Athabasca UniversityLois Hole Campus Alberta Digital Library

Latvian Culture

Latvian culture is very rich and dates back thousands of years. Shaped by man and nature, closely tied to the North European land and the Baltic Sea, Latvians have always treasured their identity. Throughout many centuries of foreign rule, Latvians preserved their culture mostly in folklore, which united them then and is alive today.

Latvia has a rich cultural life: it's known as the country that really sings. Rich in traditions and symbolism, Latvian folksongs present ancient Latvian wisdom and beliefs. They are an oral record of Latvian culture. The first Song & Dance Festival was held in 1873 and is now held every 5 years, attracting as many as 30,000 participants. In 2008 this celebration, along with similar large-scale festivals in Estonia and Lithuania, were inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Latvian culture is also closely tied to the seasons.

Summer Solstice (Jāņi) is the most popular Latvian festivity, held on June 23rd to celebrate the longest day of the year. It originated as an ancient festival celebrated after sowing the crops and before gathering harvest. It’s a time to spend with family and friends, enjoying good food and drink in the countryside while staying awake around a bonfire until sunrise. Traditional foods at Jāņi include cheese with caraway seeds, beer, and rye bread.

Religion in Latvia

Latvia has a wide range of religious beliefs.

The ancient Latvian religion “Dievturiba” was the way of Latvian life before influences by outsiders such as the Swedes, Germans, Poles and Russians. The aim was to live in harmony with nature and other members of society. Latvians look at the world today and still use Latvian folksongs or Dainas as an oral source of transmitting wisdom and traditional values. Thousands of Latvian Dainas which deal with God (Dievs) have been preserved, mostly through oral tradition from one generation to the next. God has changed and evolved as it has in many other religions. The Latvian God is ever-present and full of goodness. All relationships between God and man are personal, since the Latvian religion is not dogmatic, prophetic or revolutionary. Some consider this Latvian religion to be Pagan, but it has survived until today and is reflected in Latvian culture, where wisdom and values are taught through many folksongs (Dainas).

Latvia was one of the last countries in Europe to be Christianized by German missionaries in the 12th century, after which Polish rulers brought Catholicism and the Swedes brought Lutheranism. The main religion is Lutheran in Zemgale, Vidzeme & Kurzeme, followed by Catholic in Latgale and Orthodox among the Latvian Russian population.

During the Soviet regime, a state policy of atheism was enforced and churches were used as community centres, barracks and warehouses. Priests were banished, and churches damaged during the war were not repaired. After regaining independence in 1991, the restoration of churches was begun and Latvians have returned to organized religions.

Latvia Before the War

The Latvians are an ancient people. Indo-European tribes arrived on the Baltic coast in 2500 BC. These people gradually split into the old Latvian tribes of Selonians, Latgalians, Zemgalians and Couronians.

Trade by the Balts is documented as early as 100 AD. The Baltic Sea provided maritime connections with the rest of the world, with ancient trade routes for amber as far away as Byzantium. The capital, Riga, was always an important location on the Daugava River and was founded officially in 1201 by a German bishop who began Christianization. Riga was a member of the Hanseatic League and has remained a crucial trade hub for its Russian neighbours, southern Europeans and the Middle East.

Latvia was occupied many times by different countries before beginning its quest for independence. After German conquest, the tribal kingdoms became Livonia. Several centuries later, the territory was partitioned and changes of control by Poland, Lithuania and Sweden followed. By the end of the 18th century, it was subject to Russia and remained so until the Russian Revolution.

During the late 18th-early 19th centuries, the economy included traditional farming, forestry and fishing, while new businesses flourished, manufacturing expanded, ports and shipping boomed. At the time, Riga was the largest port in the Russian Empire. Economic expansion allowed the creation of a growing Latvian movement in the late 1800s, beginning what is known as the First National Awakening. Nationalistic sentiments continued to grow until the end of WW1 and allowed the formation of the Latvian National (People’s) Council, which declared independence for Latvia within its historical borders on November 18, 1918, under the leadership of Karlis Ulmanis.

The years between the two World Wars were the best years the country had seen. Latvia was one of the most developed European nations and had a very stable economy, with jobs and education being very accessible. The people prospered and exports included radio equipment, butter, pork, flax, paper and leather goods.

The Soviet army occupied Latvia in 1940, the Germans took over from 1941-1944, and the Soviets returned in 1944 to rule until independence was declared again in 1991.

New Beginnings – Latvians in Alberta

A few Latvian settlers arrived in the Province of Alberta in the 1890s, but most people of Latvian heritage arrived during three general ‘waves’ of immigration: the first in the early 1900’s pre-WWI, the second following WWII, and the third after 1991 and the post-Soviet Union era.

The initial group came to settle the prairie provinces as part of the federal policy to populate and develop the agricultural resources of Western Canada. Although serfs in the Russian Empire, including Latvia, were emancipated in the 1860’s, there remained numerous restrictions regarding land ownership rights and the ability to earn a sufficient level of income. This, among other factors, led to the less famous Russian Revolution of 1905, creating further uncertainty for Latvians at home. The appeal of free land in Western Canada was an attractive option for many. The earliest communities were in Josephsburg, near Medicine Hat, and the Lake Isle area west of Edmonton. Charles Plavin is a well-known Latvian immigrant who established a successful homestead near Peace River in 1911 and later created a sizeable scholarship at the University of Alberta.

Post-WWII immigration of Latvians to Canada and Alberta was part of the major worldwide upheaval and relocation of people following the worst military crisis in history. Following the displacement from their homeland, Latvians came to Canada and Alberta as there was a strong demand for labour during the global post-war re-build era. Latvians arrived with little in the way of government-sponsored social supports. However, the Latvian community developed a strong social cohesion as evidenced by the formation of the Latvian Relief Society of Canada in 1945, with branches in Edmonton and Calgary. Local Latvian cultural organizations also formed. The Edmonton Latvian Society “Imanta”, formed in 1947, is Canada’s oldest active Latvian cultural organization.

The three Baltic states declared their independence from the Soviet Union in the spring of 1990, preceding the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991. Having endured forced Communist rule for fifty years, it is understandable that newly independent states such as Latvia had a difficult time quickly transitioning to democracy and a free-market economy. Looking for a better life and improved economic prospects, Latvians now had the option of pursuing opportunities in other countries. Since that time, Canada and Alberta have benefitted from the immigration of individuals and families of Latvian heritage through their contribution to the economy and to the richness of the Canadian cultural mosaic.

Library Services - Last Updated October 29, 2020, 14:19:48 MST/MDT