Friday, December 8, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 8 - A Baltic Christmas in Britain

For Day 8 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we travel from Atlanta, GA to Britain! Please join me in welcoming Emily Gilbert, author and blogger at Changing Identities: Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain!

Estonian Christmas tree, Photo: Reet Järviks
Christmas is a time when many Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain recreate the traditions of their homelands and their parents’ homelands. Among the families of those who were forced to leave their homelands due to the Second World War, the unique traditions surrounding Christmas are of great importance, and provide an opportunity to reconnect with their Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian heritage.

Anita Woronycz, a second-generation Lithuanian living in Wales, recreates the traditions of 1930s Lithuania with her Lithuanian mother, who came to Britain after the Second World War. She described to me how they mix the traditions of Lithuania and Britain, so that all three generations in the family can enjoy this special time and celebrate their unique heritage. In Lithuanian tradition, Christmas Eve is the most important meal during the Christmas period and many Lithuanians in Britain have carried on this custom, known as Kūčios. In Anita’s family, the table is laid to seat all the generations, and red candles lit.

Anita's Family's Christmas Eve table

Anita’s mother and her Lithuanian sister-in law prepare many of the traditional twelve dishes eaten on Christmas Eve in Lithuania, but adapt them to suit their tastes. Kūčios is a meatless meal consisting of mainly uncooked dishes, including fish & vegetable dishes and bread. Anita’s mother prepares kisielius which is a cranberry dessert or drink of varying thickness. Anita’s late father, also Lithuanian, modified this dish to include the Lithuanian Christmas biscuits made with poppy seed, known as kūčiukai (šližikai), and Anita continues this family tradition: "Every family has their own traditions, just as the Brits do. I throw my Christmas Eve biscuits into my cranberry kissel (kisielius)!" Anita noted that at this meal they also eat coleslaw and crab sticks, which are "definitely not traditional!"

Before the meal, Anita noted the importance of the sharing of the "blessed Christmas wafers (plotkele) before eating." In Anita’s family, these are sent over from Lithuania by a family member.

Anita’s kūčiukai in kisielius

Latvians in Britain also prepare Latvian food for Christmas, and adapt it to varying degrees to suit their tastes. A Latvian woman who came to Britain in the late 1940s noted that she always made pīrāgi (a Latvian bread roll containing bacon) around Christmas time, in a similar way to how many English people make a batch of mince pies for the festive season.

Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain find it much easier to maintain traditions today than during the first decades after the war due to the wider availability of foodstuffs, which has increased further due to post-EU immigration from the Baltic countries. After the war and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain relied heavily on Polish products - which were the only similar food available in towns and cities outside London. A second-generation Latvian, Pauline Szelewski, noted that her family used to buy Polish products for Christmas: "Dad would seek out Polish products, which were the closest he could find at that time, I guess, i.e. sprats, black rye bread." As a second-generation Latvian living in Britain, Pauline notes that nowadays: "We have recreated our own low-key celebrations where we go for a walk in the country and enjoy a relaxed meal at the end of the day. We usually play charades, Scrabble, or watch a film."

During the period of war and displacement in the 1940s, it was particularly difficult to maintain the culinary and cultural Christmas traditions of the homeland. However, once in the safe havens of the DP camps, the refugees tried as much as possible (despite scant rations) to recreate homeland traditions. A Latvian woman described the food they had eaten in the DP Camps in Germany: "I know one Christmas Eve…. in the camp… all we had on that Christmas Eve – because I think they saved the nicer things for Christmas Day – we had boiled swede and sort of fresh herrings cooked in water. We didn’t even have fat. I will always remember that. But then on Christmas Day, I’m sure we had something much nicer. [But it was] not enough, no." A Lithuanian woman in Nottingham who was a child in Meerbeck DP camp also recalled that "…in Meerbeck, Father Christmas would bring us an orange. Now for me an orange… was fantastic. It was absolutely fantastic."

Pīrāgi (Photo: Alex Māzers)

After they arrived in Britain, Christmas became one of the most important ways to recall and celebrate customs of the homeland. In many cases traditions were adapted; for example, among intermarried couples, Christmas celebrations mixed two or more cultural traditions. An Estonian, Heino Poopuu, described how it was difficult to fully maintain the Estonian traditions with having an Irish wife: "At Christmas time we want to be feeling sort of nostalgic and listen to music, and well, we can’t listen to the same music. That’s one thing, and there are a great many other things."

Heino described how Christmas had been celebrated as a child on Saaremaa Island: "The evening of Christmas Eve was traditionally devoted to the observation of piety and might include going to church in the late afternoons, but the highpoint of the evening was the dinner of pearl barley sausages followed by carol singing under the candlelit Christmas tree. Children received one or two presents each – usually something to wear. The remaining three days were taken up with visiting and entertaining visiting relatives at home. When I was still very small, the custom of bringing straw indoors was still alive, enabling the children to play boisterous games which, I believe, was the reason mother stopped it as being too messy."

In Britain, the observance of religious traditions around Christmas continued to be important among all three Baltic communities, with Christmas church services taking place across Britain in the mother tongue. The communities also organized a variety of Christmas celebrations in clubs and associations across Britain. The picture below shows a Christmas party at the Estonian Club in Bradford in 2009 with Jõuluvana (Santa) and his helper (Päkapikk).

Photo courtesy of Reet Järvik

Another important aspect of Christmas among all three communities which differs from British tradition is the lighting of the Christmas trees with real candles. A second-generation Estonian in Britain, Reet Järvik described the importance of decorating her tree every year with wooden ornaments and real candles: "It is imperative that Estonians have a real Christmas tree with real candles. We have real candles every year."

In these ways, a Baltic Christmas in Britain is a mix of Latvian/Lithuanian/Estonian customs and British Christmas traditions, and even those of other cultures among intermarried couples. It has been fascinating to learn about how Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain celebrate Christmas, and I would like to wish everyone from all three communities in Britain and across the world, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Thank you Emily, for the illuminating look at Baltic Christmas traditions in Britain! Emily Gilbert is author of Rebuilding Post-War Britain: Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian Refugees in Britain, 1946-1951, Pen and Sword, 2017. For more from Emily, please visit her blog, Changing Identities: Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain.

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