Decorating trees with straw, dragging a log around your house with a rope and taking a sauna bath are not traditions normally associated with Christmas.
Or any other time of the year for that matter.
But these are all festivities in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — three Baltic countries where Christmas is celebrated a little differently, with some traditions dating back to the winter solstice. Other traditions have been pinpointed to the Orthodox tradition of celebrating on Jan. 7.
“It’s only been in the last 20 years that Christmas has been a public celebration,” Lithuania Festival of Hope director Viktor Hamm said. “During the Soviet days it wasn’t Christmas that was celebrated, it was New Year’s.”
Less than two months removed from the two-day Lithuania Festival that saw over 28,000 people hear the Gospel and more than 1,600 decisions for Christ made, many Lithuanians are looking at Christmas through a different lens this season.
“Through the Festival of Hope, thousands of lives were changed and Christmas will never be the same for them again,” Hamm said. “Those who have been touched by the Gospel have experienced a new life that will change their destiny, and obviously the meaning of Christmas has taken on a new dimension for them.”
After BGEA Festivals in Latvia (November 2010) and Estonia (May 2009), scores of people have experienced Christmas with a new Christ-centered outlook.
“For the first time, they’ll celebrate Christmas with an understanding of what the full Gospel is all about,” Hamm said.
The Festival also included an Operation Christmas Child distribution at the Kidzfest, which drew over 7,000 people to Siemens Arena in Vilnius.
“It was just a beautiful picture to see how thousands of kids were sitting on the parking lot and opening up their boxes,” Hamm said. “It was just a tremendous testimony of the power of God. From the gifts of famlies worldwide, the hearts of these children were touched.”
Here’s a look at some of the Christmas traditions in each Baltic country.
Handmade straw ornaments decorating Christmas trees is a relative new tradition, but one you’ll find commonplace in Lithuania. These ornaments may also be used to decorate the home. Having a hard time finding traditional yellow straw? Not a problem. Some make ornaments from plastic drinking straws. Also a fairly new Christmas tradition is a European-style Christmas market that takes place in the historic center city, selling season treats and handmade gifts.
Riga, Latvia was the birthplace of the Christmas Tree, according to local legends.Dating back to the early 16th century, it is reported that a Christmas tree was decorated in front of the House of Blackheads on Town Hall Square.True or not, the 500th anniversary of the Latvian Christmas tree was celebrated in 2010.Other longstanding Latvia traditions include a Christmas feast, singing of carols and dragging a Yule log around your home then — you guessed it — lighting it on fire.
On Christmas Eve, the annual custom is to take a sauna steam bath after preparing the house for the evening festivities. Similar to the same habit of Midsummer’s Even, the sauna tradition normally precedes the Christmas Eve service at the local church and many children are offered new clothes and shoes for the evening church service. Other traditions center around food, including blood sausage and sauerkraut. Covering floors with straw or hay is not as common of a tradition as it once was.