Latvian Holidays: Viva Atšķirības

The Holidays

Holiday season is upon us! So far, I have survived enjoyed a few Latvian and American holidays here in Riga. I have already written about Halloween, and this week we had a sort of Latvian/American overlap. Right now, a turkey is cooking in my tiny Latvian convection oven. I hope it is okay.

November 18th is arguably Latvia’s most important holiday, the celebration of independence in 1918 when Latvia was officially recognized as an independent nation. Prior to this, Latvia had been tossed around from Germany to Sweden and finally Russia until World War I and the Communist Revolution allowed it along with many other smaller countries to exhibit their sovereignty. Officially, it is called “Proclamation Day”. I had some nice discussions with my students about their celebration. This year, the actual date was on Saturday, so the official government holiday was on Monday the 20th of November. The week before Proclamation Day was Lāčplēsis Day which is kind of tied to the independence, so the whole week was filled with little celebrations including the 10th annual light festival!

My students said that they would spend the day with their families and have a nice formal meal with everyone. It sounded a lot like our Thanksgiving day celebration except for the fact that they would watch the fireworks later in the evening. Some of them attended the military parade in the morning.

Happy 99th Birthday

Other festivities that we took part in were a concert filled with delightful traditional Latvian songs thanks to cousin Gita. Then we walked through the center of Riga and observed the torch march where thousands of people held flaming torches listening to heavy-metal folk music before marching through the streets. We caught up with the marchers as they entered Old Town on their way to the liberty monument.

We also saw the cutting of the cake. For their 99th birthday, Riga baked a giant cake and displayed it under a tent at the park. Thousands of people stood in line for a large piece of free sheet cake. It looked wonderful, but I couldn’t justify standing in line that long for a piece of cake.


We also watched the fireworks. Our location gave us easy access to the river promenade.  A short walk gave us a nice view of the bridge. I was a little surprised at how low the fireworks shot into the air, but the variety of colors and shapes was very nice. I still put the Estes Park fireworks display as the best I have ever seen, but this one was terrific. I look forward to New Year’s!

I had Monday off of school, which was refreshing. We all went to a movie, and then wandered the streets of Riga.

Then, in my mind and heart, it was Thanksgiving week. So I have been dealing with this idea of not being with my Grinvalds’ family for this traditional family holiday. I think the last time this happened was when I was in Stapleton, and my car broke, so I spent the day in my sad little duplex by myself. Trish and Kyle had already gone home without me since she had extra time off. Bummer.

So here I was, working on the holiday and discussing it with my students. I had them share something they were thankful for, and that was very special. Then, I showed a video of Black Friday door busters to my Latvian students. I swear, this has to be one of the worst displays of Americanism in the world. When is it every worth demeaning yourself for some kind of monetary gain? Especially when it is for products you probably do not really need and will not really improve anything? It just makes absolutely no sense to me. Does anyone need a television that badly?

Then our discussion digressed to how shops are closed in the United States on Thanksgiving and other holidays. I quickly learned that Latvian stores do not close for any holidays, not even Christmas. They said that some shops may close a little early, but that is about it. They found it completely foreign and strange that any store would close on any day. And when I told them that when I was young, everything was closed on Sundays, that was a shocker.

Christmas is Coming!

This is one of those cultural moments where I suddenly realized that everything I thought was true and universal is completely arbitrary and local. Who knew?

Probably a lot of you, but that is a topic for a later discussion.

For now, my mind is turning to the 7.5 kilogram turkey in the oven, the potatoes that will not peel themselves, and the stuffing recipe that my sister Susan so graciously shared with me. It is Saturday, but since no one gets Thanksgiving off here, this is the perfect day for our celebration. As long as everyone’s health holds out, my cousin Ansis and his family members, Monta, Darta, Laura, and Norah should be here for a big supper soon! I had to track down a turkey through my British connection, and everything is ready to go! Wish me luck!

Happy Holidays to Everyone! I am sure I will have more to say come Christmas!

