Halloween in Riga, Latvia, 2003

The depth of snow varied on our drive from Vilnius to Riga. In some places it was just a dusting, a bit of white on top of still green fields. In Northern Lithuania we saw a farmer with a horse drawn plow working the snow into the soil. As we approached Riga the snow got deeper. On the outskirts of town a long line of cars led to a Goodyear store, drivers wanting to get their snow tires.

Riga’s old town has an ancient and massive Lutheran Cathedral fronting a town square that’s a jobsite for buskers, a tuba and euphonium duo played 50’s hits -­- “Only You” by The Platters. On Halloween the square was also the site of costumed revels by torchlight. Costumes ranged from minimalist to elaborate, with parents dragging along little kids in kitten masks who were not too sure about these college students engaged in swordplay by the cathedral. At both 10 and 11 PM we watched Halloween fireworks over the steeples of the old town.

Suzi and I celebrated Halloween in the traditional Lutheran way, by attending a Bach organ concert inside a Lutheran cathedral. (Luther pulled the greatest Halloween prank of all times by Trick or treating the cathedral.  He got no treat so his trick was nailing his 95 thesis on the door.) The Riga Dom organ is, I think, the fourth largest in the world. One of the pieces was a Bach sonata for cello and organ. It’s a tribute to both the church’s acoustics and the skill of the duo that 6712 pipes and four strings balanced beautifully.

We’ve been watching Halloween’s evolution in post-Communist Europe.  When we first moved to Europe in 1993 there were no celebrations in Albania.  In Slovakia in 1997 the only celebrations of Halloween revolved around the Tesco grocery store, McDonalds and the Irish Pub.  By the time we left in 1999 it was a full out revel.  Big enough to get a bishop to attack it as a Celtic Pagan holiday and urging good church members to celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1 instead.  Of course All Saints’ Day has its origins in Halloween or more properly “Samhain Night.”  In Serbia (not Transylvania) the traditional home of vampires, Serbs have joyfully married their history of vampires and fairies to the Halloween custom.

Riga has always has a strained relationship with its hinterland. The city was founded in 1200 by Germans and was a member of the Hansiatic League. Latvians were not allowed to live inside the walls.  Ivan the Terrible tried to take Riga for Russia and failed. Peter the Great succeeded but the German merchant class still pretty much ran the economy. About a hundred years ago a Latvian, who owned a home in Riga, tried to join a merchant guild. The guild turned him down. He had a house across from the guildhall and put a pair of cats on the points of the roof, their backs arched, tails up and asses pointed at the guildhall. The guild said this was an insult and sued the Latvian. He counter sued. In the settlement he was allowed to join the guild if he turned the cats so that they faced the guildhall. The “Cat House” is a tourist attraction, especially on Halloween.


Tomorrow is All Saints’ Day and we will travel to Slovakia to visit the surrogate ancestor for Slovaks who cannot get home to decorate the graves of their own ancestors.  In the future I will post a page on Art Nouveau architecture in Riga.


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