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

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

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