Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my friends/family back home and to all my friends around the world! I hope that all of you have had a joyous holiday season filled with music, food, and coziness. It certainly has been a busy month for me with my usual work and play. Yet, I’ve still been able enjoy how special this time of year is and appreciate all the ways I can make it merry from my new home-away-from-home. As December 25th nears, I thought that I would share some of the ways that I am celebrating the holiday season in Europe.
December started off with my parents coming to visit me all the way across the Atlantic. I was so thankful that they made the 4,500 mile trek from Minnesota and that I was able to see them during the holiday season. While here they were able to attend two orchestral concerts that I played violin in, visit the many historical museums in Riga, see my city’s lovely Christmas market, meet my new friends, and get a feel for Latvia. It was a blast and I am so thankful they came!
In addition, I took a (working) trip this past week after administering my finals to visit a good friend. Making my way back to western Europe I saw Ethan in Lille, France who is teaching English there through the TAPIF program. During this latest adventure I was also able to go to Brussels, Belgium. Together the two of us explored the Musical Instrument Museum which was an all-too-perfect excursion for us music-lovers. Likewise, seeing how signature countries like France and Belgium celebrate and decorate for Christmas was amazing.
Taking time to see the people I love has made the season come alive for me. There is nothing quite as special as being with those you love near the holidays. This alone is so much to be grateful for.
The Christmas music scene has definitely been in full-swing throughout Latvia. This is the first year that I haven’t performed in a large December concert in pretty much forever, but I was still have been able to enjoy the music of the season through performances where others shared their gifts. I have been eager to go to the National Ballet with my roommates this fall and the perfect opportunity came up when we attended the Nutcracker on December 16th. It was family day at the National Opera House and so enjoyable to see this classic show amidst lots of little kids falling in love with Tchaikovsky for the first time. There is nothing quite as magical as happily falling into the wonderland of Clara and her dancing friends for a couple of hours.
Besides this, I have also seen a few smaller concerts performed at my music academy, watched and rewatched Christmas at Luther 2018, and will look forward to a Gershwin piano concert I am attending on December 26th.
Fortunately, I was also still able to create some of my own music this month. As mentioned, my orchestra concerts at the beginning of December went superb and gave me so much joy. With a program full of Piazzolla, Oskar Strok, and Palmeri, it was far from a traditional Christmas program, but nonetheless lively and energetic. I will miss playing music at my church and in my community this year, but look forward to this for Christmases in the future.
The Christmas Markets in Europe are definitely all that you have heard about them (and more). So far I have checked out them in Riga, Brussels, and Lille. And I can certainly remark that they are all different and unique in their own ways.
Riga’s market was the most traditionally decorated, with the houses adorned with candy-cane striped roofs, a tree decorated with straw mushrooms and bunny ornaments, and venders dressed up in monk robes and heavy wool overcoats. As you walked around, you could peruse crafts and goods or just eat your way through the rows. If you came with an empty stomach there was lots of piping hot mulled wine, seeded breads, honey-flavored sweets, steaming sausages, and heaping spoons of sauerkraut to be had. Last weekend when we visited there was even a traditional bagpipe ensemble playing! This market has definitely been my favorite of the three.
The Brussels and Lille markets were wonderful as well, full of balloons, churros, Belgium waffles, and crafts. My favorite comparison I’ve made is all of these markets so dearly reminded me of county fairs in the Midwest. At its simplest and best, it is a place for families and friends to gather and have a good time!
Taking time to remember what this holiday is about important, and I am thankful that I have been able to walk through the weeks of Advent intentionally this year. One of the things I have appreciated the most in Latvia is the presence of so many Advent wreaths. When out and about you might see the familiar lit garland hanging in store windows or even displayed on doors at school. We have made-do in our apartment with some candles grouped together but the meaning is still the same.
Going to my little Lutheran church has been essential this season as well. I have found that no matter how lost I get in the Latvian liturgy that I can always sing the hymns effortlessly. Since I have plenty of Advent and Christmas hymn stanzas memorized, I can still join in.
The Latvian Christmas Tree
Maybe the best part of being in Latvia during Christmas, however, is being in the fabled location of the first Christmas tree! Wait, you didn’t know? Neither did I until I was researching Latvia before my travels. Dating back to medieval ages and Latvia’s pagan traditions, the first trees used during this season were allegedly decorated with artificial roses and set on fire. Since then, the Christmas tree tradition has spread from Riga to all over the world to become one of the biggest symbols of the holiday. Today, there are many lovely Christmas trees set-up around the city and it has been fun to admire their grandeur. The only thing that is different from ours in the U.S. is we don’t still use candles to decorate our trees, like many Europeans do!
Here is a picture of our little tree at home. No, we didn’t venture into the deep Latvian woods to extract our tree as is common. We got ours from Ikea this year — but it is still adorable, if I do say so myself!
As the Christmas season comes to its climax and winds down in the next few days, know I am thinking of all of you at home. For many, Christmas is a hard holiday to celebrate. Just like me, some can’t travel all the way across the world or their country to be with family or close friends. As the days have darkened to their worst in Riga (8:40am-3:40pm) and we’ve dealt with constant sleet, drizzle, rain, and snow, it is hard to remember the warmth and light that exists in the world.
So easily it seems that even the beautiful, seasonal candles we see carefully displayed in our windows and on our tables can’t break through that which is dull and miserable in our lives. Yet, at the same time, that one flicker of a candle can cast the dark and shadows out of a room. That small light can and will provide hope. And with that, I wish that in these next days we will all take a minute to find the small things that put a little magical, Christmas sparkle into our darkest days.