Friday, December 14, 2018

Baltic Christmas Day 14 - An ode to verivorstid

Day 14 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas brings another new contributor, Andres Simonson, with his ‘ode to blood sausage.’ A big thanks to Estonian World for the courtesy of allowing me to feature this article on the series; it was originally published here


Sappho gave us Ode to Aphrodite. Beethoven composed the musical setting for Ode to Joy. John Keats praised a songbird in Ode to a Nightingale. But seemingly nobody has paid poetic homage to those odd little Estonian verivorstid (blood sausages). And frankly, that’s a tragedy.

Traditionally the centerpiece of the Estonian Christmas Eve meal, verivorstid are a mixture of pork, barley, animal blood, and spices. The filling is stuffed in casings and the links are boiled until firm and then roasted to a crispy crimson black. A rather unique treat, they deserve a bookmark in poetic lore. So with all apologies to the masters, let’s recognize these Estonian oddities with an Ode to Verivorstid.

Verivorstid, verivorstid you are so very
Dear to me on each Christmas Eve
Such a treat next to the lingonberry
Without you a Yule I could not conceive

Best washed down with a Saku brew
‘Cause suds so complement your spices
To verivorstid I pledge my love anew
Truly, you are one of my vices

And so I ask, what Christmas fool would eat plain ol’ ham
Instead of barley, cow blood, and marjoram

My verivorstid epiphany, when I realized what those freakish little links were truly about, occurred one early December morning in my childhood. Leaving my toys behind to fetch a drink, innocent and unaware, I wandered into the kitchen. And there they were: my mother, godmother and grandmother had gathered around the table. Three ladies, with blood-coated hands and blood-splattered aprons, mixing some unknown concoction in a small tub. Kitchen utensils, gleaming on one end and dripping gore from another, lay scattered like a surgeon’s tools in an operating room. The witches of wurst carefully added ingredients and stirred their mysterious stock.

My first reaction – there had been a murder. No, an accident. No, definitely a murder. How else to explain all the blood everywhere coupled with the blatant lack of concern. Why wasn’t anyone calling an ambulance?

Stifling a scream, I watched. One lady would stretch a flat hog casing over the small end of a funnel. Another would hold the funnel steady against the slip of a bloody hand. The third accomplice would pack the other end of the funnel with the sausage filling, slowly stuffing the intestinal wrapper. An assembly line most macabre, like some sort of low-budget Henry Ford inspired horror movie.

For many years, I was ruined. No verivorstid on my Christmas Eve plate. I would pass over the serving platter with a suspicious eye. Potatoes, yes. Sliced pork, sure. Pirukad(pies), bring them on. Bovine hemoglobinwurst, no thank you. And so it went – me with a conspicuously empty spot on my plate, and my parents assuredly wondering if their Estonian child had been switched at birth with some southern European.

But years later, after much soul searching and a convenient mental block of that dreadful December day in my childhood kitchen, I came around. It probably started with a nibble. Maybe a small forkful followed by a long drink from my glass, later progressing to timid helpings. Enthusiastic mouthfuls and requests for seconds followed later still.

Verivorstid with sauerkraut and lingonberry jam

Today, I look forward to verivorstid. I typically get at least two helpings, one at our local Estonian clubhouse Christmas party and another on a cold and dark Christmas Eve. I feel a connection to the old country when the oven opens and the sausages appear, bursting and charred, under a layer of crispy bacon. In an instant I can imagine peasants of yore, culinarily efficient and creative, not wanting to waste any part of the animal. I am transported back in time, to a farmhouse in Elva, and I embrace the scene, grab my fork, and acknowledge both my appetite and my ancestry.

It’s always fun to explain this tradition to my friends with roots in other parts of the world. They typically ask a few questions about taste and texture. Some ask about the source of the blood. Others ask for more information about the sausages’ history. None ever ask to be invited over for a sample.

