9 Magical Christmas Foods

A Latvian tradition is to eat nine special foods at their Christmas celebration. Each food has its own magical meaning.

Pīrāgs: A Latvian bacon bun. (Pīrāgs is a singular noun. Plural is pīrāgi)

My motivation to write ebbs and flows. Lately, it’s been at an ebb. I start a new blog post and it winds up in the drafts file. It’s embarrassing to admit how often that has happened. I seldom know why this happens even with the most interesting material. Maybe this time it’s because I miss working on my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart and I’m in mourning. I have another novel in progress that I set aside to work on Exile. I love it, too, but its draw on my interest doesn’t seem to be strong enough. Some of my lack of motivation has to do with anxiety and depression; it, too, ebbs and flows. Not even cookies.

Latvian Christmas spice cookies baked with nine different spices.

Instead of writing a new description of the nine special foods, I’m going to insert a scene from Exile.

Līvija is the protagonist. Cameron is the deuteragonist; the only American at a Latvian Christmas party at Līvija’s home. Dzintra is her seven-year-old daughter. The other characters are their housemates. Kristaps is six.

Many newly arrived refugees lived together communally until they could afford to acquire homes of their own. My family and I lived for a while with my godmother and her family.

The scene:

Līvija and Vera entered carrying platters of roast meat. Even after feeding ten people, there would probably be enough leftovers to keep the household satiated for a week. Līvija set a roast goose in front of Mr. Timma.  Noticing the wonder on Cameron’s face, she explained, “We all received Christmas bonuses.”

“It is a Latvian tradition to eat nine special foods at Christmas.” Vera set a pork roast before Mrs. Timma and sat down between Kristaps and Marta. “Each of the foods has a magical meaning.”

Cameron turned to his little companion. “Will you tell me what the meanings are, Dzintra?”

Obviously pleased to be asked, she counted on her fingers. “Peas and beans so you don’t cry. Pīrāgi to always have a nice surprise. Beets and carrots to be healthy.”

Kristaps seemingly couldn’t bear to have everyone’s attention focused on Dzintra. He piped up loudly, “Pig meat for good luck!”

“Kris,” Siliņš silenced his son again. “Mr. Kvinn asked Dzintra, not you.”

Once again Cameron felt sorry for the kid. The boy couldn’t seem to do anything right. He also couldn’t seem to learn. Sliding down in his chair, Kristaps mumbled, “I was just trying to help.”

“In English pig meat is called pork.” Unfazed Dzintra went on, “Poultry for success. Fish for money. Sauerkraut to be strong. A round…” Dzintra broke off and leaned forward looking to her mother for help.

“A round baked good,” Līvija prompted.

Not subdued for long, Kristaps announced, “We have two round cakes!”

Dzintra tensed. She seemed ready to come to blows. “That’s supposed to be a surprise. You spoiled it, Kris!”

Zenta put a calming hand on her granddaughter’s shoulder. “Ve hev many surprize. Tell Mr. Kvin about ze last two foods. Vat do round baked goods mean?”

“They mean lots of sunshine.” Her momentary flare of temper forgotten, Dzintra turned her sunny face toward Cameron. “And piparkūkas so you’ll always have love.”

“That must be why many piparkūkas are shaped like hearts,” Cameron said, putting a caressing hand on top of Dzintra’s head. “I’ll have to make sure I have a little of each food and plenty of piparkūkas, even though I’m lucky enough to already have lots of love.”

Fancy layer cakes, “tortes” are a specialty of some Latvian ladies.

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Martin Day: The End of Veļu Laiks

Saying goodbye to autumn and welcoming winter.

Martin’s symbol of fire and light. Both are important during the coldest and darkest time of year.

Martin Day was on November 10th but I’ve recently learned that all of November is Martin Month. Who is Martin? He is one of the sons of Dievs the Latvian nature deity who has become associated with the Christian god who goes by the same name. Dieva (possessive case) other sons are Jānis, whose day is the Summer Solstice, and Ūsiņš, the god of spring and blossoming.

It is a tradition to sacrifice a rooster to Mārtinš to thank him for a good harvest and in hopes of a good harvest the following year.

Mārtiņi is the Latvian word for Martin Day. It’s the day when the Veļi, the spirits of the dead, return to their home beyond the sun. It marks the end of shepherding and the completion of harvesting. It is the beginning of ladus laiks, the time of ice. And it’s a cross-quarter day, the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

We seldom get ice like this in my state

One of the customs to celebrate Martin’s Day is a masked procession. The masked participants are known as budeļi. Mumming, another name for masking goes on all winter to Meteņi, when spring is welcomed.

