What is it, that uniquely identifies a Latvian? For a country where the notion of a Latvian consciousness didn’t appear until the later stages of the nineteenth century, there is certainly a very strong sense of Latvian identity now. Some would say that Latvians are the only true descendants of the ancient Baltic tribes, as the Estonians have many Finnish connections and the Lithuanians have many Polish connections. So what is it that identifies a Latvian? To me it appears to be a passionate defense of some of those old and some new traditions.
Since independence from Russia in 1990 the population has seen a dramatic decline from approximately 2.75 m to a little under 2 m today. This is obviously a decline which is unsustainable and might lead one to conclude that traditions are likely to be under threat as it would appear it is mainly the educated youth and the middle classes who are leaving. However recent visits to Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs served to reassure me that Latvia’s traditional music, song and dance is in safe hands.
For those who have never visited Folkklubs, it is a place to enjoy traditional Latvian food and drink whilst being entertained in a traditional manner in very atmospheric surroundings. Whilst not having to pay a fortune. What I have noticed in my visits there is that most of the entertaining ,particularly the dancing, is performed by young people. By young I mean under 30. I subsequently found out that there are waiting list for young school children to join many of the traditional dancing classes in and around Riga.
There is however a big but here. In the 61 years of my life I have never met any one who was a Morris Dancer and in my youth it was considered a very “uncool” pastime and looked upon very negatively. I’m not really sure why this was the case and if this attitude stiff persists today. Is it because we have lost a sense of what it means to be British? I don’t know?
On Sundays around Latvia, in fact all days but mainly Sundays. you might observe dozens of people heading in the same direction with buckets, spades, rakes and watering cans in hand. One might be tempted to assume that they were on their way to their allotments (vegetable garden) but oh no they are in fact going to the cemetery to tend the graves of their departed loved ones. For some people this is a weekly visit. Perhaps even more frequently. I don’t know if this is an old or new tradition but due to the unusually beautiful setting of these cemeteries it is a visit I am happy to make when accompanying Inta to clean and tidy her parent’s grave. I’m not sure if it is appropriate to call a cemetery beautiful? If it was a park it definitely would be described as beautiful.
Why do people do this on a very regular basis. I think a common reason would be out of a sense of duty or respect coupled with the opportunity to spend time in a beautiful place in quiet contemplation of the past, the present and the future.
Latvia’s traditions are too many to mention here, but they are in safe hands provided the population does not continue to decline to the point of no return