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A Better View of the Fireworks:

The Folding of Time: A Complex Boring Issue in a Time of Turmoil

No pictures. 18 WordPress updates. It has been awhile since I wrote anything other than emails and Facebook posts, so on this Wednesday I am attempting to get my thoughts in order.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, but it is not a holiday here in Latvia. I am, however, attempting to make some sort of celebration this weekend. I just hope that I can find a turkey.

I have been depressed lately. I may even up that to distressed. The news coming from America just continues to burn into my psyche, and the stream of noise and disillusion never seems to come to any sort of close. It just continues, getting louder and louder, more and more obtrusive and obscene. Until what?

That is the question I am wrestling with right now. I started reading this article  by Claire Dederer, but have to admit that I was unable to finish. I felt like my mind was burning as I was reading because I too deal with this issue of what happens when our artistic idols get burnt down by scandal?

I loved Louis C. K. I never thought he was a saint or moral individual. I thought he was funny, and in his comedic way, he was able to expose some deeper social truths in the vein of George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Eddie Izzard (among dozens of others). I have always admired these artists because they say things that many of us thing but are too cowardly to voice. I think that is the role of artists in any genre.—expose truth through beauty, laughter, whatever.

I am writing all of this while trying to eat grapes. The grapes here have seeds. It is a beautiful, gorgeous inconvenience.

Anyway, Dederer questions how much she can enjoy art created by people like Woody Allen who have become grotesque to her because of their actions. I have a hypothesis I want to share, and I know there are exceptions, and I am not asking you to agree with it, but please, just hear me out.

I have this meta theory about our current state of reality. I taught Humanities for many years, and in this class, we started with Ancient Greece and progressed through historical eras (as determined by, I think, historians) teaching the concepts and main ideas of Western Culture spanning over two-thousand years. The more I taught this course, the more I thought about how it was strange how these eras seemed to be getting shorter and shorter. The Classical era lasted for a thousand years. Medieval, over 500. Then the Renaissance and Romantic (with some others) seemed to last for a few hundred years. The Modern era? Less than 100. Then the Postmodern era which many believe we have already left behind after only 50 or so years.

I always joked with my students about how when I was young, nostalgia was fifty years ago, but for people today, nostalgia was yesterday. Kids in their teens are nostalgic for stuff they were doing two years ago. Dance themes are the 90s and the like. We do not even have time to reflect on the past because it is folding into the present so quickly that we just keep standing on the edge of the surfboard trying to keep afloat before all this history comes crashing down.

I see some interesting results from all of this. Right now, my students are self-aware. I was not self-aware when I went to school. I was simply a student, playing the role of a student, functioning as a good student should. One of my architecture students brought up the point that the school was designed to keep students in the school whether the students were good enough to be architects or not because it was in the best interests of the finances of the institution. My high school students also make astute statements like this about the system they are a part of. There is no more curtain. There are no more secrets. God is dead, and so are all of the people who play him.

What else does it mean? It means that we live in an age where the sins of the past are no longer a generation or two away. We could not judge slave owners just because they owned slaves because that was the way it was back then. We have relied on this logic for centuries. We allow time to become a lens for looking back at the past and not allowing the present to stain our former heroes with the sins they may be accused of today. Of course, we have gone back to try to smear them and belittle them, but for the most part, they are judged on their merits with the minor crimes of marrying their teenage cousin (Poe) or hooking up with slaves (Jefferson) go.

However, because of the folding of time, this collapse of judgements and values, our understanding of what is right, moral, correct, etc. is shifting faster than we can be expected to keep up with it. As with many people my age, I think we feel exhaustion just trying to keep up with what is right, cool, trendy, expected, and just plain normal. People in Latvia ask me if it is okay to say “Indian” when talking about “Native Americans” who, I think might now be something like “indigenous people of the Americas.” And I am aware, constantly, that I probably just offended someone. One of my students called me a “native American” because that is where I am from, and I pondered as to whether this was an okay thing for him to say? I do not know.

