Fancy a dance with death? That's what you have to do for good luck and a prosperous new year around these parts. Last night we and a group of friends went Ķekatās around the centre of Rīga. It's the first time I've ever taken part in this Latvian pagan equivalent of Halloween or the English tradition of 'Mummers' - and it was fantastic!
In Latvian traditional culture the time of Ķekatas stretched from late autumn to early spring - the time when everything is the darkest and you are waiting for the sun and warmth to come back to the land. People would get dressed up as gypsies, animals, and even "death" (the grim reaper) - and go from house to house singing and dancing and being generally boisterous. Ķekatas bring good fortune to any house they visit - provided you treat them nice! You have to let them in when you hear them knocking at the door - be kind to them, offer them treats to eat, alcohol, dance and sing with them. Each Ķekata character has its own role to play - the bears growl in all the corners of your house to bring it luck, you have to dance with "death"for health in the new year, the crane asks you riddles, the gypsy tells your fortune, etc.
This tradition isn't really that easy to practice in a capital city where people bar their doors and turn on their alarm systems - so we picked friends who we knew would understand what we were up to and danced around the city. As you can see I was the grim reaper, Jem was a squirrel, Mikus and Matiss were bears, our other friends were a motley assortment of cross dressers, gypsies, goats and others. One of the best parts was when we were hammering on the door of one friend, who was taking her time in answering, when the neighbours opened THEIR door - so we danced into their apartment- only to find out that they were also acquaintances of ours who have moved to Latvia from Australia! Weird coincidence.
Walking from one house to the other we also made sure we did some twirls with random passers-by - some of which understood the sentiment and graciously participated - while other people (the security guards outside the parliament building in particular) grumbled and chased us off. Spoil sports!
To my joy the boys also got into the spirit of Ķekatas - they started off a bit freaked out by the costumes and disappointed that the whole ritual was more about singing and dancing rather than getting lollies (I had explained to Tiss that it was a Latvian equivalent of Halloween), but as the night wore on the boys were more and more in their element, and their calls for "going home" changed to "another house!!".
Anyhow, suffice it to say I have a bit of a hangover today after dreaming strange, colourful and noisy dreams. I certainly now understand the tradition of Ķekatas more than theoretically. The whole concept of masking/taking on another personae does help when you have to barge into other people's houses or dance with complete strangers! It gives you a lease to act the way you ususally wouldn't! And it's fun! So here's to more Ķekatas next year...