And then there are my vegetarian and vegan friends. When exchanging stories of Christmas traditions the reaction to verivorstid is not quite revulsion, but something pretty close. What’s one to do though? I suppose a vegetarian recipe for blood sausages could be concocted. But as I’m sure true verivorstid enthusiasts would agree, soy sausages infused with a beet juice reduction and served under a layer of tofu bacon just wouldn’t cut it.

So this Christmas Eve, sing the “Ode to Verivorstid” before enjoying a plate full of Estonian blood sausage links. They are as much a part of the holiday as Christmas Eve mass, jolly fat guys in fuzzy red suits and decorated felled trees.

But be forewarned – as the old saying goes, sausages are like laws, you should never watch either being made.

Häid jõule kõigile! (Merry Christmas to all!)


It’s actually a funny coincidence; after receiving permission to publish this piece from Andres and Estonian World, I googled ‘vegetarian blood sausage.’ Wouldn’t you know I came up with what ended up as Day 6 of a Baltic Christmas, VeganSandra and her vegan blood sausage! Andres, if it’s any consolation, no tofu or beet juice reduction to be found… (And thank you, for introducing me to verivorstid!!!)

Andres is first generation American of Estonian descent. An enthusiastic estophile, he is an environmental consultant holding a bachelor's degree in environmental science and a master's in city and regional planning, concentrating in environmental planning. He resides in east Long Branch, NJ, with his loving wife and three darling daughters.Thank you to Andres for this witty article! 


Also, thank you to Estonian World for granting permission to reprint this article, which was originally published on December 23, 2013 on Estonian World. Please visit Estonian World on facebook and on Twitter. Photos courtesy of Visit Estonia and Wikimedia Commons.

Tomorrow on Day 15 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas: a light-filled craft...

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Baltic Christmas Day 13 - Dec. 21: Lighten Up

Please extend a warm welcome to Baņuta Rubess today, on Day 12 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas! Baņuta joins us with everything you need to know to pull the log this winter solstice...


December 21: Lighten Up

Here’s the way to make the sun shine and get rid of all your sorrows: cut a log, tie a rope to it, drag it around your house or City Hall. Take a bunch of friends with you. One of them might wear a wolf mask; another, dress up as a pig or a devil. You drag the log around the house, maybe even walking backwards, and singing all the time while banging loud instruments. Do it three times. Once you’re finished, burn the log. By doing this, you will have helped the sun to return and cleansed yourself and your community of all the lies and disappointments of the year.

You might be one of those people who like to turn on the television and keep a fire on the screen all day. Oddly enough, there’s a connection between you and this ritual. Wood and fire are not just a source of heat invoked in the winter. For the Latvians, a block of wood is like the heaviness in your heart. Anything bad you’ve done to someone, or they to you, the end of the year is the time to get rid of it. You can do it any time before Christmas, but the best time is December 21st, on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. That’s when it’s time to symbolically bring back the sun. The way you do it is by Dragging the Log: vilkt bluķi.

That heavy piece of wood was the ritual centrepiece for many Northern European cultures celebrating Jul: until the Christians stepped in, the Germans dragged a Julklotz, and the French turned into a confection of chocolate and whipped cream, the Bûche de Noël. The Catalans dress up their log and stuff it with presents, the Tio de Nadal. The English tradition focuses on the burning of the Yule Log.


The Latvian log can be any type of wood, but oak is preferred. It’s important for everybody in the community to take part in the pulling or rolling of the log at some point. The worst things are, the more times you should drag the log around the house. (I can think of some capital cities where one might need to do that for 24 hours.) The ritual can be repeated in many places before the log is burned. These days, you might even drag it over to your neighbours’, attached to a car.

