I’m an immigrant. A friend recently asked me what Christmas was like in my family. What started out as a short answer kept growing longer and longer. Here’s the result.
When I was growing up, I lived in two countries at once; outside the doors was America, inside was Latvia. It was a permeable border, at least in one direction. We children tracked in a lot of America, stuck to our shoes, so to speak; very little went out in the other direction.
Latvian culture is peasant culture. Every tradition we hold dear, every quirk of character or demeanor, every inexplicable Latvian habit, beloved or belabored, ultimately relates to the fact that we’ve been under someone else’s thumb for centuries, right up to recent history. I won’t go into detail; it’s readily accessible on Wikipedia, and this is a Christmas story.
You’re already familiar with one of our traditions: cutting down an evergreen tree, bringing it inside, and decorating it with ornaments and lights, candles in the old days, electric lights now. That was a Latvian thing long before it caught on elsewhere. If you’re skeptical that such a tiny backwoods place could affect the great imperial cultures of Europe, remember that most of them tramped their way through there at one time or another, leaving their own distinct footprints, but also taking one or two habits back home.
As a result, you probably wouldn’t have noticed much in our living room that was different from yours. Dig a bit deeper, though, and things get a bit odd. There was a Latvian version of Santa Claus; I think “Old Man Christmas” would be an adequate translation. He was not significantly different from the American version, except that to get the presents he left under the tree, children had to sing a song, recite a poem, or otherwise entertain the adults. In our house, thankfully, that didn’t happen much. In fact, there was no Santa nonsense of any kind. I once got into big trouble at my school in the first grade for telling the other children there was no Santa. Sister Paul Marie, who spent a considerable part of the day admonishing us to always be truthful, scolded me for ruining their Christmas. I was mortified and confused.
We were Catholics, due to an accident of history that had my father’s region of Latvia under the control of Poland at the time the rest of the country, run mostly by Germans, was busy converting to Lutheranism. Before either of them, Latvian religion was essentially animistic paganism. Our gods were forces of nature.
My father took to Catholicism like a fish to water; my mother, still secretly a believer in the old religion, barely went through the motions. She also had Rom ancestors somewhere in her line and indulged in tarot cards and the like. She often “didn’t feel well” when it was time for church.
Except Christmas. Christmas had midnight mass. If you’re Protestant, you missed out on one of the great ritual pageants of religion, especially in my day, when it was all done in Latin. The music was magisterial: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven with an enormous, magnificent choir that materialized out of nowhere at Christmastime and dissolved again for the rest of the year, accompanied by an organ that could compete with arena rock for room-filling capacity. The mass itself was performed by three priests in their most ornate vestments, embroidered and gilded affairs that would be the envy of Liberace. They were attended to by a squadron of altar boys, including some older boys returning especially for the privilege. It was a solemn high mass, and the liturgy was sung by the priests, a rare treat when it happened to be Father Frey, who had a beautiful tenor voice. It was later rumored, when he disappeared from the parish, that he had run off with one of the nuns at the school, probably not true, as they were all accounted for. All the same, we took great comfort from the possibility that even he might be human.
Every year we bundled up at about 11:30 PM and trundled out the door for the long walk to the church, always in deep snow (at least in my memory). Once I had heard that a friend’s father had been found frozen to death the night before, after passing out on the sidewalk on his way home from the bar. The place where he had been found happened to be right on our usual route to the church. On that occasion we walked solemnly past the spot, which I was surprised to learn looked no different from normal, then continued on as our spirits slowly lifted again. By the time we got to the church, filled to the rafters with warmth and light, we were ready for the spectacle. It was a full hour and a half later when we slowly walked back home, tired and bedazzled.
But the real story of a Latvian Christmas is the food. If the living room looked as American as anyone else’s, it was full-on old country in the kitchen.
There were piparkūks, which were ginger snaps with a nip to them. It took three days of fermenting the dough before they went in the oven. There were pirāgi, often translated as bacon rolls, a woefully inadequate description of something that was half pastry, half bacon and onion with lots of salt and pepper. There was cottage cheese cake to munch on between the piparkūks and pirāgi and a huge bowl of nuts by the tree just in case you foolishly wandered a bit too far from the dining room.
The centerpiece was the truly transcendent goose, basted with sweet vermouth and roasted to crisp perfection by my mother. She later told us she had gotten the recipe from the Reader’s Digest cookbook, but it was Latvian all the same. No real Latvian cook would pass up a mouthwatering recipe from anywhere, or fail to transform it into something undeniably Latvian.
This was accompanied by sauerkraut stewed with a hambone, sweetened with apples, and fermented several days in the back porch, in short, bearing only the most superficial resemblance to the kraut you may be familiar with from the supermarket. Boiled potatoes, carrots, onions, and rutabaga mixed together with butter formed a delicious dish I remember as being called something like “chivich,” but none of my friends or acquaintances, Latvian or not, finds that name familiar; perhaps another cookbook inspiration.
Dessert was incomparable. Usually bubert, a billowy, eggy pudding enhanced with ķīsel, a luscious sweet fruity sauce, made with rhubarb when it was available.
Then, out the door past the dormant-for-the-day snowshovel to the white, snow covered park, our personal tundra, with the sledding hill in the middle, where we slid recklessly down the slope and across the road at the bottom, almost never all the way into the frozen creek on the other side.
And, that, my friends, was Christmas among the wicked foreigners.