The last two European countries to convert to Christianity were Latvia and Lithuania. This situation marks the region as the last existing area of the old paganism culture. Moreover, the Balts tried to preserve their long-established way of living. Yet, during the purge of paganistic influence in Europe, the Baltic tribes assimilated into Christianity. The crusades against the Baltic people took place in the 12th century where the purpose was to “bring culture to the degenerated pagans”. The assimilation process was long and took many casualties. After years of resistance, they had to alternate their entire way of life. However, the Balts are resilient and passed down their ancient traditions in secret. Let me tell you a little bit more in detail!
Nature calls for a celebration
Baltic pagan gods represent the features of daily life within the old culture. Thus, the deities are imbedded in agriculture and cattle breeding. Baltic paganism was in no way an organised religion. It operated as a collection of superstitions. At the core of these superstitions and myths were the use of symbols to worship the various deities in order to have luck in their daily endeavours. Furthermore, because these deities are a part of nature, the customs are made to worship the natural phenomenons. The symbols were everywhere, especially embroidered in fabric. Furthermore, there are two essential festivals that evolved from the honouring of natural deities – celebrating the longest as well as the shortest day of the year.
The longest day of the year is otherwise known as the summer solstice. It takes place on the night that is changing from 23rd to the 24th of June. It is the celebration of the sun winning over the darkness. The ancient meaning of the festival is to celebrate agricultural fertility as well as the sunlight. When the sun goes down the night is welcomed with a campfire that is burning until the morning light. Therefore, you have to stay up the whole night. The summer solstice festival symbolises a time of the year when the new harvest is not yet collected, and reserves of the previous crops are almost over.
The food has a symbolic meaning, and there were specific customs. Beer has a meaningful role in the festival, as each farmer made their own brew, where the owner of the household had the first sip. This notion symbolises the protection of the family and the workers. Cheese is the other important food component. The Balts make a unique cheese that is yellow and round, thus representing the sun. This type of cheese is an essential tradition until this day.
The activities of the festival include playing games, singing, jumping over the fire and making flower crowns. The young, as well as the old, take part in the games. The point of the games is to unite with singing and dancing. Jumping over the fire might seem dangerous, and it may not be for everyone. Yet, it has an integral part of the culture. This festival is still the biggest event of the year.
When the night has reached its peak in longitude, it’s time to celebrate the winter solstice. This time of the year in the western world is referred to as Christmas. However, pagans had their own customs that continue to persist. As in every celebration, food has an important symbolic role. This is also the case for the winter solstice. Meals made from grains symbolise the gratitude for human life as well as showing respect to the elders that have passed.
Moreover, the count of the meals was important as the number of dishes always has to be connected to number three. Most families had nine meals per each day of the solstice, that would assure prosperity. In the evening, it was time for the sauna rituals to cleanse both physically and mentally to prepare for the new year. Before Halloween ever found its way to Europe, Baltic pagans were creating masks and going from house to house singing and dancing. The winter solstice in the present time is a mixture of old and new traditions.
A culture of myths
Pagan traditions have a mythical meaning and they are still relevant to the Baltic culture. However, these traditions no longer hold a religious significance. Yet, the myths are now a part of folklore that is passed down to each generation. In 1991 Lithuania and Latvia secured their independence as separate countries. Thus, protecting this heritage became crucial. Nowadays, you can see everyone wearing the symbols that used to represent the pagan gods. This is the case because the old customs have found its way back to the mainstream culture. Traditional songs and dances take place at every event. People are even choosing to have pagan style weddings. The unorganised pagan customs evolved from oppression and rose up from oblivion, becoming, once again, a part of daily life.