THINGS WITH FACES. Latvian new year and masking celebration in Art Nouveau style.

If Latvia was a nation as big as China, celebrating our pagan new year Meteņi would probably be as famous as anticipating the identical one in the East. Once following the Sun calendar and falling into various dates, Latvian new year is now adopted to be on 6 February. For that we have created a brief article, explaining some of the customs, as well as given a tiny creative flip to the legendary masking and mumming tradition -  let's have it the Riga Art Nouveau way!

capital r, riga, martins engelis


The ancient Latvian calendar is pretty similar to the one used in China or Japan. Consisting of 9-day weeks or savaites (now - nedēļas), it's packed in 8 segments per year divided by equinoxes and solstices (each segment would also start with an extra day). The beauty of such a system was recently made more comprehensive among the younger generations in 2014 when Uldis Trapencieris, local designer and event organizer, put his astronomical offset print calendar on the market.

The Sun calendar by Uldis Trapencieris (2017 edition).

Meteņi falls in right between Winter and Spring solstice (e.i. Christmas and Easter) and marks the beginning of preparation for spring. Its name derives from an old Latvian word "meti" for "the change of times" or "age". Lithuanians still use this word for "year". In Latvia, though, the word only embodies this ancient celebration (in various parts of the country there are even more variations - Vastlāvji, Lastvāgi, Miesmeši, Miezmežu day, Aizgavēnis, Buduļu evening, Pīrāgu day, etc.).


What does it mean to celebrate the Latvian new year? For the majority - nothing much today. Most of customs are put in the drawer with only few appearing on TV news once in a while. Yet the tradition is rich and several elements can be very much applied to this very evening. For the reason - we have selected the most common, extraordinary, yet enjoyable Meteņi activities one can practice every year:
  • first of all - "eating to the dregs". According to tradition, Meteņi is just another event where stuffing yourself with food and drinks is, again, ordinary. If old-school traditions would demand pork'n'more-pork to be served, pie and patty making would be more appealing to the current times, filling them with everything that's on your mind (spinach, soy, cheese, depression);
  • instead of Christmas, Meteņi would be the time for presents - parents would be throwing them at children from the top of the room. It would symbolize Laima, deity of destiny, granting her gifts from the sky;
  • one of the most fundamental parts of Latvian folklore is the burning or bonfire tradition that, of course, takes place also during Meteņi. Local methods include building up statues or objects out of hay, throwing them down the hill and burning thus symbolizing the elimination of winter; 
  • two traditions not put in action this NYE will be going downhill on sled (9 times; the longer you go, the longer the flax grow next year) and building an ice carousel on a frozen lake or river;
  • one must contend with someone or wrestle on Meteņi - matching forces is considered an imitation of the positive competition of the day over night;
  • another "game" that appears in folk songs is shoving kids into sacks and throwing them across the fence - thus seemingly representing new knowledge and experience kids will be forced to learn (wonder if a phrase  "sacked for life" has anything to do with it);
  • kids are also not spared when kicking Mr. Metenis out of the house. An adult steps on the table, wardrobe or inglenook, throws flair around and makes a racket in unison with others. The noise should make Mr. Metenis fall on the ground and into sacks the kids are holding up (hoping for presents). Little do they know - the New year will fall on children as an "ice bucket challenge" very soon. Seems this is how ancient Latvians would teach their kids that life is a bitch, but you live on;
  • finally, Meteņi is the time that marks the end of months-long Budeļi or maskers and mummers tradition. Going home to home, they sing, dance and eat, dressed up as various traditional characters (animals, like cranes, bears, storks, foxes, or mythical creatures, sprites, deities, gods, Death etc.). The further you go, the better the harvest next year.
The latter is what probably makes Meteņi alive up to today. The mystical world of masking can draw in and embrace even the least curious people. If only a short-term time investment is possible, there is a chance to visit the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia for the Meteņi weekend. Visitors can try out some DIY masks, traditional food, play games and see crafts being made on the spot.

For a more devoted fan, there is an annual masking tradition festival that takes place in a different town each year (it's Līvāni town in 2020). To give a little insight of the magnetic and eerie atmosphere, we asked permission to share the work by photographer Agnese Mūrniece, who has documented the festival several times.



In the interim, we also wanted to give the masking culture a modernized urban and site-specific twist. And what else would it be in the city, but the architecture. Knowing that Riga is full with over-decorated Art Nouveau examples from 110 - 120 years ago, it would only be logical to point out relief and mask decorations on most façades. Besides, there are some physiognomy of weird and derpy lion-wanabes from XVII - XVIII century houses in Old Town too.

A simple answer might explain why masks appeared in Riga in such huge amounts during the Art Nouveau period. From the one hand, incorprating faces, birds, flowers, animals, even bodies and other sculptural elements in buildings, of course, was crazy expensive; despite it, the style of its time would demand such extravagance.

From the other hand, Riga was bloody rich (the second most industrialized city in Europe after London) with a wild and emerging artist and architect scene. The quality of the sculpture, in this case, reached a brand new level - most of mouldings would look like out of this world according to what was conventional back then.

capital r, riga, martins engelis, klusais centrs

Recently a magnum opus by Silvija Grosa was released, researching architectural decor in Art Noveau period. It's served as the final inspiration to look at the faces on Art Noveau façades and turn them into a source material for masks to be used on Meteņi.

Dozens, maybe even close to a hundred addresses were captured on camera matrix during the previous month. Two revelations came to light. First, there simply is no chance to document all of the uncountable faces in such a short period of time. Second, vast majority of locals are not even half as unfriendly as assumed. Turns out you can be invited in private apartments or whole houses, dental rooms, shady offices, even National Archive Management, or National Electronic Mass Media Council - just to take a photo of a relief from a better angle.
Except for one, possibly tipsy old grumpy grandpa at his dated office, who would not accept there is anything valuable on the other side of the road, people were curious and friendly. If you appeal to emotions, shared values and common sense, the doors are open for everyone in Riga.
As a result, a little, exclusive selection was created to be downloaded for free and print-n-worn immediately for your next carnival. The faces are in good quality also to be used on t-shirts or wherever you want them to appear. Yeah, yeah, we should've made an Instagram filter, too, but let's save the world one mask at a time.

Here is the link to the masks; just don't stop viewing - it's weird and eerie all the way down. Happy new year!

* Kas īsti ir senie svētki Meteņi un kā tos svinēt?
* Meteņi.
* Meteņu paražas un ticējumi.


  1. Wow, super-exciting, though I've missed the Carnival this year!

    1. Thanks! The good news is - the Carnival takes place every year :)


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