So like technology, where a new iPhone is introduced every 6 days, my operating system is on permanent update mode, and nobody knows what the next hot app is, morals and ethics are in crisis mode. Roy Moore did something awful. He was in his 30s trying to date girls in high school. Back when we were in school, there were guys like this in Yutan. We thought they were creepy losers, not necessarily immoral molesters. Does the fact that he was a creepy loser mean he shouldn’t be a Senator? Maybe. But it means he probably shouldn’t have been a D.A. or a judge, too. Right? Why is it so different now?

When Kevin Spacey did his horrible things, it was probably almost normalized behavior in his peer group. I am not excusing it or saying he is fine… but just that he has been caught in this time trap of “Oh shit, I didn’t die before my sins caught up to me!” And Al Franken? He didn’t seem to really do anything. One woman says he gave her a creepy kiss during a stage show, and in the photo he is just pretending to grab her boobs. It isn’t cool or smart, but again, something we might have dismissed as loser behavior that has now become uncondonable.

I do not think this whole post is about Political Correctness, although that whole movement certainly plays a part in this. I keep thinking back to the movies I grew up on. How many of them are unwatchable or will be soon? I keep thinking of this quote (and watch the whole clip if you like that sort of thing), and relating it to the Roy Moore scandal.

The other problem is the leveling out of all of this behavior like so much peanut butter on bread. Weinstein gets lumped in with Cosby and then Louis C. K., Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken?! Are they all equally sinful? We keep dredging up Bill Clinton, and even “old grabby”, George Bush has gotten into the game. When I was growing up, I heard my dad say a lot of flirtatious things to a lot of grateful women. I still remember the old lady at the Wahoo courthouse telling me how charming he was when he was dropping her lines. Now he would probably be arrested and given some shock therapy to make sure his thoughts were pure and clean.

I cannot remember all the words to use and how to make sure I do not offend anyone. I have to say that I am glad I am here in Latvia where people do not seem to give nearly as many shits about these things. I have to tell my students that they probably shouldn’t say certain words and such. I warn them that if they were in America (the home of free speech and bearer of the Freedom torch) they would get in trouble for even thinking that. I wonder why this is?

Thanks for reading. I have more to say, but there is a word limit to my expressions and I have to go back to work!



Vitauts Turns 90

Have Good Living

It seems like there should be something written here about my dad who turned 90 years old on November 1, 2017. I have done some interviews and recordings with him over the years, and I used one line in the video I made for his party that stands out for me. “My father hugged me and say, ‘Have good living.'”

Dad left his farm just outside of the small town of Smiltene, Latvia when he was sixteen years, and he didn’t return for about 60 years when when he had known was already gone. But I do not think one could argue that he did not have “good living.”

I was just looking at his old photos and tears welled up in my eyes when I thought about all that he has seen and done in his lifetime. At age 45, I am half his age, and it really is hard to imagine doing this for another 45 years. Vitauts worked until he was 87. Who does that? He worked full-time at 4 different parishes across Nebraska and worked part-time at a couple more in Omaha and Des Moines, Iowa. Who can even fathom how many people he has served in his years as a pastor?

It was great to see people show up from different congregations for his party at the Yutan Country Club this Sunday. He was smiling in almost every photo, posing with people from his past who all have fond memories of Pastor Grinvalds.

I am not sure if I have unearthed any special connection to my father since I have moved to Latvia, seeking my heritage, but I have begun to understand his and my mother’s ways a little bit more. So many of the little quirks and habits of theirs seem very familiar now that I am surrounded by Latvians.

One quality that Vitauts has that is deeply rooted is his work ethic and drive. In all of his years working to raise his seven children, did I ever hear him complain? Did he ever call in sick? Was he ever not ready for his job? Even on the day I was born, the weekend his oldest son passed away, and even when Liesma died, he was dressed on Sunday doing his job. What a forgotten quality this is as we find ourselves pampered by first world problems and the constant whining of the modern world.

