Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 7 - Christmas, how it was, how it will be

Day Seven of A Baltic Christmas is by Zinta Aistars. Zinta writes at Zinta Aistars: On a Writer's Journey and is the creative director for Z Word, LLC, a writing and editing business.

I never did believe in Santa Claus. I didn’t need to. I saw his giving spirit in all of us: my parents, my grandparents, our Latvian community in Kalamazoo, Michigan, numbering near 2,000 souls around the time I was growing up—in the 60s and 70s. Our community had grown from the seed of one Latvian choir, gathering World War II refugees from across the ocean and throughout the States, my parents among them.

Our Latvian traditions of celebrating Ziemassvētki (Christmas) were different than those of my American friends. We celebrate our holiday on December 24th, Christmas Eve, and so there was no nighttime for Santa to sneak down any chimney … and we didn’t have a fireplace in my childhood home, no stockings to hang on a mantel. I wasn’t fooled. There was indeed a Latvian Claus, Ziemassvētku vecis, a much thinner version, aged and wise, but I knew he was just a story.

But oh, the preparations!

Most years, my father brought us to choose the live Christmas tree on the morning of the 24th. He took me and my sister into the snowy woods, saw in hand, and we looked for the perfect tree. Choosing and decorating the tree was an integral part of our Christmas celebration. My sister and I hung the ornaments with Mama, and our father strung the lights. He was an artist by profession, a painter, and he had an artist’s eye, so when we came to the final step of decorating, we all stepped back and let him finish. He took a handful of silver tinsel and strung a few shiny strings of it here, there, always in the perfect spot. If there were any bare or uneven spots, he found them all and covered them with glitter. We watched him circle the tree, step back, tip his head and squint his eye, then step forward to hang a few more silver strands in exactly the right spot.

And I do mean—the right spot.

His eye never failed him, and when he was done, no more silver strands sparkling between his fingers, the tree stood shimmering in its perfection before us, a Christmas miracle.

Z acres

I waited for that moment when the rest of the family moved elsewhere, probably to the kitchen, where the first smells of Christmas Eve dinner wafted. Then, left alone, I circled the tree, my reflection jumping from shiny ornament to gleaming mirrored ball to twisting and turning glass angel, my face oddly rounded and stretched wide and funny in the colored pieces of rounded mirrors. It made me laugh, and I stifled my laughter in the palm of my hand. I looked so silly on a Christmas ball, hanging on a thread.

More family would come soon. Uncles, aunts, cousins, both sets of grandparents. Excitement filled the air.

I could hear my parents wrapping presents in their bedroom. Scissors snipped. Tape ripped. Paper crunched on the bed. My father would be folding it, running his finger along the folds to make them sharp and straight. He was as precise in his gift wrapping as he was hanging the silver tinsel. It was all art.

No Santa Claus, no, but my father and my mother wrapping gifts, and just a few of them. Maybe two, maybe three each. My gifts were already wrapped and now I tucked them under the tree. I made each one. Drawings on some years. Another year I used one of my father’s little saws to carve animals from pieces of plywood, painting on their fur and feathers, their dark wet noses and gleaming eyes.

Before it all began, however, before our dinner, before the evening program, before the opening of gifts, the conversation among the adults and the play among the children, we all dressed for evening service at the Latvian church. It was a sweet kind of torment: sitting through the service, through dinner, through that endless and surely meaningless adult conversation, until the opening of the gifts. Anticipation. Even as I thrilled at every moment for its own sake.

Christmas Eve at the Kalamazoo Latvian Church

At the church, the Christmas tree was always tall and wide, nearly scraping the ceiling, and the branches were dotted with tiny white lights. Ornaments were made out of blonde wood or straw, all handmade, after the manner of ornaments made through the ages. This tree, after all, had as its predecessor the very first such tree, an evergreen decorated with candles and handmade ornaments, in Rīga, the capitol of Latvia. From this tiny Baltic country came the world’s first Christmas tree, a history few know, some 500 years ago.

We sang the carols of ancient times, all in Latvian, and at the conclusion of the ceremony, each one of us held up a tiny white candle. People came down the aisle with a lit flame, lighting the first candle at the aisle, and from there, the flame was passed along, candle to candle, until the entire church was filled with tiny stars of flickering flame.

