A Latvian Wedding Feast — Becoming Bruegel for a Day
A traditional Latvian wedding: Flowers, trolls, ribbon tree-climbing, and dicovering Peiter Bruegel the Elder's muse.
Latvia, June 4, 2017 -- Twirling and twirling and twirling. Like brushstokes on a canvas, smooth and fluid, and full of life.
Full skirts sweeping stone. Silken cloth reverberating with the waves of the eclectic jazz band, wrapping each note in a chiffon kiss. There aren’t more than thirty people gathered in the castle’s great hall, but the better part of two dozen are out on the floor, bound into synchronized pairs tapping well practiced feet.
My cousin Jonathan spins me and spins me until we both topple over. I find my way back to my seat and wonder what world I have stumbled into.
The bride may have easily walked out of a fairytale storybook — a Baltic princess with long golden hair and jewel-toned eyes. The last time I saw the bride, Jolanta, she wasn’t a day over eighteen, the same age I am now, standing at the sink at our family restaurant in the outback of Oregon washing dishes. Her sister is married to our neighbor, David, so one summer, six years ago, she spent her free time scrubbing pots. There isn’t much else to do in Hampton, Oregon.
Since I was working an internship in London this summer, I took an extra week and hopped over to Latvia to visit my uncle Dan and his family who live there. Serendipitously, it just happened to be the week of the now-grown Jolanta’s wedding, where I sit now, watching people dance.
Jonathan refills my porcelain water glass and we go over the events of the day.
The walls of the chapel where the ceremony was held were covered in swirling pastel arrangements of saints and Latvian lettering. For us, this midday gathering was the start of the wedding, but for Jolanta and her husband, this was nowhere near the beginning. By the time Jonathan’s sister, Anna and I had put on our new dresses (birthday gifts from Uncle Dan — Sorry Uncle Walt, Robbie, and Stephen, this puts Dan at the top of the favorite list), the young couple had already unfolded a half dozen of the many Latvian traditions in the line-up.
First, around 9 a.m., as per tradition, the groom had to “prove his worthiness” to his bride. Jolanta’s husband opted for a round of basketball. Apparently his peers approved his tribute, because by ten o’clock he was knocking on Jolanta’s door to collect his bride.
(This too, as per tradition, is when the drinking begins)
The groom knocked on the door, flowers in hand, ready to receive his veiled bride, only to discover an old man in wedding clothes! He sent the old man back into the house and waited for Jolanta. Now, a second veiled bride came to the door, but alas, under the veil was not his Jolanta, but an old woman.
Finally, the correct bride came to the door and they were ready to make their way to the church. Of course, Tradition wouldn't let it be that simple. Along the way, some of the couple’s friends had dressed up like trolls and strung leafy garlands and ribbons across the road every several miles. In order to pass the trolls at each barricade, the couple had to solve a riddle or preform a task. At one station they were handed baskets and told to forage for mushrooms. Crazy right? Well, fear not, the young couple was well prepared with a trunk full of reinforcements. They paid the trolls off with alcohol and were allowed to pass sans mushrooms.
Friends and neighbors trickled in through the chapel doors, each bearing a big bouquet of flowers. At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom stood outside the church while everyone lined up to congratulate them and give them flowers.
Hundreds of flowers and all of their friends loaded into cars and we set off in a long wedding “convoy” of sorts, headed to a historical museum for the next round of traditions. On the way, even more “trolls” met us.
At one stop, the troll said that the groom had to carry his bride all the way across the bridge in order to pass — in fact, all the husbands in the crowd had to carry their wives across the bridge and it had to be a race. As you can imagine, this did not end well. One pair would topple into the next land they would all go down like scattered bowling pins in formal attire.
The spectators gathered control of their laughter, the wives gathered their skirts, the husbands gathered their dignity, and we were on the road once more.
By six, the entire wedding party had congregated into a tiny old barn that has been made into a Latvian historical museum. Here, women dressed in traditional national costumes of woven linen skirts and white blouses met us with more traditions. To name a few, we were all assigned traditional Latvian names to use for our “alter ego’s” and we wrote promises to the bride and groom to hang on a little wooden tree the couple built together in the shed.
Then the women had the young couple grind wheat together in a tall stone grinder for them to use in making their first bread together. Then they broke a loaf of dark, heavy bread and served each of their guests with bread and salt to symbolize strength and flavor throughout the years of marriage.
Before leaving the museum, everyone grabbed a Latvian pastry (or three) and joined in a circle outside. Here, we sang songs and played dancing games. The sun was still high in the midsummer sky, but hints of pink started to bounce off the tops of trees.
An hour later, we congregated once more in an old castle that has been turned into an inn. There was a Happy Hour, followed by more skits and games. The men were all handed pink and blue ribbons and told to climb the tree. Whichever ribbon was tied highest in the tree would determine the sex of the couple’s first child. One of their friends played a melodica while the couple buried a bottle of wine and letters to each other under the tree, meant to be dug up after their first anniversary.