To look at Vitauts’ life of overcoming one obstacle after another, is to realize that human potential is about effort. Drive and perseverance are two qualities that dad exemplifies like no other person that I have ever met. To hear his stories about almost dying when he was young from a tooth infection, or diseases in displaced persons camps, or his travels across America in search of a better life is to be inspired.

So this is just a little happy birthday message from Jeff, Vitauts’ youngest son, who can only wish to be half the man at 45 that he was an is.

daudz laimes dzimšanas dienā

Latvian Halloween


Prologue: I have not written in awhile. I could blame this on many things—time, laziness, disinterest—but I have just been contemplating the reason that I am writing. I watched an episode of Bill Maher’s show and he was questioning why we share everything on social media. I decided to examine my posts to ask myself, “Why am I writing this? What is the point?” So I stopped writing blogs as well.

Today, I got an email from an old friend who said that my blog posts are not “oversharing” but rather historical documents that will stand the test of time to tell future generations of where we were as a people at this time and in this place. How could I not write after that?


Just for the record, Latvians do not typically or traditionally celebrate Halloween. Many older Latvians see it as an invasion of American culture and actually shun it. Kids here, however, are beginning to catch on and at least dress up for the event.

Not halloween?

Have I told you how lucky I am to be living with a real-life folklorist who knows and studies Latvian traditions? It is just incredible, and this year, one of her main topics of study has been Halloween. She gave a lecture on Latvian Halloween traditions, and so she considered trick-or-treating a part of her research. How cool is that?

Prior to Halloween, we had seen a few signs of the subtle invasion of American traditions on the Latvian psyche. There are pumpkins and skeleton decorations on display at the Tiger store. I even ran into one scary masked person on the street the other day. At one of the many schools I teach in, students had decorated the entire floor, all the hallways, stairways and windows, with black crepe paper, effigies hung from the ceilings, bowls full of eyeballs, and plenty of spider webs. Later, they explained that this was not for Halloween, but for a 10th grade initiation ceremony. It sure looked and felt like Halloween to me!

Feeding the Souls

Latvians do have some other interesting traditions around the same time as our American Halloween. For example, I witness the feeding of our ancestor’s souls… and I have been planning to write a blog about that, so I won’t spoil it here.

They also have some tradition where they wear masks and go to people’s houses, knocking on the door asking for food, but my students insisted that it isn’t Halloween, but no one really seemed to be able to explain what it was.


They also have St. Martin’s day in the middle of November which involves dressing up and deceased ancestors, so it is kind of Halloweenish, right?

But unlike America, where Halloween is the 2nd biggest cash cow behind Christmas, here the stores are not covered in piles of candy, people do not buy plastic pumpkins for collecting their bounty, and nobody puts up garish lawn displays showing off their ability to inflate giant pieces of plastic. I completely forgot about the Halloween lawn decorations until I went out on Halloween night and couldn’t figure out what was missing.

In Latvia, they do not need lawn decorations because they have the real deal.

The spirits are nearer to the living here in the Old Country. I truly believe that. Weird shit keeps happening that I cannot explain, and there is just a sense of being more grounded here, more in tune to the workings of the natural world. And the buildings are scary. I swear that if you could import people to come here for haunted houses, you wouldn’t even need to do much decorating. Just have people sign a waiver, and walk around. They will be frightened.

Latvian Pumpkins

As Halloween night approached, I bought some pumpkins so that Rita and Anna could experience the traditional carving of the Jack-O’-Lanterns. Even the pumpkins I bought are different from American-style pumpkins. They are thicker, and the seeds are more full and a part of the story. Rita found one smaller, American-style pumpkin with the thin seeds and guts. But the ones I bought were strange.




However, before we could carve them, we decided to get into costume and do a little trick-or-treating. It was totally impromptu. Rita wasn’t home from work yet, so Anna and I decided to put on some costumes. She did this really cool Charlie Chaplin, and I just put on a weird hat and my lumberjack shirt. Rita came home and joined in the fun becoming some kind of ghoulish spirit. Then things got really weird.

