I have always been more interested in how my ancestors lived or what they were like than the number of them I can add to my family tree. Church records rarely contain any clues that allow us to understand people better. However, one can roughly imagine the differences in character, duties, and opportunities between a farmhand and a farm manager, or between a townsman and a countryman. Where else can we look for information about ancestral life?
Other people's memoirs, or better, diaries, can also provide valuable insights into life in a particular period or parish. This winter, I read two books that describe life in the 19th century: "My Childhood and My Boyhood" by Andrievs Niedra and "Memories of My Life from 1843" by Pēteris Kalniņš. Unfortunately, both in Latvian, otherwise I would recommend both of them to you as excellent sources of information when trying to imagine the lives of our ancestors.
This time, I will share their stories about Christmas time:
"The old men's time was the time from Midsummer to Christmas, when the autumn work had already been done. Waiting for the "veļi" (souls of the dead - transl.), the farmer's wife would sweep the threshing floor or any other place where they could get away without walking that night; then the farmer would bring the table there and his wife would cover it with a white cloth.
Then the master would put there the best of the house: new rye and buckwheat bread, new barley beer, meat and, if there were bees, honey; then he would put a splinter in the window of the barn so that the spirits would not slip when they climbed in, and then he would go out the door backwards. That night no one was allowed in, and the old men had a feast. The next morning they looked to see if anything had been eaten, and were very happy if the food had been touched. They said they had eaten with very small teeth; others wondered if it had been mice.
We had to live quite quietly during the time of the old men. But at Christmas there was the great riddle-telling and storytelling, the women spinning, the men making sledges and us showing the fire with the kindling. My sister was the best storyteller: but she already had many stories from the book. The Augstkalns, on the other hand, had very long and beautiful stories, and none from a book. Many years later I came across some of them again in Russian collections of fairy tales.
("Mana bērnība un mani skolas gadi", A. Niedra)
For Pēteris Kalniņš, going to church was more memorable:
"When Christmas came, they said that they were going to burn the Christmas tree in church, they told us that everyone should bring candles to light the church on Christmas Eve, because in those days everyone made their own candles out of cattle fat. So my mother and I gave our share. When the feast came, everybody wanted to go to church, my mother was the only one left in the house.
We went into the church, now the candles were burning, there was a big Christmas tree in the middle of the church. How nice it was shining! And all around the church there were candles.
Father took me upstairs and showed me a picture of the Saviour nailed to the tree of the cross with two thieves. The pastor came out, began to preach about the birth of the Saviour, the Bethlehem barn. Then the organ began to play and sing. After the song was finished, the pastor preached from the pulpit about the Savior's birth and so away. The candles began to burn out, and we had to leave our dear, lovely church."
("Manas dzīves atmiņas no 1843. dzīvības gada", P. Kalniņš)
For comparison, it is interesting to read Herbert von Blankenhagen's memoirs of how, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Christmas was organised for the people of the manor at Akenstaka (Germ. Klingenberg) manor near Allaži:
"On the day before Christmas Eve they brought Christmas trees. One was placed in the hall opposite the middle window, the other in the dining room for the manor people.
(...) In our house, the tree was traditionally decorated with candles, coloured glass balls, lots of twigs and garlands. (...) The people's tree in the dining room was decorated in a completely different way - with gingerbread and speckled coloured snacks. There was a reason for this, because immediately after the people had been presented with gifts, it was "plundered".
(...) When the lights in the tree went out, the second part of the evening began - the gift-giving. It took place in the dining room. There were several tables with presents on the wall in the hall. The people of the house were presented with presents: the cook, the gardener, the forester, the barn workers, the domestic servants, the coachman and others. But this was not the case for everyone working on the estate. I do not know who drew the line and when, but I assume that it was to reward those who had come closer to the lords by their service. Perhaps the parents did not want to part, because everything they gave was good and expensive. In addition to the plate of sweets that everyone received, my father gave each man a suit of cloth every year. The local ones were a bit heavy but of excellent quality.
The festivities started with a Christmas carol sung in Latvian and Father Christmas recited in Latvian by the old ranger Friedman. After each adult and the children had received their presents, everyone sang the last Christmas carol and then the children were allowed to "plunder" the tree. That was the end of the celebration."
("Atmiņas no vecās Vidzemes. Klingenberga-Rīga 1892-1913", H. von Blankenhagen)
P.S. Meeting relatives can also be a good way to collect memories and news😊