On the way back to the castle, the groom had to carry Jolanta through a doorway, and step on a glass plate while she bit a dangling apple simultaneously. This tradition would determine how many kids the couple would have. When the groom looked under his boot at the plate, it had broken into almost a dozen pieces.
“Oh no.” He then looked up at his laughing bride, and shook his head.
By this time, fifteen-year-old Jonathan was shaking his head too. “Are we ever going to eat??”
His wish was soon granted in multiples of ten.
We sat around elaborately dressed tables while guests introduced themselves one by one with a humorous story about the bride or groom and trays of colorful dishes were lain before us. We savored every bite of beef shank in wine reduction, roasted chicken, local salmon with lemon and dill, vibrant salads, warm bread, roasted vegetables, and of course, perfectly moist potatoes.
That’s when the dancing started.
Now I sit here with Jonathan, wondering how much longer the day can last.
“Oh trust me,” he says. “It’s only just sbegun."
He jumps up and starts dancing with his mother. I sit sleepily in my chair, but not for long. An old man with green suspenders and smiling eyes comes and takes my hand, declaring something in Latvian. I don’t speak the language, but it doesn't take long to figure out he wants to teach me to waltz. He sings along to the music playing and I do my best to follow his shiny brown boots.
The song ends, and I courtesy to his bow before everyone moves to the outside courtyard. Music from a single acoustic guitar and light of a hundred candles fills the dark of night and circles around the newly-weds. We stand before them, joining in old songs as massive fireworks spark the strike of midnight. The little kids squeal, taking delight in it all.
Our faces are splashed by red and golden light, intoxicating the entire crowd with this sense of love, of togetherness, of joy.
When we gather back inside, more food is revealed under silver lids, and the dancing carries on into the early hours of the morning. I’m not sure when I fall asleep, but I do remember the chocolate cake being brought out in tall layers.
I wake early and tiptoe down the stairs to see last night’s mess cleared away and replaced with a morning feast. I sneak a steaming slice of rye bread and head back to my room.
Walking back upstairs, I find all of the friends and family stringing down the hallway from the bride and groom’s bedroom. Apparently, it is a Latvian custom to wake the newlyweds with more songs and games on the morning after the wedding.
“When does it stop?” I ask Jonathan.
“Probably not anytime soon,” He shrugs. “Let’s hurry up and get in line for breakfast!”
The morning spread is no second to the night before. More fresh bread and spreads, cheeses, pickled herring, cucumber salad, thin pancakes, eggs, sausages, pastries, fruit, and, of course, potatoes.
We eat as more games thread through the room and breakfast fades into brunch, which fades into lunch.
Finally, we have all eaten and laughed more than an average person can eat and laugh in a full week, and Uncle Dan decides it’s a good time to head home. Over twenty-four hours of celebration, and the party is still going strong.
Brooklyn, N.Y., October 26, 2017 — We are studying the Northern Renaissance in my Art History course right now.
We are learning about the Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Bruegel was a radical artist of his day, known for his famous depictions of peasant life. My favorite work of his is a painting, “Peasant Wedding,” depicting a wedding feast taking place in a barn. There are about 25 figures packed in around wooden tables, each one individualized with humorous notes of character. What I love most about the work, and about Bruegel, is that in order to most accurately capture intimate scenes like this, it is rumored that he would leave his place among the snooty upper echelon, dressing in peasant’s clothes, to go hang out with the field workers, who he depicted in his art as having a sense of genuineness, despite their circumstances.
Latvia is not a wealthy country. For the most part, many citizens are just getting by. What struck me most about this wedding was that even though these people didn’t have a lot in comparison to America’s consumerist standards, they wanted to give this celebration of Jolanta and her husband everything they had. Maybe they didn’t have a closet full of seventeen pair of shoes, but they had put more effort into honoring the bride and groom with bouquets of flowers and how they presented themselves than I’ve ever seen, even among the more “wealthy” people I know. In return, the bride and groom created a party to honor their friends and family and celebrate all that is important to them: having each other.
I’ll never forget seeing the usually stoic, strong, and “cool,” Latvian men scrambling up trees with pink ribbons, or the way that every single person at that wedding knew how to dance, and dance well. I think back to standing under the fireworks that night, seeing how much love they shared for each other and for their traditions, and I feel honored to have lived in those moments.
I got to be Bruegel for one day, leaving the “normal” world I knew, where men are “too cool” to climb trees and women “too dignified,” to be carried over bridges, to join in the wedding feast and learn about a genuine sense of love, and community that the rest of Bruegel’s cronies only ever experienced through his work. I got to break bread with people who know what it’s like to have little else. But yet here were, dancing, and laughing, and celebrating like Kings on the pages of a storybook, with the salt, the flavor of Bruegel’s paintings.