You can interpret the Latvian tradition of vilkt bluķi in many ways: the log is heavy, as is your heart, as is the state of the world, and so it is a sombre event. Dragging the darn thing builds up a sweat and makes you feel warm in minus zero degrees, which makes for good exercise before all those heavy meals. The melodies of the songs you sing, with their refrain of kalado, kalando, kaļadā, olilo, are incantatory: you’re literally singing enchantments and spells that have a history reaching far beyond Hogwarts. As the folklore specialist Zoja Heimrāte has pointed out, in Latin, kalenda means change: change feeds your soul. After pulling that log, and burning it, you can spread the ashes over your fields as fertilizer, a practice forbidden by the early Christians in the sixth century, by the way, and later appropriated (the log became the ‘Christ log’.) Burning the log taps into one of the deepest joys humans have — the discovery of fire and the ability to create your own mini-sun in the midst of vast darkness.

“All the roads are full of fires” is the traditional song to sing while dragging the log, and it’s an easy one, because the melody is very simple (see link below). The roads are full of fire, but people are in control of the fire; the fire is not a threat. The song goes on to say that the roads are also full of keys, meaning that a resolution, or a revelation is near at hand. As the song develops, it says that you’re going to have to go through a lot of stuff, through ‘everything’. You can’t avoid the trials and tribulations of life. But ‘ dieviņš’ – Little God, the divine spark of life – will stand by you and help you get through the darkness.

Photo credit: 2x2 2016

You can wear your old parka while pulling the log; you can pull on full Latvian folk costume gear; or you can go as a mummer. Budeļi – dressing up as a mummer — is a different ritual and I won’t describe it here at length. But it’s part of a deep indigenous tradition of taking on the spirits of the natural world, of transformation. It’s no coincidence that the ritual of dragging the log is meant to end with various dancing games, played by everybody, young and old, no matter how cold, around the bonfire. The names of the games describe the world the Latvians lived in: dancing around the bear, or the game of the Wolf chasing the Goat, a round which ends with the Wolf and Goat linking arms and spinning with glee.

I was lucky enough to be living in Rīga the first time I experienced this ritual, nearly twenty years ago. My son was maybe eight years old and the two of us went to Bastejkalns, a hill in a nearby park, right on the edge of the old town. All the snow had turned to ice and the pathway winding its way up the hill was impassable. We literally got on all fours and crawled up that hill. Somehow, the intrepid Skandenieki, one of the most renowned folklorist groups in Latvia, were up there, ready to sing and celebrate. We dragged a log around, and sang and danced around the fire in the nearly pitch dark night. It really did lighten things up.

So, what are you waiting for? Call up your friends and family; get yourself a log; drag it around your house three times, and lighten up your heart. Although, it wouldn’t be Latvian to be that optimistic: the way the log burns will tell you what the future brings. If it’s bright, things will be good; if it’s weak, reach for the aspirin. In other words, choose your log carefully. Once you’ve burned it, you’ve done your part in the recurring battle between the light and the dark.


Song to sing:
Visi ceļi guniem pilni

  Visi ceļi guņiem pilni, 2x
  Visi ceļi atslēgām. 2x

  Jaš būs ieti visam cauri, 2x
  Ar dieviņa palīdzīb’. 2x

  Visam gribu ieti cauri, 2x
  Ar dieviņa palīdzīb’. 2x

  Visam varu ieti cauri, 2x
  Ar dieviņa palīdzīb’. 2x

This is the tune: (the Stutes website)

Pulling the log in Rīga:


And finally, here’s another verse you can recite, especially if you want to be the Log Mother!
  Bluķa māte bluķi vēla,
  Pašā Bluķa vakarā.
  Lai veļ bluķi trīsi reizi,
  Nenāks mošķi caur sienmāli.
(The Log Mother rolled the log on Log Night. Roll the log three times, Evil spirits won’t come through the hay.)


Paldies Baņuta, for the informative look at the winter solstice tradition of pulling the log! Years ago the Chicago Latvian scouts and guides put on a winter solstice show at the Museum of Science and Industry. I’ve forgotten a good bit of what we performed, only that the most popular line was always “Look, there’s the log!” In recent years we have shared this tradition with friends, and it is always a rowdy, pot-banging good time!

