The Blessing of Bread in Latvia

By Indra Cekstere.

My interest in traditional Latvian bread-baking is rooted in my childhood, because my mother and grandmother on my father’s side both baked rye bread at home. At that time (in the mid-20th century) this was common in all of Latvia.

As a child I was allowed to watch everything and to make a small loaf of bread from the last dough, scraped from the wooden baking trough with a scraper. This loaf was called dough scraper (Latvian: abrkasītis). The last thing to do was to slide it into the oven and the first, was to take it out. It smelled so wonderful and tasted very good warm, accompanied by a sip of cold milk. And then I was allowed to put the small loaf of bread on my pillow at night and stroke it.

I finished my studies at the Latvian University and started my work as an ethnologist in Gauja National Park. During my research into traditional carpentry in the Gauja National Park territory, I met many old ladies in the farmhouses who told of Latvia’s golden times – our first state where there was work and hope. Anyone who wanted to could work in their own farmhouse, build houses and sheds, tend fields and livestock, and look after families and children. And bread was always there in these stories – warm, fragrant, tasty, so important and dear, so honored. Every ear of wheat in the field was picked up and gathered. The end of the harvest and the first new rye bread was a family festival with a wreath of ears and a meal together under God’s blessing.

I had already heard something of this in my mother’s memories. That interested me so much that my family and I relived everything in my mind and work – the rye seeds, the blooming of the rye during the summer solstice, the fresh flour and the first self-baked loaf of bread. I prepared a survey with questionnaires about homemade bread and distributed it among the participants in the folklore groups, among relatives and acquaintances. I wrote an article in the magazine “Literatūra un Māksla” (Literature and Art, 1982.) with the title “Dough Scratches” – dedicated to my grandmother Amalia Maria Auguste Holzman, née Janson. I had not seen my grandmother – during World War II, she lost her own son and the son of her sister-in-law whom she had brought up after his parents died in World War I. All of their possessions were stolen or destroyed during the war. Eventually she fell ill and died at the age of only 54. Through these memories I felt a deep spiritual connection with my grandmother and all Latvian mothers, who not only baked bread, but also dreamed of family, children, the state and the future.

The rye bread from their own field, home-baked, given to the family with praise of God, thanked for with every bite – that was more than just daily bread, it was an ethical and spiritual symbol of the Latvians. On the loaves of bread, the bakers drew various marks with their fingers, most often it was a cross. I was surprised at how many people showed this deep sense of honor and love for bread. The rye bread has the most important place on the table during baptisms, engagements, weddings and also funerals and it was baked on every calendar holiday, as well as rolls, flatbreads and cakes.

In ancient times, barley bread and various grits made from barley, came first.

In the “Latvian Etymological Dictionary”, the scientist Konstantīns Karulis derived the etymology of the word bread – maize ’from the term‘ mieži ’- barley. This shows that in ancient times barley flatbreads were first used as bread and that barley groats were used in ritual meals. This is also confirmed by the descriptions of the memorial meals during the so-called days of God (Latvian: Dieva dienas, veļu laiks, dvēseļu dienas), which were celebrated in October – from Michaelmas to Martini. Then a special table was set with everything edible that had grown in the fields, and barley groats were always there too.

Barley groats were important in various jobs and also on holidays. Shrovetide bread – round like the sun, filled with chopped meat and onions – was made from barley flour, and Shrovetide groats were also made from barley.

Agriculture slowly changed and rye bread or black bread took first place. Old German-Latvian dictionaries from the 18th century show that the word klaips for rye bread or black bread was used to describe the bread of the common people, while the better bread or men’s bread (the bread of the masters) was given the name kukulis. Nowadays, both names of the loaf of bread are common.

In my articles, I mainly describe the devices, materials and techniques that were and are used in traditional bread-baking. I also analyze the differences between different regions of Latvia. My work encompasses the traditions of bread and dishes made from various types of grain, not only in Latvia, but also in other countries on the Baltic Sea, especially Lithuania and Estonia.

The analysis of the calendar holidays follows the course of the solar year and is additionally explained with drawings, schemes and pictures. The family celebrations in the course of a person’s life are also portrayed. In doing so, I examine the folklore in songs, proverbs, riddles and other things, which has bread and its use in various customs as content. As a basis I use the already mentioned questionnaires about bread in its tradition and folklore.

In the scientific literature as well as during my research work in the Lithuanian National Museum in Vilnius and in the Ethnographic Museum in Tartu (Estonia), but also in many scientific contacts, I have found great comparative material on the bread and customs of different peoples.

The main task of my work is to examine the symbolism of bread in traditional culture, folklore, customs and thinking, with the aim of explaining the stability of this tradition. I have written about Latvian bread in the book Mūsu maize/Our daily bread, which is published in Latvian and English. This book is dedicated to bread and our homeland, but most of all to mothers, the givers of life and bread. Since 2003, the new rye and barley bread celebrations – on Jacob’s Day have been organized in Āraiši windmill near Cēsis town.

Bakers, who bake bread in their homes or small bakeries are honored. On the Bread Loaf Trail there are works and games for young and old – about grinding grain, baking bread, shepherds, windmills, the wisdom of bread and participants can play games and knead bread. Next is a Bread Loaf Market with products from craftsmen and bakers. Now Jēkabs (Jacob’s Day) is also included in the Rye Road, established in Estonia and Latvia, organized by Lauku ceļotājs. Jacob’s Day is on July 25, but the holiday is celebrated on the last Sunday in July.

Autor: Indra Cekstere, Ethnologist, Latvia:

Categorised as Bread

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