One of my friends is currently in Latvia where he took part in Martin Day festivities at the Ethnographic Open Air Museum in Rīga. Adults, as well as children, wear masks. In the old days in Latvia, budeļi went from farmstead to farmstead, singing and dancing. The householders welcomed them with refreshments.

My friend kindly gave me permission to use his photos and didn’t even ask for photo credits.

Budeļi at the Ethnographic Open Air Museum
Music is everywhere.
I’m sad that I never got to see anything like this when I was in Latvia. I was there at the height of summer and I got to see a Song Festival.
Latvians dance everywhere, all the time.
Budeļi come in all sizes.

Mārtiņi is one of many fire festivals in Latvian, and world pagan traditions. Fire represents the threshold to another dimension, The center of the bonfire is a direct link to Dievs. The fire rituals are complex and deserve their own post.

Mārtinš is also a popular name for men. My maternal grandfather was named Mārtinš.

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WIPs: Too Much of a Good Thing.

& A Sneak Preview

Writing doldrums can show up for any number of reasons. Sometimes because I have no idea what to write next. Sometimes because I have too many ideas and it’s hard to decide which one to work on next. Sometimes because I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read anything I write, not even the people who follow my blog.

Sometimes the ideas pop up like popcorn. Too many at once. Tasty tidbits along with some old maids.

My current issue that’s stymying me is having too many works in progress (WIPs) I have a magpie mind. I like the next shiny new thing. The next story or essay idea that I want to work on at the cost of other projects that are waiting to be completed. Too often I love my stories too much to want to let them go. I get persnickety and no matter how many times I’ve been over a manuscript, I keep finding new errors. I could go on editing forever.

I have a lot in common with this bird.

My three weightiest WIPs are my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart; a collection of essays from Come, Follow My Blog, titled, Latvian Lore, and a second collection of blog essays titled, Latvia, Despite the Soviets.

Even though none of these books is finished, a friend, who is also my writing mentor, has been helping me design covers for them. Colleen loves designing covers and has experience creating designs for many of her own traditionally published books. She loves helping people. She hasn’t said so but perhaps she also eagerly helps design covers for my self-published books in hopes of inspiring me to finish the darn things.

A Home for an Exile’s Heart. An earlier version that needs a bit of editing.

I thought A Home for an Exile’s Heart, my novel about Līvija Galiņa, a Latvian refugee who, with her family, flees her homeland when the Soviet army invades in 1944 and finds a new home and a new love-interest, former fighter pilot, Cameron Quinn in Seattle in 1952 was finished. I re-read the last chapter and decided that I don’t like it. Re-writing it has proven to be more of a hassle than I expected. Too sweet. It needed a touch of tartness. Just because it’s Christmas Eve doesn’t mean characters can put aside such strong emotions as jealousy and resentment. Yet, I don’t want to be heavy-handed. It’s a sticky wicket.

Latvian Lore is a collection of Latvian myths and traditions. The problem with that one is not having enough essays published in my blog to make a decent-sized book. I need to write and research more. There’s so much information to include that it’s hard to know what to include and what to leave out. I might even include family recipes. All that is to be decided later.

This is the photo I picked for the cover of Latvia, Despite the Soviets.

After A Home for an Exile’s Heart, the project that’s closest to completion is Latvia, Despite the Soviets, a memoir about a trip I took to Latvia for a Song and Dance Festival when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Some of the chapters are essays from Come, Follow My Blog, the rest is new material. I’ve also included chapters

to give my memoir historical context that some people may not be familiar with. I need to read my manuscript from start to finish to decide what needs rewriting, revising, and if I need to add new material. It is emotionally difficult material to write about. I need a break from it before continuing. 

So what did I do? I started a new story. Flash fiction that I want to submit to a literary magazine. Caw! Caw! Shiny new object! Let me add it to my collection of WIPs.

It Ain’t Always What It Seems

Gertrude Stein said, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” But not always. Maybe she’d never seen a Rose of Sharon bush, which is not a rose at all. Several plants have been called, “Rose of Sharon.” 

Pretty, but not a rose. Hibiscus has also been called, “Rose of Sharon.”

Misleading names are common to many things, including food.

Most of us know that french fries are not really from France.

I’d like some french fries right now.

And that there is no ham in hamburgers.

But how many folks know that “Rocky Mountain oysters” are not seafood? They’re actually the testicles of a bull. Yes, people cook and eat them.