Baņuta Rubess is a writer and theatre artist, who has spent a lot of her time in Latvia. Currently, she lives in Toronto. You can connect with Baņuta on www.banuta.com.

Tomorrow on Day 14 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas – an ode to blood sausage!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Baltic Christmas Day 12 - On the pitfalls of buying a carp for Christmas

It’s across the Atlantic to the UK for this piece by another first-time contributor to the series, Margaret of the blog Balt in the box room. Please welcome Margaret, and enjoy her Christmas fish tale…

This post was first published on the blog Balt in the box room.


On the pitfalls of buying a carp for Christmas

The carp is a dirty fish, or so my French friends tell me. It is a bottom feeder, lurking deep in the debris and mud at the bottom of the lake and eating the residue there. The French say it is inedible- It tastes of mud and muck. However Eastern Europeans would disagree. Keep it alive in fresh water for three days or so, they say, to allow the mud to be flushed through its fishy entrails and the carp will miraculously taste fresh and sweet. Thus the Daily Mail regularly runs stories throughout December about Polish plumbers poaching carp from local lakes in the UK and keeping their catch (not their coal) in the bath. Sounds plausible, eh? It seems that my grandmother and her grandmother before her had mastered the art of carp cuisine. Carp regularly features in all the cookbooks as a dish enjoyed throughout Europe at Christmas time. Well we had had a carp at Christmas this year and sadly it did not live up to the high expectations we had assigned to it. Scraping the not so insubstantial remains of the carp onto the cats’ plate at midnight on Christmas Eve I vowed that this would be a once-in a life-time experiment.

That small fish- a mere £4.50 had cost me dearly in time and effort and remained virtually intact on the table at the end of our Kūčios meal. I understand that the tradition is apparently that you give the left-overs of the Kūčios meal to the farm animals. The cats refused the carp, turning up their noses and sitting insistently by the cupboard waiting for Whiskas. Even the urban foxes eschewed the fish, preferring instead to rummage in our dustbin in search of something better. No, never again…… this is one custom I will not be passing down to my children.

Competitive culinary sourcing was to blame. When my brother-in-law threw down the gauntlet by announcing that the turkey on Christmas day had to be sourced from Smithfield market, my husband could not resist the challenge. He decided that the fish we were to eat had to come from Billingsgate and obviously this would involve getting there at 4.30 am, thus ensuring that all in the house were woken by his early departure. The salmon I had asked for was duly purchased (with head, though thankfully gutted) but he apparently could not resist the slimy brown carp on the slab and brought it home triumphantly double wrapped in two bin bags. He then thoughtfully woke us up again on his return as he noisily struggled to rearrange the fridge to accommodate his purchases.



My first problem with the carp was that it had not been gutted. “Couldn’t you have asked the fishmonger,” I asked him? He shrugged, and my daughter, who had accompanied him on his early morning mission giggled nervously. Obviously the thrill of sourcing- yes that word again- the carp had overtaken him in the market and he had not thought to ask. Wisely he made himself scarce, claiming he had errands to run, and squeamishly I did the deed. For a small fish there was an awful lot of gunk and blood, mud perhaps???- I washed down the small ugly brute and searched in vain for a recipe, just the thing on the morning of Christmas Eve when you have eleven other dishes to prepare.

It seems you need an awful lot of things to make carp taste good. Polish beer, juniper berries, allspice berries, lemons, sauerkraut, garlic…..the list was endless. The fish only cost £4.50- I estimated that I would need to spend at least £10 on extras to make the recipe and that on Christmas Eve when the shops were heaving and everything was upside down.

So I did the best I could with bits that I had. At lunchtime I wrapped it in foil and shoved it in the oven, continuing all the while to wash the carp’s blood and entrails down the sink as I waited for the transformation…



And the result? Of course they were all polite about it, all keen to try. No one expressed any enthusiasm for it though, and the poor carp lay neglected on its side whilst we discussed the suppliers of the various herring dishes. At the end of the meal it lay barely touched in its dish.

