Vilnius Christmas Tree 2022
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Christmas in the Baltics: How Esten, Latvians & Lithuanians celebrate the traditional festival of the year


Christmas in Europe: we think of traditional Christmas market visits, delicious gingerbread and hot mulled wine, of the Christ Child bringing the presents and roast goose on Christmas Eve. But how do people actually celebrate Christmas in the Baltic States? We take you on a little Christmas trip to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Estonia: A visit to the cemetery and a cleansing sauna session

Tallinn Christmas Market 2022

“Jõulud” is the name of the Christmas festival in Estonia, which is celebrated from Dec. 24 – Dec. 27. The name goes back to the Scandinavian “Jul” – the festival of the winter solstice.

During the pre-Christmas period, children place their slippers on window ledges, which are then filled with all kinds of sweets by the Christmas elves (Päkapikk). Christmas is then celebrated on December 24, the so-called “Christmas Saturday”, which is a holiday in Estonia.

Many Estonians visit the cemetery on Christmas Eve to light candles at the graves of their relatives. Afterwards, they traditionally go to church for the service, or – to start the Christmas “purified” – many Estonians also warm up in the sauna before going to church. This tradition, which for us is rather Finnish, stems from the close ties and linguistic proximity of Estonians to the Finns.

Santa Claus brings the presents in Estonia as well. He is called “Jõuluvana” and according to the belief of Estonian children he comes from Finland on a sleigh.

Before the presents are handed over, it is customary for the recipient to recite a poem, read a story or sing a song.

The dinner that follows is usually hearty and down-to-earth: Roast pork or black pudding with sauerkraut, baked potatoes, potato salad with beetroot, pâté and served with beer or mulled wine. Marzipan and gingerbread are served as dessert – two Estonian specialties that are especially popular during the Christmas season.

What has not been eaten, the Estonians leave at the dining table overnight. According to tradition, the spirits of dead relatives and acquaintances come to visit and enjoy the leftovers.

Latvia: Rich dishes and “Beam Drawing” (beam pulling)

Riga Christmas Market

In Latvia, Christmas is called “Ziemassvetki”, which means “winter festival”. In the past, people there celebrated winter solstice at Christmas time and it was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting lifting of the ban on churches that traditional Christian traditions returned.

Today, Christmas is a family festival, celebrated on 24 December with presents and a Christmas tree – which is often decorated with straw stars and dried flowers.
However, since many Latvians have no church connection to Christmas, they rather celebrate being together, giving friends and neighbours gifts of gingerbread and pretty Christmas cards.

The main attraction on Christmas Eve, however, is the “beam pulling”. In this process, an oak beam is pulled or rolled from house to house and across fields, and then burnt at a central location. This ritual is supposed to destroy evil and give new strength to the eagerly awaited sun after the long dark days.

Many children and adults also go from house to house dressed as animals, the sun or death to drive away evil spirits and receive all kinds of sweets from residents in return. The food in Latvia is very traditional and, above all, rich: black pudding with sauerkraut, vegetables such as beans and peas, a porridge made of barley, onions and bacon, the “Piragi” (a bacon cake) or even fish are served here on the Christmas table.

The feast with its many delicacies begins immediately after the act of the traditional beam pulling and, according to tradition, should last until the next morning. In the course of the evening and night, people sit down at the table a total of nine times and enjoy nine different dishes. And whoever eats nine times is said to become rich and happy in the coming year!

Lithuania: 12-course menu and “drawing straws”

In Lithuania – the southernmost of the Baltic states – Christmas is still very much characterised by religious and pagan customs.

Here, things are more quiet and contemplative. Instead of hunting for presents during Advent, many Lithuanians prepare for the Christmas holidays by fasting. Calorie-rich treats such as gingerbread and chocolate, but also meat and dairy products, are spurned; instead, people take care of house cleaning, farmers and craftsmen polish their tools.

The highlight of the festive season is Christmas Eve. In the morning, the tree is decorated with straw stars, apples, nuts and the children’s toys, and as soon as the first star is visible in the evening sky, the whole family gathers around the festively decorated table.

Vilnius Christmas Market 2022

Traditionally, the Lithuanian feast consists of twelve different dishes that symbolise the twelve apostles.

Fish, vegetables, salad, fruit, mushrooms, cereal porridge, herring salad, beetroot soup, nuts, stewed fruit, pastries and bread are served, accompanied by wine or a drink made from cranberries.

Only on the next day – the end of Lent – is there more meat on the table. After the meal, straws are pulled out from under the tablecloth. If the straw is long and thick, one can hope for a good and happy year, while a thin straw brings bad luck. In Lithuania, too, the table is not cleared after the meal so that departed souls can also dine.

Andrzej Vilenski
Andrzej Vilenski, the Baltic Review correspondent is a PhD student at the University of Vilnius, studying policy.

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