Shopping for Christmas in the 21st century usually either involves piling into the local mall and trawling through the shops which can be found on any high street or spending hours browsing through the internet in a vain attempt to find bargains and more unusual gifts.
However, it wasn’t always that way. Christmas markets date back centuries all over Europe and were traditionally a wonderful way to celebrate the festive period as well as purchase gifts and tokens of appreciation for loved ones.
Thankfully the tradition has not died out – quite the opposite in fact – and all over the continent Christmas markets are held every year offering a different way to enjoy the Yuletide period. The Latvian capital, Riga, has many long-held Christmas customs and their market helps to bring many of these to life; here’s a guide to what you can expect.
Where did it start?
The idea of holding a Christmas market may sound like a relatively new phenomenon but in actual fact it dates back to the 13th century in Germany – which technically makes the Germans the inventors of Christmas shopping….!
In the beginning, just a few stalls selling handicrafts used to be set up outside churches in the hope that the congregation would stop and purchase a trinket or two after the service. This quickly expanded to traders in local squares who sold handicrafts as well as food and drink. As the years passed, more and more seasonal goods started to be sold whilst entertainment such as singing and dancing quickly became a central feature of these markets.
Modern markets often now include innovations such as ice rinks to help create a winter wonderland atmosphere but nevertheless still feature long-standing customs and traditions as well as locally produced food and drink.
Folk from Riga celebrate Christmas in style with a wonderful market which captures the very essence of the original stallholders who braved the cold many centuries ago. Although the market in Riga has only been running for a few years, the traditions date back to the 16th century; a decorated Christmas tree was first recorded as being erected in the main square as long ago as 1510!
Riga’s claim to fame
If the idea of celebrating Christmas in a location which has long-standing ties to Yuletide traditions, Riga could well be the perfect place to visit.
It is widely believed that the idea of decorating a Christmas tree may well have originated from Riga and that the tree that stood in Town Hall Square in 1510 could have been the first of its kind! Latvia and Riga in particular, is therefore viewed by the majority of Christmas experts of the birthplace of the evergreen Christmas tree which is popular in so many countries around the world today.
However, whilst Riga’s Christmas tree custom caught the imagination of the masses, there was one aspect which was dropped. In the original custom, once the festivities were over, the tree was burnt to cinders – not something you will want to try in your front room!
As you would expect from the birthplace of the Christmas tree, Riga loves to celebrate the festive period and its market is visited by those from near and far.
The market opens on the First Advent Sunday in December each year and is marked by a ceremony to officially light what is described every year as ‘The First Christmas Tree’. This usually takes place around dusk – between 4-5pm – and with a beautiful setting of the river nearby and the historic town hall, provides the perfect backdrop to get everyone feeling full of goodwill and festive.
The market is the perfect place to buy traditional gifts, or handcrafted products from a wide range of materials including sheepskin, wool, linen, wood and glass. Painted silks, wooden toys and woollen items are particularly popular choices.
And of course, a Christmas market would not be the same without seasonal food and drink and Riga doesn’t disappoint. A wide range of Latvian Christmas food is on offer, from smoked meat and fish right through to sauerkraut and baked potatoes. And if you are feeling the winter chill a little more than you would like, you can sample the local hot blackcurrant drink but beware! It is not quite as innocent as it seems… Spiced with a shot of ‘Black Balsam’, a potent Latvian herbal alcohol, the blackcurrant drink delivers a warm glow guaranteed to keep the cold night at bay.
Few people realise that Riga is quite literally one of the birthplaces of Christmas as we know it today. By joining the 350,000 people that visit the market every year, you could enjoy Yuletide with a Latvian twist and pick up some wonderful gifts for family and friends in the process.