Once, in my younger years, I made a dish called “Welsh rabbit.” No bunnies were sacrificed. The variation I made was a cheese sauce seasoned with mustard and served over toast. The name is probably a derogatory implication that the Welsh are too poor to be able to afford to cook a real rabbit. The name seems to imply that they’re also too poor to buy a gun to shoot rabbits and not smart enough to make a snare to catch them. In the term “Welsh rarebit” the latter word is a corruption of rabbit.

Variations of this dish are called Scotch rabbit and English rabbit. They all sound like grilled cheese sandwiches to me.

Another food with a deceptive name that I once made is steamed pudding. It’s not the creamy, custardy dessert that you’d expect. Instead, it’s more like a very moist, delicious cake. 

Steamed pudding, all dressed up for Christmas.

So what’s with all this writing about things that aren’t what they seem? Because a few Latvians are still arguing about the proper meaning of ķūķu or is the word ķūči? Or is it the same word declined?

Some people insist that the dish is a porridge. One source I found said that ķūčis (singular) is a dish made of grain, without defining it further. Cakes are made of grain. Yet another source claimed that ķūčis is a dish made with pig’s ears. So which is it? Go figure.  

Latvians make a dessert called “debessmana,” mana from heaven. It’s made out of farina, which is a form of milled wheat, You whip the heck out of it as it’s cooking until it turns into a fluffy, mousse-like substance that’s served with milk. No one that I know of calls it porridge. Of course, that doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t call it porridge.

Gruel is the name for a thin porridge made of oatmeal or other meal. So confusing. 

Turns out that ķūķu cliffs are an outcrop of Devonian rocks on the banks of the Gauja River in the Cēsis district of Latvia.

It’s been fun researching this information and learning something while I’m at it.

Cake Controversy

Someone’s bound to say this isn’t really a cake. It’s stollen” a German baked good. Latbians make them in the shape of over-sized pretzels and call the “klinģers.”

It seems that I’ve stirred up a bit of a squabble with yesterday’s post in which I called Christmas Eve in Latvia “Cake Evening.” I made the mistake of posting the link to a social media Latvian food group.

“I never heard of that!” exclaimed a couple of people.

If you’ve never heard of the star, Aldebaran, which is 65 million light-years from the sun, does that mean Aldebaran doesn’t exist?

For a small country, Latvian has many regions and many different dialects, and very different names for the same thing. The Latgalian dialect, spoken in Latgale, is quite different from standard Latvian if there is such a thing.

Please bear with me, I’m going to include a little history to show that Latvia and the Latvian language are more diverse than would seem at first glance.

The Baltic people have lived on the shores of the Baltic Sea for more than four thousand years. Does anyone know what their ancient traditions regarding the Winter Solistic during their entire four thousand-year history? Okay, so they probably didn’t have cake for the first couple of thousand years or so. But we don’t know for sure that they didn’t. Cakes have taken many different forms over the centuries.

Despite the hole in the middle, it’s still a cake.

Before Latvia united as one country it was made up of tribes of Couronians (Kurzemnieki) Latgalians (Latgalieši) Zemgalieši (Semgallians) Sēļi, and many smaller tribes each with their own language and traditions.

To add to the confusion, over the centuries, Latvia has been occupied by Swedes, Russians, Poles, and Germans. Many words from those languages have entered the Latvian language. One of my mother’s uncles was married to a Russian. My mom scattered many Russian words into her speech. Half the time I didn’t know if a word she used was Latvian or Russian. French and German words also snuck in.

As an example of the differences even in modern Latvian is the word for “kitchen.” Many Latvians know it as virtuve. But my mother grew up calling the room, “ķēķis.” Two very different words for the same thing. Both words are Latvian but from different regions. There are many such examples. 

So, when I researched my “cake” post, did I miss seeing the little diacritical mark under the “K” in “ķūķu” for “kūku” i.e. cake? Possibly. But round cakes, symbolizing the sun, are a part of the special, magical foods served on Christmas Eve, which is a celebration of light. Some would call it The Light of the World, a term that means different things to different people.

“Cake Evening” is more catchy than “Nine Foods Evening” and more fitting for a celebration of the sun, a holiday observed in winter for thousands of years by many different cultures.

Latvians call this a “torte.” Is it still a cake? I call it delicious.

Cake Evening: A Latvian Winter Celebration

This is a mocha torte similar to the cakes that were served at Latvian gatherings during my childhood. They were baked by Latvian ladies. The frosting on the sides had fancy swoops.

I have to admit that I did not know that in ancient Latvian tradition, Christmas Eve was also known as “Cake Evening.” Until I started researching my novel, A Home for an Exile’s Heart, serving nine special foods on Christmas Eve was a part of the celebration. Each food has a magical meaning. Considering that feasting is a major part of holiday traditions everywhere, “Cake Evening” and nine special foods conveying sympathetic magic should come as no surprise. 

