MAY OPEN-AIR SERVICES IN LATGALE AND AUGŠZEME AND OFFICIUM FOR THE DEAD IN LATGALE AND AUGŠZEME
MAY OPEN-AIR SERVICES IN LATGALE AND AUGŠZEME
The May open air services by the roadside or village crosses is a new tradition, but the possibility that it may be indirectly related to the old outdoor singing traditions cannot be excluded. The age of the May services cannot be determined with any precision, but in all likelihood they started in the second half of the 19th century.
According to the Roman Catholic church calendar, May is the month of Virgin Mary when services and prayers are devoted to her. The May services, celebrating the Virgin, originated in Latgale and Augšzeme as a localization of a tradition widespread in the 19th century Catholic world. They took place in the evening, usually on weekends, as people gathered by outdoor crosses – crucifixes installed by the side of the road, in the center of the village, in the nearby cemetery or church. Often they were encircled by a low fence, with benches inside. In May, the crosses were lavishly adorned with bouquets of flowers and garlands. Participants, dressed in their Sunday’s best, sat on the benches. The young and those who did not get a seat stood.
The May services are called "dzīduošona pi krusta" and they are held without the presence and guidance of priests. The leader of the service comes from the midst of the participants. Usually it is an older woman who knew the structure of the ritual and the melodies and could start every one at a suitable pitch.
Songs devoted to Mary are at the center of the May service. They tell the story of Mary’s life, suffering, and her sacrifice for humanity. The singers know the melodies by heart, they are inherited by oral tradition, whereas the lyrics come from the prayer books used during the service. The choice and sequence of songs are determined by the experience and local traditions of those gathered. The singing is usually conducted in two voices. The melodies and texts are usually localizations of those common in Central Europe.
An obligatory part of the service is also the Virgin Mary litany (the Loretto litany from the 13th century) and the pulling of "značkas". The word značka is of Polish origin and denotes a numbered rectangular piece of paper. Its number indicates the task that the person who has pulled it, for instance, avoiding lying. Should the person transgress, they must immediately say a particular prayer. The značkas are pulled from the leader’s prayer book where they are kept throughout the service.
An another essential element is reading from the Bible. Each particular day has its own designated reading.
The sequence of the above elements may differ from place to place. Even though the services devoted to Virgin Mary are characteristic of the Catholic world, the open-air form both in terms of the form and content is unique.
In the Soviet era, many of the roadside crosses were destroyed and the May service tradition suppressed. It was preserved in the more remote locations. At present, the tradition has been powerfully revived in Latgale and is spreading to other Catholic areas in Latvia, for instance the areas inhabited by the Suiti.
OFFICIUM FOR THE DEAD IN LATGALE AND AUGŠZEME
Since the end of the 18th century, a peculiar musical ritual has been widespread a peculiar musical ritual in Latgale and the Catholic parishes of Augšzeme called "Psalms" (saļmes, salmys, saļmas, depending on the dialect) in folk parlance but the Officium for the Dead (from the Latin officium defunctorum) in the Catholic Church practice and scientific literature.
Officium of the Dead is historically a kind of prayer of hours (one of the two main service genres, the other being the Holy Mass). It originated around 800 A.D. and was performed as a part of the funeral liturgy as well as at the wake and on All Saints Day, November 2. Over the centuries, the Officiums of the Dead has become known as a prayer said by priests in Latin. In Latvia, however, this Officium has been localized as a folklorized phenomenon occurring mostly at home, without the presence of the priest, and in the native tongue of the participants.
A full performance of the Officium takes one-and-a-half to two hours and, in the view of the rural inhabitants of Latgale and Augšzeme, is an integral part of the home life. In Latgale, especially in the countryside, people still tend to die at home instead of the hospital or old people’s home. The dead person remains in the house until the funeral, the body being kept in some clean, cool place like the veranda or the granary. The funeral often being a few days off, the living are preparing for the mourning ceremony, including performing the Officium in the evenings. In the old days the performance took place every night, but these days it is mostly reserved for the last evening or last two evenings before the funeral. The members of the household, relatives and friends of the deceased come together and conduct the Officium prayer. The table, usually an ordinary rectangular table in the living room, aroung which the singers sit, is covered by a white linen table cloth. In some parishes of Latgale, a pinch of salt and a piece of dark rye bread is placed next to the crucifix and candles: these are the symbols of the spirit of the house.
The performance takes place at the house also a year after the person’s death or if it is an annual memorial service for all the dead members of the family.
Marking a year after the person’s demise is still widespread in Latgale, whereas the annual tradition of performing the Officium for all the dead in a particular family is disappearing. The latter flourished in the 1920s and 1930s when in the dark time around All Saints Day an Officium was held in almost every household. Where the tradition is still alive, it also serves as a time when all the members of a family gather in one place. Since, in common prayer, the images of the dead are recalled in the consciousness of the living, it also serves as a meeting between the living and the dead.
The church Officium is usually held once a year on All Saints Day: the churchgoers gather about two hours before mass and perform the prayer. The cemetery ritual is similar.
In its essence, the Officium is one of the most powerful prayers for the dead in the pyres of Purgatory. The people of Latgale are well aware of the dogmatic context of the Officium and consider its performance a valuable opportunity to express their love and support for their loved ones even after their death. This awareness of participating in the destiny of a loved one even after their death provides powerful motivation to perform Officiums even under very trying material circumstances.
In many places, the performance of the Officium starts with the recital of the rosary. The psalms, however, are the principal structural element. In the first part, psalms are interspersed among solo readings of the Bible and responsoriums performed in a choir. A string of religious songs is usually added to the Officium.
In Soviet times, the practice of the Officium for the Dead was not particularly suppressed. However, the fate of the tradition was affected because the cycle of inheritance was interrupted: children and young people no longer participated. Nowadays, the performers are usually old people, which means that the existence of the tradition is on the brink of extinction.