The Most Latvian of Holidays

That holiday is the Summer Solstice, also known as Jāņi. In Latvia, it’s a national holiday. If they can, city folk head out to the countryside where they can celebrate in the outdoors, close to nature. Of course, celebrations happen in the city, too, but Jāņi is basically a rural holiday.

Jāņa bērni. Jānis children who have gathered to await his arrival

Some people think that because Jāņi is celebrated on the 23 and 24th of June, it can’t be about the solstice because in the  Northern Hemisphere the solstice, the longest day, and the shortest night of the year falls on the 20th of June. But that date isn’t set in concrete. It depends on where you are. In the Central Daylight time zone (e.g., Chicago) the solstice arrived at 10:32 p.m. on June 20th, but in Rīga, Latvia it arrived at 6:32 a.m. on June 21. The Solstice can occur any time between the 20th and the 22nd.  That still doesn’t put it close to the 23rd. So why does the celebration begin then? Perhaps because the ancient Latvian calendar wasn’t all that accurate.

Whatever the case, Jāņi is all about the sun, celebrating the return of light, the ascent of the sun to the zenith, its highest point in the sky; its triumph over darkness. Jāņi is a pagan fire and fertility festival. Fire symbolizes the sun. Bonfires are lit on Jāņu eve. As night approached, people filled kegs with pitch, placed them on tall poles, lit the kegs, and raised them in the air. In the old days, these torches could be seen blazing from the tops of hills all over the countryside.

Solstice fires.

Much sympathetic magic, defined as a “primitive or magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought” are performed.

On farms, saplings were cur down and placed on either side of the door in order to keep witches and other evil spirits out of the house.

Wheels of straw were set ablaze and rolled down hillsides, another symbol of the sun.

Even the special cheese made at home for Jāņi is pale yellow and round yet another symbol of the sun.

Translated to English Jānis is John. The Latvian name day honoring Jānis, and all men who bear that name is on June 24th. Because of this many people believe that the holiday is named for John the Baptist. That is not the case. Jānis is a pagan deity, the son of the Latvian nature god, Dievs. Once a year Jānis rides to visit his children. He beats on a copper drum and blows a copper horn to summon them to the celebration. It’s true that the Teutonic Knights Christianized the Baltic people (Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians) early in the 13th Century and co-opted pagan holidays, and imposed their own meaning and symbolism on them in an attempt to stamp out what they considered to be herei It didn’t work out too well. 

Nobody goes to church on Jāņu diena (day), instead, revelers frolic in forests and meadows, sing, dance, feast, and drink beer. 

In order to make their crops grow better, people strip naked and run around their fields. Jumping over a bonfire is also supposed to be good for the crops–the higher you jump, the taller your crops will grow.

Wearing crowns woven of flowers or leaves is traditional. Men wear oak leaf crowns to gain the sturdiness and strength of the oak tree. Women wear coronets woven of flowers such as clover, cornflowers, and daisies. The flower wreaths are a symbol of maidenhood. Usually, only unmarried girls wear flower coronets, but at Jāņi, when anything goes, married women are allowed to wear them, too. A sign that for tonight, I’m single. Even cows are adorned with wreaths, which are made of buttercups to ensure that they will give rich, creamy milk.

Searching for the fern blossom, which blooms only on this one magical night, is a fun tradition. The blossom symbolizes romance, your true love. It gives young men and women an excuse to go off into the woods. The flower’s a myth, but not one that has been thought up out of thin air. Glowworms, known as Jāņutārpi, hide among fern fronds. Their light could easily be mistaken for a magical blossom, especially if you’ve had a few tankards of beer.

Where is that fern blossom?

As dusk starts to fall people gather around a bonfire to sing and dance. Folk songs (dainas) for this special night are known as līgo dziesmas (songs) because they’re sung only on this night, June 23rd which is known as Līgo vakars (eve) The word līgo means to sway. When the sun rises on the morning of the Solstice, it’s said to sway. When singing together, Latvians often link arms and sway. Perhaps they also sway from consuming too much beer. 

A feature of līgošana (singing līgo songs) is song wars. Girls sing songs teasing boys about being lazy, and lying in the sun instead of working. Boys sing songs teasing girls about having “long hair, but short minds.” Variations are numberless.

Staying up all night is a big part of the celebration–being awake to greet the sun as it rises. The belief is that if you sleep on this night, you’ll be sleepy for the rest of the year. You’ll also miss all the fun.

Modern revelers dancing around the solstice fire. Summer nights in Latvia are very short. Full darkness falls only around 2 a.m.

When pledges in Latvian fraternal organizations want to move on to full membership they are required to write and present a research paper at a meeting of their chapter. The paper I wrote for my sorority was about Jāņi. It’s a holiday rich in traditions and rituals, unfortunately, I can’t include them all here, but I hope I’ve succeeded in giving you an idea of what Latvian solstice celebrations were like in the old days and what they’re still like.

The two young couples in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream frolic around in the woods during the night of the solstice and meet the king and queen of fairies.

A modern interpretation of an ancient ritual and celebration.

6 thoughts on “The Most Latvian of Holidays”

  1. I remember such a celebration when we lived in Germany after the war. It made an impression on me because iI would not have been more than 4 or 5 years old. Thank you for stirring my memory cousin

    Like

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