Monday, May 14, 2007

Legend of the 15th-Century Founder of Riga

(Mostly based upon an entry in Riga 2001, a local publication commemorating the city’s 800th anniversary)

In ancient times, before Riga had been built, a very large man named Kristaps (the Latvian form of Christopher) built himself a hut on the right bank of the Daugava River. He earned his living by carrying people across the river on his back (or in some versions, in his ferry boat). They disembarked at the spot where Riga now stands.

One night Kristaps awoke to the sound of a child crying on the left bank of the river. He waded over, picked up the mournful babe and began carrying him back across the river to the hut. With each step, Kristaps found that the child became heavier until by midstream only with the greatest of effort could Kristaps made it to shore. [Explanation: The babe was really the Christ Child in disguise but he was bearing the weight of the sins of the world.]

With his last ounce of strength, Kristaps laid the child on the rug in front of the hearth in his hut and dropped off into an exhausted slumber. In the morning Kristaps awoke to discover that the child had disappeared, leaving behind a coffer filled with gold. Kristaps was a humble man and from this treasure, he spent not a centime (in Latvian coinage, santims is 1/100th of a lats) until his dying day. Then he gave all the money to build Riga near the spot where his hut once stood.

Kristaps = St. Christopher

In church legends, St. Kristofor (Kristaps/Christopher) was a giant from Canaan who lived in the 3rd century AD. He spread the Christian message of love and died a martyr’s death. In Greek, Christophoros means “one who carries Christ.” In 15th-century Riga, St. Kristaps became the beloved patron saint of sailors and others employed in the merchant trade [probably a parallel with the St. Christopher’s medal worn by travelers everywhere even today].

The common folk of Riga transformed the foreign St. Kristofor into their own mythic figure and prefer to claim that he founded the city rather than the powerful German bishop Albert (mentioned in my April 29 posting about the spires of Riga. Around 1590, a replica of Lielais Kristaps (Big Christopher) was carved from a 2.36-meter pine log (i.e. nearly 8 feet) and placed on the bank of the Daugava River. This cherished statue even survived the ravages of the Reformation, when many Catholic artifacts were destroyed. Regardless of their religion, people visited the statue, decorated it with ribbons and floral wreaths, lit candles, and begged Kristaps to protect them from evil.

Today the statue of Kristaps is kept in the Museum of Riga’s History and Navigation (around the corner from the Dome cathedral). In recent years a replicate in a glass case has been placed near the river on 11 Novembra Krastmala. Lielais Kristaps also appears on the reverse side of the 10-lati coin (worth approximately $5).

Kristaps Still Favored by Latvians

The National Film Board of Latvia calls its biannual awards (its "Oscars" to be present again in autumn 2007) Lielais Kristaps. Kristaps remains a popular name for boys, who celebrate their name day on December 18 each year. (There will be more about the name-day practice in Latvia in my next posting.)

Don’t be surprised if you see in various places during our stay in Riga likenesses of the giant with a baby on his left shoulder, a lantern in his left hand, and an oar in his right.

May he also look after us.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Those Famous Latvian Mittens

My female Latvian friends are mostly English teachers and academics. Two are weavers, although one has sold her loom because she works all the time and it takes up too much space in her apartment. These friends were bemused when I told them that the hand-knit, colorful mittens are among the (few) things Americans know about Latvia. They expected their long tradition of complicated weaving designs would be the premier handicraft, just as Latvians themselves generally believe. For example, a whole floor in the Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts in possibly the oldest building in Riga (c. 1202) is devoted to weaving and tapestries—while mittens only show up in the museum gift shop. Knitting is a prosaic, portable pastime as far as they are concerned.

The person who raised Latvian mitten awareness in the U.S. is another American who married a Latvian (as I did), but who compiled an all-encompassing book on the subject of those mittens. Of course, I’m referring to Lizbeth Upitis, whose Latvian Mittens/Latviešu cimdi first came to knitters' attention in 1981. Its popularity led to a second edition by Schoolhouse Press in 1997, and just last month (April 2007), another printing.

A spin-off resulted when Lizbeth loaned Joyce Williams some books on Latvian weaving (A Joy Forever, Latvian Weaving, Traditional and Modified by Jane A. Evans, 1991, and several Soviet-era Latvian books by Z. Ventaskrast from the 1950s with weaving patterns). As Joyce says in her book Latvian Dreams: Knitting from Weaving Charts (Schoolhouse Press, 2000): “…looking at some of the [weaving] charts…I felt they would make excellent knitted designs.” Between the two of them, Lizbeth and Joyce have published enough Latvian patterns to keep all of us endlessly knitting stranded colorwork mittens, socks, sweaters--and wherever our needles and imaginations lead us.

Latest Latvian knitting news

Those patterns keep showing up. In the recent issue of Interweave Knits (Summer 2007), Kate Gilbert adapted a motif that she found on a traditional Latvian mitten to develop a pattern for a cap in three sizes (child’s, woman’s, and man’s) and three color ways (see pages 45 and 108).

In the same issue, Deborah Pulliam devoted her regular column “Knitted Artifact” to the Latvian mitten-making project for the NATO summit in Riga last fall (page. 9). I had intended to write about this remarkable undertaking in my blog, but Deborah scooped me.

NATO Mitten Project

Latvia was admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004, hopeful that NATO membership might provide some security from Russia, its large neighbor and past subjugator (which still refers to Latvia as the “near abroad”). The honor of hosting a NATO summit in 2006 led to feverish preparations last summer and fall. Someone in public relations came up with the idea of presenting each of the 4,500 guests at the summit with a pair of handmade Latvian mittens. Knitters from the countryside were recruited and paid $12-14 per pair to knit these devilishly difficult mittens (on 0 or 00 double-point needles). Of course, the knitters rose to the occasion and examples of the results have been preserved online (in a huge zipped file). I’m providing links to postings on the NATO Summit website entitled “The story of a 1,000-year-old Latvian mitten” and “Renaissance of Latvia’s ethnographic mittens.” Also to designs from Mirdza Slava's classic Cimdu Raksti on Latvian mittens and the NATO collection.

In Riga next July I can guarantee that you will be able to buy hand-knit Latvian mittens, gloves, and socks from vendors and shops all over Vēcriga (the old city). Also at museum shops, such as the one at the Open Air Ethnographic Museum we will be visiting on Sunday, July 29. Set in a pine forest next to Lake Jugla on 100 hectares, “museum” is probably not the right word for this re-creation of traditional Latvian country life. Frequently craftspeople (knitters, weavers, blacksmiths, wood carvers, jewelry makers) and folk musicians are doing their thing on summer Sundays throughout the museum.

If you’d like to learn some of the techniques for Latvian mitten embellishments (braids, fringe, cast-on, scalloped and picoted borders), I'll be offering a knitting session during our ferry ride from Riga to Stockholm. I’ve adapted motifs from mittens to a couple of small shoulder bags. Arnhild will be posting samples of the Latvian project on her website with details about yarn and needles.