The first Christmas tree ever is said to have been put up in Riga in 1510 by a group of professional merchants. These merchants were known to celebrate twice-yearly holidays, amongst which decorating and then burning down the Christmas tree. Testament to the oldest writing in the subject, in Riga (the capital of Latvia) the city center still marks the place were the first Christmas tree was put up and decorated for this festive season.
Christmas and traditions go hand in hand with Latvians and this is perhaps why at Christmas I feel more Latvian than some other times of the year. Growing up in a mixed household traditions flew all around. We were Latvian, Italian and Venezuelan.
My grandparents escaped the USSR after the Second World War and returned to Latvia only in the beginning of the 1990s. Since Latvia’s liberation and proclamation as a sovereign nation, I’ve had many family members that have returned to a land they were once forced to flee.
In moving to Venezuela, a country across the world from everything they knew, my grandparents adjusted in a way that has forever marked my own life: to be grateful and to embrace the cultures of the country you live in, even it’s a different one, no matter how much you miss your own. During Christmas this is when I realised this the most.
Christmas is perhaps the time of the year were perhaps the Latvian side was the more prominent one. Lead by my grandmother and then by my mother and my aunt (only because they became too bossy) and eventually by me (I am my mother’s daughter after all), the beginning of the month of December always signalled a time that smelled like pine trees, tasted like pirags and was embraced by family.
As soon as the school holidays started an endless affair of baking began at Omi’s house. She had the biggest kitchen that would fit all grandchildren and children. When we were little we were allowed to participate only in doing the fun bits, playing with the dough, pouring the flour, using the pastry brush for the egg wash before being pushed to “go outside and play” – no doubt more to the adults benefit than our own.
Growing up I remember Pumperniks were always the first set of cookies we tackled. To this day, these are the best raw cookie dough there has ever been made on the face of the planet – so much that my mom had to bat us off the dough to be able to prepare it. I remember how successful and modern we felt when we convinced Omi to change the raisins for chocolate chip in our pumperniks. We could never completely eliminate the raisin option, but chocolate chips are to this day a win.
After the pumperniks we always made the Mandeļu radziņi– forever my least favourite ones. An almond base cookie dusted in icing sugar. My mom’s forever favourite that we are never allowed to take off the menu.
If two cookie recipes weren’t enough, we also made an endless supply of the ones that became my favourites: the piparkukas. The “pepper” cookies were always a favourite of mine after discussing with my aunt one day how such a strange recipe we so many different ingredients came to be:
“We always used to joke that perhaps during the war someone stumbled in the pantry and knocked everything down; because you wouldn’t through anything away someone started mixing things until something edible came out”
The piparkukas always took the longest to cook as Latvian quantities are always meant for a feast of giants. We would decorate the first hundred (like gingerbread cookies) but give up with the ensuing 300. When the food crisis hit Venezuela, this was one of the recipes that became optional, as we couldn’t always find all the ingredients.
Pirags were without the doubt the highlight of the Christmas preparations. On the pirag baking day everyone would come around during lunchtime in fear of everyone else finishing them all before having a chance to eat at least 10. Pirags are little breads that are filled with a mixture of smoked ham and bacon and they are everyone’s favourites. Tico and Vilis caribbea-nized them by instituting the tradition of having them with “guasacaca” (the Venezuela guacamole). There were no complaints on the Latvian side as avocado is one of the best things Venezuela offered.
After pirags came the longest and most daunting task of them all: making hallacas. Hallacas are the Venezuelan traditional Christmas dish. True to the Venezuelan culture, the hallaca is a mix of many different things. The hallaca includes elements of the European culture (such as raisins and olives) indigenous ingredients (such as the corn meal colored with annatto seeds), and African ingredients (the smoked plantain leaves used for wrapping and cooking). The broth of the hallaca was the first step of the process, one that I always stayed clear of as a bad broth could ruin the quality of the hallaca. The making of the hallaca on the other hand was a process that saw us lose a number of shirts and pants; the annatto used to color the white cornflour is powerful enough to ruin any cleaning will. As I got older the hallacas became a tradition of us women of the family. It was a nightmare to cook as it was long, but no self-respecting Venezuelan household would serve anything else to guests during a december dinner party or have anything else for Christmas dinner. I first learned how to squash the dough on the plantain leaf, add the broth, “forget” the raising when no one was watching, and add an extra piece of ham. I felt I had been accepted into the next level of womanhood when I was allowed to started wrapping my own hallacas in the plantains leaves and then tying them with the string before boiling them.
It was always a long affair that lasted a good full day, we always made arepas while enjoying some good eggnog “Ponche Crema” which became my favourite Christmas drink (because in Venezuela we make proper rum).
Christmas in Venezuela always felt like a rush of baking, cooking and celebrating the so called “Christmas spirit” during the month of December. There was a chill in the air (Pacheco) that lingered on the houses every night, that made Caracas an even more pleasant city to be in, even as the city itself emptied out leaving only a few of us behind.
To this day I only truly feel like Christmas when the smells of that Astral kitchen come to me. I may live far away, my family scattered across the globe, but they taught me that the traditions you are brought up with will always live in your heart and it’s up to us to keep them alive. Because of this every year I try to bake a little bit more of what feels like home.