Could I blame them? Of course not dear reader, for I myself could barely manage a mouthful. Should you ask me now what the carp tasted of I will have to be honest. The flesh has a flabby, watery texture which does not excite the palate and the flavour………well let’s just say that I know now why carp is not eaten in France – haven’t we all made and tasted mudpies as children? Let’s just say it was a Proustian moment.

Just a footnote to add that Mr. D has over the years been a valiant supporter when it comes to Kūčios! Not many Englishmen would drive all over East London for herrings… or sample them for that matter!

 
Thank you Margaret for joining us on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas! I'm amused, as carp is popular here in the southeast (US) where we live; however, I've never tried to prepare it, and having read this, I might put it off for a few more years... 

Margaret Drummond comes from a Dutch/Lithuanian family and has spent most of her life in the UK. Now retired, she taught languages for many years in London secondary schools. She writes articles and short fiction for various national and local publications, and sometimes blogs as Balt in the box room. She is especially interested in how nationalities and cultures merge and adapt in a changing world. She lives in London with her family.

Please join us tomorrow on Day 13 of a Baltic Christmas as we pull the log with Banuta!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Baltic Christmas Day 11 - [what I ate] Yule edition

Please welcome first-time contributor to the series, Annika, of the blog Tulen Loobin Su Katusele Kive! Annika has been documenting what she eats on her blog since 2009, providing a fascinating glimpse into the world of Estonian food in easy-to-digest morsels. Today on Day 11 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas, Annika is taking us on a photographic journey through time and cuisine…

  

9 Years of Yule Dinners


Most Estonians are not religious, in fact, we are often labelled to be the “least religious” country in the world. However, Christmas, or more appropriately Yule (in Estonian – Jõulud) is still a big holiday for us. It’s a time when families come together to share food, and Jõuluvana (Old Man of the Yule in direct translation) brings all the well-behaved children some nice presents. It is true that some families still go to church during this time to celebrate the more religious aspect of the holiday, but my family belongs with the non-religious celebrators.

I have been photographing and documenting the food I have eaten for the past 9 years and that includes my family’s Yule feasts. So, I invite you, dear reader, to go down on a trip to memory lane and rediscover 9 years’ worth of traditional and not so traditional Yule dinners of my family with me :)

2009 – Traditional meal at grandparents’ house



Boiled potatoes and gravy, blood sausage, marinated pumpkin, sauerkraut, roasted pork… This was quite a traditional dinner at my grandparent’s place. Usually the blood sausage is also accompanied by lingonberry jam, but I have never been a big fan of it.

2010 – Another family Yule at grandparents’ house



Meat pastries, one of my grandmother’s specialties and a staple of the Yule feast table in our family.


Cooked pork and duck, sauerkraut, boiled potatoes, marinated pumpkin. Another quite traditional dinner, with the addition of duck that year.

2011 – Once more at grandparents’ house



Roast duck and pork, blood sausage, sauerkraut, boiled potatoes, mead.


Chocolate ice cream with wild strawberries. Dessert hasn’t usually been a part of our Yule dinners, but that year the ice cream and strawberries were a fantastic treat.

2012 – a Yule lost to time


There are no photos from this year, because I had my camera malfunction and I lost a few weeks’ worth of photographs. Such a shame. Memory is a fickle thing. I don’t even remember where I spent Yule that year… I imagine it was still at my grandparent’s place, but was it? I can’t be sure, and this is sad.

2013 – A Yule feast for two


I spent that year's Yule alone with my boyfriend at our apartment. It was the first time I cooked the entire Yule dinner on my own. I don’t quite remember why I decided to break from tradition and didn’t make any usual Yule dishes. Instead I roasted a chicken, and made a salad and pumpkin soup.


Pumpkin soup with sour cream, salad, roast chicken, marinated pumpkin.


I also made peanut butter cheesecake. Notice the table cloth? It’s a hand-me-down from my mom and is most likely older than I am.