Rita really wanted to go trick-or-treating and had a plan to go through some of the nearby buildings to see how Latvians would respond to us.  So we went! Anna carried the bag for our treats, and the three of us were off. Like I said, Halloween is not a Latvian tradition, so there were not any revelers outside, just us. We went to the building adjacent to ours. The main door was unlocked, which seemed strange (someone had propped ours open with a rock), and then we climbed to the top of the stairs and started knocking on doors. I was impressed by the aggression and vigor of my Latvian companions. We all spoke in English to let them know that this was a Halloween thing.

When someone opened the door, we surprised them with a big, rousing, “Trick or treat!” and then spent some time explaining what we were doing. A few people were ready for us, but most of them had no idea. The basic rule was that the older the person was, the lower the chances that they would actually give us anything.

The Doctor is In!

The real fun started when we went to the big gray building that stares at us from across the street all day and all night. I have kind of fantasized about going inside. We had a running joke for awhile when someone left a light on in the top floor apartment (which I am pretty sure is abandoned). We said, “The doctor is studying again.” So here we were, at the door to the building. It was so dark that we had to kind of feel our way inside. There were no lights in the corridor or on the staircase. I had never seen anything like it. Cobwebs filled the corners, paint was peeling from the walls. The narrow stairs spiraled up and up and up. We climbed to the top and started banging on doors, but no one seemed to be home. We descended until we came to the 2nd floor where a nice man pleaded with us telling us he didn’t have anything. But we persuaded him that anything would do, so he gave us a mostly empty bag of cat food.

The biggest disappointment was on the ground floor of this building when we ran into an older woman who just shunned us and slammed the door in our face without any sense of joy or humanity. I can’t judge her. Had I seen us three in her building after a long day of work, I might have felt the same way.

Then we went to the next building, which was also disheveled beyond my comprehension. Not only was paint peeling on the inside, but the walls of the staircase had been graffitied. If you showed me photos, I would not believe that anyone lived there, but they did. I don’t think anyone gave us candy, but there were people at home. I got the sense that many of them were staring through peep holes thinking… “No way am I opening this door!” (but in Latvian of course).

Finally, we came back to our own building, and we were excited and pumped up from all of our experiences. We again climbed the stairs and started knocking on doors. On the floor below us, both of the doors were opened, and the people were young and courteous, but they had no candy. By some strange coincidence, or may a sign, they gave us onions. One of our neighbors had just come home from taking her kids trick-or-treating, so she had a bowl of candy just like in America!

The Bounty

However, It was in our own building where we got the worst shunning. My biggest disappointment was not the cookie crumbs we got from the guys on the top floor nor the browning bananas, but the double rejection on the floor just above our own. One of the doors was decorated with a lovely religious symbol like Confucianism or something like that, and we thought for sure the person living there must be chill. But both doors opened simultaneously, and the two women on either side of us took one look, and then slammed the doors in our faces. How rude!

All told, we came home with a pretty full bag of goodies. Not bad for just four buildings and under an hour. We fed the stray cat our bounty of cat food, and I used one of the onions to make nachos tonight! So it was indeed a happy Latvian Halloween! And Rita had  some good data for her research project.

Prologue: The Pumpkins

With a bit of coaxing and a large butcher knife, I was able to cut the top off of the big pumpkin I bought, and then we cleaned it out, and went to carving. I showed them how to do the basic triangular eyes and nose with some teeth. They were a bit more creative and, frankly, their pumpkins turned out much better than mine!

Happy Halloween!

We found some candles and put them in the window facing the street. I think we had the only Jack-O’-Lanterns as far as they eyes can see, and who knows, maybe in all of Riga! All of Latvia?

Sidenote: Rita just pointed out that the doctor is back! The light on the fourth floor is on. Someday, I will figure out that mystery, but it will have to wait. Maybe next Halloween!