With the unavoidable approach of Halloween, a holiday where people dress in costumes from the ridiculous and apparently sexy to the outright offensive, I found myself wondering about the media pressure in Latvia that transformed this holiday from a pagan ritual to the entirely commercialized bullshit celebration that it is now.
It’s no secret that Latvia as a country is behind in its adoption of Western traditions due to the iron curtain and Soviet oppression (which I refuse to elaborate on because there’s a future SCP3 episode where I relentlessly go on about it) but, as a country that desperately wants to fit in, we take over traditions we don’t fully understand just to match America; our new big brother. In fact, Halloween in Latvia is so new that there is still no standardized word for it.
If you look at the official Wikipedia (Vikipēdija. Yes, that’s what we have) article it’s called Halovīns, whereas one of the most popular news sites, delfi.lv, calls it Helovīni. If you happen to be fluent in Latvian bullshit, you can check out this thread where our local birds ask the real questions: Helovīni or Halovīni.
It was in my lifetime that the traditional Latvian version of Halloween became replaced by a Western incarnation. I still remember my first Halloween experience. My friend and I had seen on TV that kids run around and beg for candy, so we thought we could give it a go. Since we only realized that it’s Halloween on the day, we were dressed as friends from school in our winter coats, trying to replicate a Western tradition we totally don’t understand and our costume was spot on! We walked from flat block to flat block, knocking on every door, and if anyone happened to actually open, we said “sweets or we’ll prank you!”, with no knowledge of how “trick of treat” should translate.
Some nice ladies gave us some sweets, a few grumpy people told us to fuck off, and there was one lady ready to call child protection services seeing two eight year olds begging for sugar to tide us over till we get some decent food. One hour and five candies in, we met our nemesis. A judgemental old woman told us that begging doesn’t suit young ladies, so we put a brick in front of her door so it was slightly harder to open. We showed her. We showed her good.
That was back in 2001. Based on statistics regarding the usage of the word ‘Halloween’ and its variants in Latvia, we were well ahead of our time; a time where free treats from strangers were warned against rather than encouraged.
Next time I met Halloween was 8 years later when my family had moved to an obviously-too-ambitious house in a small, middle class village. Some kiddies broke through our locked gate (which still hasn’t been fixed) to trick or treat us. I was pleased beyond belief to hear that their catchphrase was “sweets or we’ll trick you”™. I would like to think I’ve made this happen, but it’s more likely that we had all overheard it on TV.
My mother was so stunned and confused that at first she asked what they’re even on about, thus breaking the whole spell. A brave, little Spiderman cleared his throat and explained the whole concept of this holiday in a few simple words: “you have to give us snacks now”.
We weren’t really a snack-buying household. My mother went into the garage, fetched some jars of jam and each child got themselves a jar of strawberry, blackcurrant or apple and gooseberry. They didn’t seem all that pleased so, maybe, they broke the fence on their way out. The original Latvian definition of Halloween says nothing specific about vandalism, but dressing up in scary costumes wasn’t new by a long shot.
Ancient Latvian Halloween
The original concept was a part of our winter solstice celebration called ķekatas or budēļi. We’d decorate our houses, drag a massive wood log around naturally, dress up in crazy costumes and finish off with a nice Christmas meal (treat). However, as a pagan ritual, it was slowly cleared out of our yearly routine by the Christian church during the 19th and 20th century.
While that was a time of great patriotism, you won’t find a single painting of people dragging around a wooden log, or a modern story where people choose to dress up as death rather than cuddle a white, and geographically inaccurate, baby Jesus. Even back before I was born, we wanted to match the Western world with our religious traditions, the same as we do now by bringing back our pagan ways. Only this time, owing to Latvia’s grasping need to conform with more stable countries, it’s two months early.
Our version was much more than just asking for candy, and it was more for the adults. I’m not speaking of uni twats dressed as bananas, getting pissed, but real pagan dancing and organized madness, such as you can see below. The music isn’t themed accordingly, but gives the correct representation of the chilling, crazy, drug-like experience.
To understand the reason behind this mad shit, it’s necessary to go further into the traditions of the whole event.* Ķekatas wasn’t just an overnight party. It was several days of raving, including moving from house to house, eating, drinking and dancing. So, suck it Christianity-crippled West. We did it far better, and why we’d want to move back to a single day of drinking rather than a full-blown bender is beyond me. Even more so, during this 12-day celebration you were disallowed from going to work, which back then included far more laborious shit than sitting by a computer and ranting. Twelve days of getting pissed and not working! I’m not much of a nationalist, but our people had some wisdom for sure.
