Latvian Halloween

Latvian Halloween

1.11.17

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Today, I got an email from an old friend who said that my blog posts are not “oversharing” but rather historical documents that will stand the test of time to tell future generations of where we were as a people at this time and in this place.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

Halloween

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.

Costumes

 

 

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!

 

 

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