1. Peas and beans, so you don’t cry. 

2. Pīrāgi, so you’ll always have a nice surprise. They’re little bacon buns filled with diced bacon, Canadian bacon, onions, salt, and pepper. These days there are vegan variations.

Pīrāgi can also be made with ground meat (beef, maybe) so you can still enjoy a Latvian treat, even if you can’t have bacon.

3. Beets and carrots for good health.

4. Pork for good luck.

5. Poultry for success. Would that be because hens cackle to announce their success in laying an egg?

6. Sauerkraut in order to be strong. Rinse and squeeze before cooking in bacon fat, butter, or even olive oil, with or without onions, sliced thin. Some people like to add shredded carrots. Add caraway seeds and brown sugar to taste. You don’t use much liquid. The fat is mostly to give it flavor. There’s enough liquid in the kraut to cook it until it’s a light golden brown.

7. Fish, so you’ll always have money. The scales resemble coins.

8. A round cake. Its shape symbolizes the sun.

9. Piparkūkas, so you’ll always have love. The literal translation is “pepper cakes,” but many other spices go into them, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom. Usually, they’re just little brown cookies with a slice of almond pressed in the middle but they can also be decorated with icing.

The little nut-like thing is a cardamom pod. I remember grinding the seeds with a mortar and pestle before cardamom was available already ground.

I don’t know why piparkūkas symbolize love. The dough is rolled out thin. Many are cut into heart shapes, but they’re also cut into star, bell, Christmas tree, and ginger people shapes. Or maybe the cookies symbolize love because baking them is a labor-intensive labor of love. Perhaps because spices are expensive, so the cookies are baked for those you love and traditionally only at Christmas time.

It was July when I visited Latvia for the first time. I went to a public event I no longer remember. I do remember the piparkūkas that were offered to guests. I took a cookie shaped like a bunny, decorated with pink, white, and green icing. Instead of eating the cookie, I took it home in a little cough drop tin. I kept it for years, but somehow, during one of my moves, it got lost. Bunny tears.

Because this is a celebration of light, whatever its symbolism means to you, candles are included in the decorations.

The Great Oatmeal Debate

The Latvian vs the American Way, vs?

Some call it porridge, some call it gruel, some call it blah.

Until I stayed with relatives, I thought there was only one way to eat oatmeal: cooked in water, served with milk and sugar, maybe with sliced bananas on top. At the rellies house, we mostly had the usual things for breakfast, eggs, bacon, pancakes that sort of thing. But one morning my aunt cooked oatmeal. I stared in amazement as my uncle started eating his portion without pouring milk on top. He stared in amazement as I poured milk on my porridge. It was a long time before I tried eating oatmeal without milk.

Sometimes I really hate grocery shopping. I won’t go to the supermarket until my cupboards are almost in Mother Hubbard territory. Of course, my stomach doesn’t care that I don’t want to go shopping. It wants food now, not tomorrow, not next week, NOW. So, one time when I was out of milk but had rolled oats at home, I remembered my uncle eating his oatmeal without milk. Rather than go buy milk, I tried his way. To my surprise, it was good. After that, my oatmeal no longer sees milk. I eat it with blueberries, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Sometimes with raisins or craisins, sometimes with sliced strawberries or bananas on top.

That’s better.

Because my uncle was born and grew up in Latvia, I assumed that all Latvians eat milkless porridge, but I like evidence, so I posted the question in a social media group devoted to Latvian foods. No, eating porridge without milk wasn’t just my uncle’s eccentric preference. The majority of Latvians eat the hot breakfast cereal the same way. One woman even said that until she’d traveled outside Latvia, she’d never heard of eating oatmeal with milk. Another woman thought it’s yucky.

I learned of a variety of ways to fix and serve oatmeal. Not everyone cooks it with water. Many people cook oats in milk, then serve it with a pat of butter or with salt and/or cinnamon. One man cooks his with bananas and pours browned butter on top. Several people stir jam or jelly into their cereal.

In most cultures, only very young children drink milk. Sixty percent of adults around the world can’t digest milk. The rest, mostly Americans and Europeans still produce the enzyme that helps their bodies digest milk. Naturally, of the ones who can drink milk, some simply don’t like it or they like it with some foods, but not others. Being able to drink milk, or put it on their oatmeal, is what’s weird, not being able to is the norm. If you’re an adult who still wants wet oats, but can’t tolerate milk or want to save calories, and fat, you can wet your cereal with soy milk, coconut milk, or oat milk. Twice the oats.

I think there’s porridge under there. I’ll have to try this sometime.