Latvia’s nightmarish Halloween costumes
Another great parallel with the Western celebration were the costumes. We dressed in clothes representing elements or animals that have the freedom to travel between the realms of living and dead. Nowadays, some twats will dress up as werewolves to have a reason to howl at any girl’s round arse. In Latvian mythology, the wolf was a popular mask for completely different reasons.
The meaning we attached to a wolf was so strong that only smart and educated people chose this mask, due to its heavy implications. A wolf was the dog of God, with the intelligence of nine men. It was the symbol of the God of the forest, and the fourth day of celebration was dedicated purely to this animal deity.
Unlike nowadays, when people go down the road and meet their neighbors for the first time when asking them for treats, the Latvian tradition was a celebration for the whole village. Its main purpose was to attract fertility for the coming year. Inviting wolves, and death, into your house was a great honour that people prepared for with the utmost sincerity. The main leader of the group would go through the house and inspect its cleanliness, and the knowledge of the homeowners, making sure that no-one in the house is lazy; enforcing the holiday’s practicality. Once the leader of the masked people judged the household fit, the bender continued.
These masks would symbolize the spirits of our ancestors. The spirits are considered terrifying to receive, but also a great honour as they brought along fertility, health and blessings. Despite the robes and pointed hats, the iconography was in no way guided by KKK-style racial prejudice, because it is informed by traditions far older than such hate groups.**
The reason these masks were so scary-looking had an entirely different meaning. They were meant to scare away the evil spirits, as Latvians believed that Christmas (Winter Solstice) was a time where the border between our world and the world of the dead became thin and penetrable. Mainly, we feared witches and werewolves, whose presence were still believed in by the 16th century, based on the reports of Livonian werewolves presented by the geographer and catholic priest, Olavs Magnuss.
However, the main reason for this 12-day madness was fertility. While I already brushed over the tradition of dragging a log around, I want to return to it and explain it in more depth. The symbolic representations were pretty simple: earth is the feminine symbol. It births the food, the flowers and grass. It feeds us, and takes care of us. The log, blatantly, is a phallic symbol (nothing to do with ‘wood’ analogies — it doesn’t work in Latvian, but I did have a chuckle).
So, basically, you drag a phallic symbol over the feminine surface and then go and burn the phallus because apparently, in Latvian tradition, “there is no new if the old is not destroyed”. Pretty fucking brutal.
Although this article would have been more fitting for Christmas, I chose to speak about it now for two reasons. First, Halloween is approaching and you guys think you’re having a great time getting dressed up as a fucking hot dog when, really, it’s a pale imitation of the glorious, 12-day alcohol fest that we had. And secondly, to address any Latvian who goes out participating in a holiday early to match the Western world, you guys are like children who can’t wait to unwrap their birthday gift. It’s supposed to be Christmas.
The country is surprisingly eager, even when the very act of dressing up for the purpose of asking for food goes dead against the Latvian image of fake wealth we cultivate daily. The new fertility ritual? Well, now it’s probably copping off with any plastered bird in a naughty nurse costume.
* According to a reporter from Delfi — our lowest brow national news outlet — the Latvian halloween is uniquely inclusive and utopian. As they sneer, for those in the Southern hemisphere it’s more likely that only men will get dressed up. As the Latvian press likes to reiterate, both men and women dress up in terrifying costumes and participate in ķekatas. First of all, this statement from Delfi is somewhat racist. Secondly, it’s misguidedly sexist. By southern hemisphere they mean ‘tribal’ regions. The implication that traditional Latvian celebrations were free of discrimination experienced by other parts of the world is a classic example of Latvia trying to one-up anywhere it can. I wanted to make a point here about wages and domestic abuse, but I literally have no words — an alarming condition I get only when presented with enormous levels of stupidity.
** The reason I am making this point is because, when researching our traditions in depth, I noticed some parallels that made me a bit uneasy. However, whilst nowadays I would classify this as a very intolerant country, I’d like make it clear that Latvians did not have any knowledge or understanding of what was going on in the rest of the world. (Anecdotally related)