Things of Latvia: Torchlight Parades

Just because you like taking part in torchlight parades doesn't necessarily mean you're a Nazi.

This is a lesson the outsider may take some time to learn, but experience shows it to be true.

Admittedly the initial 'optics' are not particularly encouraging, and recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere involving out-and-out nasty folk make the case for Latvian exceptionalism trickier, but perhaps by recounting a few examples of my own run-ins with torch-bearing crowds, I can still argue the point.

My first encounter with a Latvian torchlight procession (lāpu gājiens) happened many years ago. I was staying in a small cottage in a provincial town. It was late at night and I was just finishing off a bottle of beer in the kitchen. I heard low voices -- men's voices. They became louder. They were singing, or rather, half-singing, half-chanting.

I walked to the window, pulled back the curtain and saw a column of men in military uniform marching slowly up the street bearing flaming torches and intoning their dirge. It was quite an intimidating sight.

I like to think at that moment I did a classic Hollywood double-take, rubbing my eyes, looking at the beer bottle in disbelief and swearing to follow a life of sobriety from then on, but in truth my reaction was limited to the thought: "Bloody hell, that's a genuine torchlight procession!" and subsequent speculation that I might be in an episode of Quantum Leap.

The Midnight Division did not come to get me and in the safety of daylight it turned out to be an annual event combining graduation for instructors at the local military training center and commemoration of an important battle.

The next notable torchlight serenade I encountered was in an open air museum on an October night. It was a sort of back-to-nature son et lumiere show that was weak on son but heavy on the flaming lumiere. Hundreds of people were wandering through the woods with fiery torches in bands of various sizes, as if they had finally decided to do something about the local vampire.

Strangely, I found this event far more sinister than the midnight marchers. I think it was something to do with the way it was touted as a way of enjoying nature, which it is perfectly possible to examine nocturnally without the aid of foul-smelling oil lamps or amplified music.

When everyone gathered in a clearing to hear some fiddle-de-dee folk-rock and all the torches wobbled in the smoky darkness like souls at a witches' sabbath I decided it was time to leave before volunteers for human sacrifice were requested from the audience.

"It's like the Nuremberg rally for mushroom pickers," I muttered on the way back to the car. Everyone came in cars, not on ghostly stallions or broomsticks.

My most recent torchlight parade was by far the most enjoyable, which suggests I've either become a semi-professional goose-stepper myself or it really is possible to wander round in a large body of torch-bearing people without wanting to lynch anyone.

Between Christmas and New Year, a nature park consisting of riverside cliffs and pine forest with a raised boardwalk opened itself up at night. Hundreds, probably thousands of torches and candles were placed along the route with little stops at various intervals for shadow puppetry, acoustic music, notes about nocturnal nature and other diversions. Visitors carried torches and candles and made their way along the crowed route with politeness and consideration. There was no-one with a clipboard from the Department of Health and Safety pointing out that the whole thing was a massive fire risk.

There were lots of children. Perhaps it was their presence that made the event less solemn and portentous than other torchlight processions. It was beautiful, enjoyable and actually rather touching that the organizers from the local municipality had gone to so much trouble to put on a large scale and unusual event at a time of year that usually feels like a dead end. To be honest, I enjoyed those few hours in the torchlit forest more than I enjoyed Christmas' cloying sentimentality or New Year's bogus bonhomie and vulgar pyrotechnics.

The number of people who showed up was astounding. It's difficult to estimate for the obvious reason we were in a forest at night, but it was clearly several thousand. Given that this was not a very densely populated part of Latvia, it suggests that pretty much everyone within a 30 kilometer radius had shown up. Maybe it was to escape visits from the in-laws, maybe it was because the TV schedules were particularly grim, but most likely it was because there are few things Latvians like more than a good old torchlight procession.

This year I plan to occupy one of the way-points along the route. I shall dress up in ye olde peasant costume with pitchfork in one hand and flaming torch in the other, peering fearfully into the forest and wailing in my best Hammer House Of Horror voice: "Where be the monster? Where he be!" for the amusement of the crowd.


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