2014 - getting even more non-traditional


Beef wellington, brie cheese, gnocchi in cream cheese-curry sauce, fresh salad, nuts, fruits. This was another Yule dinner I put together for myself and my boyfriend. I suppose work and school again kept us from joining family festivities, but things like that happen.


Pumpkin pie cheesecake brownie. There wasn’t a single element this year that would have been considered traditional on an Estonian Yule table.

2015 – A step even further away from tradition


Just together with my boyfriend again. I made garlic fried rice and spring rolls with shrimp. I am not certain if this could be considered a proper Christmas/Yule dinner anywhere in the world, but this is what we decided to have xD It’s not that I dislike traditional Estonian Yule foods, but for some reason when I have been in charge of putting together the menu, the usual dishes have been the furthest from my mind.

2016 – Yule with the other side of the family


We spent that Yule with my boyfriend’s side of the family and their relatives. It was a big party instead of a simple small family gathering - a new experience for me. Not only were family and relatives gathered, but friends as well which was also new, because for me Yule has always been a very family centric holiday. It was all quite merry, and the food was plentiful.


Blood sausages, pork schnitzels, boiled potatoes with cream sauce, sauerkraut, meat rolls.


Coffee and delicious delicious condensed milk-chocolate cake.


A very funky Jõuluvana made an appearance at the gathering, bringing laughs and many gifts. Here you can see my boyfriend cheating and reading a poem to Jõuluvana off the internet.


We also made gingerbread cookies that day and I helped to decorate most of them.

2017 – To semi-traditional on our own


Last year during Yule we were busy with work again, so I celebrated with my boyfriend. I made garlicy mashed potatoes, blood sausage and salad, and roasted some beef cuts.

So, these have been my Yule celebrations and dinners for the past 9 years; many fond memories and delicious foods. Thank you for joining me on this trip down the memory lane.


And thank you, Annika, for this look at Estonian holiday dinners – traditional and not-so-traditional! I wish I had a record of what was served during the last decade of our Ziemassvētku dinners!!

Annika blogs at Tulen Loobin Su Kausele Kive! I think you’ll enjoy scrolling through her feed; it’s somewhat voyeuristic, but wholly fascinating. In addition to being interested in what the average person in Estonia eats, it’s also fun to see familiar foods (to us Balts) pop up here and there... Please visit her on Instagram at @roadwafflez, and tell us in the comments – which one of her annual Yule meals looks the most like yours?

Tomorrow, on Day 12.... carp!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Baltic Christmas Day 10 - The Infinite Manifestations of Home

Please welcome Ērika Veidis to 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas! You might have read her article Cultural Wealth, which was published this August soon after the #LV100 song festival. A Latvian living in the US, she joins us today on Day 10 with this essay sure to pull at memory threads of your Baltic tapestry...


Woolen mittens. These I stitched with black thread, closing the hole worn in the right thumb. Made by someone in Latvia, a gift for the holidays. Maybe originating from a pine home in the frosty countryside, maybe from the bench of a factory lit up by large and streaked windows, like the one I visited when 11. Maybe from the tips of cold needles in a cold Rīga apartment. Mindfully woven, mindfully repaired. I wear them on the icy walk to work in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The gleam of my laptop screen, from which I hardly tear my eyes until darkness (the sun sets early in December in Cambridge). Seas of logistics and projects stuffing my inbox, happily sufferable when laden with meaning -- how do we affect the natural world, and how does that, in turn, impact us? Weaving together a story of human demographics and consumption and production, environmental change, and health. Pontificating on theories of change -- what is the role of research, of policy, of education, of public outreach? What is the balance of top-down versus bottom-up? Can we speak of revolution, and what does that entail? Maintaining academic and scientific rigor for profoundly simple conclusions -- we are inextricably connected with the world around us.

A web of lights, seen from the plane window flying from New Jersey back to Boston. I've always wondered whether the flickers and glimmers are caused by flipping switches in apartments and offices and homes or by some trick of the atmosphere. The hypocrisy of my own travel. Justifying carbon by the puniness of my individual actions (free riding). The perpetual car troubles necessitating (and credit card points facilitating) air travel this time around. The subtle doubts about environmentalism being the latest outlet for the intensity and perfectionism once channeled into middle distance running.

