories of Ziemassvētki and Vecgada vakari past…

For my family it isn’t a New Year’s Eve without pelēkie zirņi, but even though it might be hard to imagine the holidays without them, there are really no similar peas popular here that they can be compared to. One source I found said that the grey peas that are prevalent in Latvia are of the L. Pisum sativum arvense variety, but whatever the case, the unassuming legumes are so well-liked that they are considered the unofficial national food – even though they’re eaten but once a year.

Peas, grains and beans have long been staples of Baltic cuisine, due to ease of storage and the short growing season that enable successful crops even during the short, cool Latvian summers. Full of vitamins B, C and E, they are also a valuable source of protein, and their stronghold on the Latvian menu persisted until the introduction of the potato in the early 19th century.

Tradition dictates that when grey peas are prepared, every person must eat at least a handful of the pelēkie zirņi. The saying goes that on New Year’s Eve the pot of peas must be eaten entirely (so plan accordingly when preparing!) so that no tears will be shed in the New Year. Grey peas and bacon are one of the most popular traditional Latvian dishes during the holiday season, and in many households is guaranteed a place on the Christmas table.

Your biggest hurdle in preparing this dish will be to source the grey peas. stocks them (but requires 2-3 weeks to ship from Latvia), so your best bet might be to get in touch with someone traveling from Latvia, or to visit one of the seasonal Ziemassvētku tirdziņi held in your area. This year I will be making the Zelta Saule brand, which is one of the options carried by Balticshop, but in previous years we've had many other brands and they've all served up well.

Grey Peas and Bacon

1 lb of grey peas
1 lb of bacon
1 onion

After rinsing the peas, cover them with cold water and let them soak overnight (at the very least for three hours). The next day strain the peas and rinse them again, then cover with cold water in a small pot and bring to a boil. Continue cooking over low heat for 1 ½ to 2 hours until tender, adding salt to taste about 10 minutes before they’re ready.

Meanwhile, dice an onion and the bacon – we prefer smoked – and fry those up. When the peas are ready, mix all three. Serve warm! I enjoy a dollop of sour cream with mine, although purists might argue that this detracts from the authenticity… I’ve also heard that the beans can be added to the bacon and fried for a few minutes together before serving, and the dish can be seasoned with herb of preference – ours is probably dill.

Say what you will, Latvian grey peas have been listed on the European Protected Designations of Origin (PDO) list. It’s a good, hearty food for a cold winter’s eve, and the tradition behind the dish is what will keep pelēkie zirņi on our New Year’s Eve menu. Have you ever had grey peas? Do Lithuanians and Estonians have a similar traditional dish?

With only a week left until Christmas, we are in the final days of this countdown. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series up until now, and stay tuned tomorrow for a visit to a Ziemassvētku tirdziņš in Rīga!

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