Service concluded, so many hugs and good wishes and firm hand shakes, until the children tugged at the sleeves of chattering parents, reminding them, begging them … can we not go home? Now? Dinner awaits, the program, the gifts …

Yet the dinner was delicious, as we knew it would be. Pork roast and sauerkraut with caraway seeds, with a touch of brown sugar and slices of apple. Dark Latvian bread, dense and rich with flavor beneath a smear of thick, pale yellow butter. Potatoes roasted brown, and a salad of cucumbers sliced thin with tomatoes in sour cream and sprinkled with dill. Debess manna for dessert, manna from heaven, a pink cloud of farina fluff floating in egg nog. And piparkūkas, a kind of peppered gingerbread.

The svētku kliņģeris

As everyone gathered in the living room, where more candles burned in the dim room, the lit tree at center, the children all gathered to begin the Christmas program. We knew well that we would get no presents if we didn’t earn them. Each of us had to show our best talent: singing, dancing, reciting a holiday poem, playing a musical instrument, or putting on a play, carefully prepared. Always first, however, was my father’s reading of the Christmas story from the Bible. My father read in a slow and solemn voice, and for a moment, I would forget the anticipation of my gift, listening.

My mother would then unfold the Christmas issue of Laiks, the Latvian newspaper, filled with Christmas stories. She chose one and read it aloud. Only then would the children begin their part, following the order of the program we had drawn, colored in with our crayons, carefully outlining the show ahead.

We did not scamper for presents. There was no ripping of paper. Each of us had our turn while all others watched. My father never ripped the paper or the ribbon. He slid his finger along the tape and loosened it, unfolded and then refolded the paper, good for next year.

One year my sister and I received a typewriter to share. Another year I unwrapped the world globe I so wanted. Every Christmas each of us received a new book from our grandparents, and the older I got, the more I waited for that book. All else faded and grew old and worn with time, but the books, the books lasted and gained value with time and each reading. Finally, I wanted nothing else but the book.

These were modest holidays. No gross overabundance, no mess afterward, not even the fairy tale of a generous elf with rounded belly. One Christmas miracle was enough.

The next morning when I woke, when we all woke, my sister and I settled into opposite corners of the couch with our new books and lost ourselves in stories. Christmas was over, but the best part had only just begun.

Historically, Latvian special occasions and holidays would be celebrated for three days, and our family, too, would drift from one relative’s home to another, sitting down to grand meals, exchanging a gift or two at the tree, catching up on family news. At my grandparents’ house, the tree was small, but had real candles, white ones, tiny, held to the tree branch with a tin clip shaped like a star. I was mesmerized by the real flames, carefully watched, lit for only an hour at most before each one was just as carefully doused. They wanted to do things the old, traditional way. None of these new-fangled electric lights.

I loved listening to their stories of those times long ago. Before the war brought them here. So far away, across the great ocean, across the Baltic Sea, in that land of yesterday.

Now, with a grandchild of my own, I look forward to passing along the traditions of my ancestors, and yes, there will always be a book, for the lasting pleasure when all other gifts are forgotten. I’ll pull her into my lap and tell her about tiny elves in the great woods, their little feet leaving pointed tracks in the snow.

Guinnez and the Z Acres Christmas tree

Paldies Zinta, for the glimpse of your Christmas memories! Visit Zinta Aistars: On a Writer's Journey for more, and follow the author on twitter @zintaaistarsTomorrow on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we travel north to Estonia for Day 8 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas.


  1. Thank you for sharing your family memories, Zinta! How familiar the traditions feel! Down to the father who liked everything to be precisely just so. My pickiness about the "perfect" Christmas tree probably has roots in my father's search for perfection (ar as close as possible). And yes, the books: EVERYONE gets a book!

  2. Paldies, Zilgma. Yes, I think many Latvian children grew up as I did. We put a lot of time into drawing and preparing our family programs, too, along with our preparation for Latvian school holiday celebrations.

  3. My family always put up the tree at least several days before Christmas - my sister and I advocated for getting it even earlier, but my mom was always concerned about it lasting until Zvaigznes diena. We always gifted and received many books, as well.


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