The feeling of moving from one home to another. The love for family in rural New Jersey and the love for individuality and career and youth in Boston.

"Yes, I'll have a tomato juice, please." And then the plastic cup.

Singing Latvian folk songs in the shower. "Stoking a fire, melting silver, predicting the future, unknown." Remembering my mother and grandmother singing these to me growing up; musing about singing them to my own children someday.

Musing about the future, unknown; about the balance between taking action and relaxing in the face of what is. The Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference" (Reinhold Niebuhr). Perhaps metaphorically pouring molten silver into my human interactions -- if connection is possible, then so is co-imagination, and so is a better path ahead.

Laughing with my housemates about my strange expressions, which, despite being born and raised in New York/New Jersey, might be manifestations of Latvian being my native tongue, my soul language, what automatically slips through my pen in occasionally-kept journals, albeit fragmented, elementary. "Your expressions are object-focused," observed my housemate. Maybe the kale stays here. The chair can move there. The rain is starting. Attributing greater agency to the things in the world around me. Imagining personality, animation, soulfulness. Direct translations from the small Baltic state.

We are not the only inhabitants of this world.


Silver rings. One worn by my mother at my age, etched symbols eroded, two silver tassels missing. One worn in common with my Latvian high school classmates, holding the now-subtle markings of the life tree, the god of horses, the snake. One gifted by my relatives in Latvia, multiple intertwined strands representing the nation's underground waters, soil, and tree roots. One worn in common with my two brothers, bearing the symbol of home. One gifted by my parents, silver tassels intact. I carry on my hands metaphors to keep me grounded, safe, connected to the past, to friends and family, to ancestry, to heritage, to land.

The dense yellow saffron cake rising in the oven. Kliņģeris. Baked at holidays and celebrations -- this time at Christmas. A festive December 24, lit by candles, lilted by voices and an out-of-tune organ wafting "Silent Night" (in Latvian) into the chilly darkness of Yonkers, New York. And then back at home: lots of food, the reciting of Latvian poems or performance of musical pieces (at least when we were young), the midnight exchange of gifts. Last year, a divergence from tradition with a loving-kindness meditation -- first round punctuated by snickers and giggles and sounds from someone (supposedly) sliding on the couch; second try resulting in a deep, pervasive peacefulness. My grandfather, hard of hearing and not able to heed the instructions of the guided meditation, still blanketed by the heavy, warm, quiet air.

Finding the same sacredness that I access through Latvian culture reflected in the songs sung together by inhabitants of Sparta, New Jersey, gathered around a Christmas tree waiting to be lit. "Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening." Strangers united by melody and the ineffable holiday spirit.

And here, the root of it all. The entanglement of voices. The feeling of peace. The experience of groundedness, held in tradition and family and sanctity of space. The melting of individuality, the smell of warm cakes in the oven, the goofy laughter that spontaneously springs most easily from the closest of social ties. A tree dressed for the occasion. Feeling like everything is possible, perfect.

The infinite manifestations of home.


Thank you Ērika, for this heartfelt reflection on your Latvian roots! You’ve touched on so many of the things that stoke the Baltic fire within us during the holiday season…

Ērika Veidis is an American-born Latvian currently living in the Boston area, where she works in environment- and health-related research, policy, education, and public outreach. Before starting at the Planetary Health Alliance, Ērika studied Government and Mind/Brain/Behavior at Harvard, ran track, and conducted research around social movements and environmental economics. In her free time, Ērika spends time with her New Jersey-based family (and dog, Harley), writes, hikes, and plays guitar. You can read Ērika’s article, Cultural Wealth, here, and can find her on Instagram and Medium.

Tomorrow on Day 11 we welcome Estonian food blogger Annika, with a photographic journey through Yule feasts!

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