As I child I had two favourite holidays – New Year and Summer Solstice, because on both occasions I was allowed to stay up late. Of the two, Summer Solstice was of course the more exciting, because not only was I allowed to stay up late, I was encouraged to stay up all night. Moreover, the celebration went hand in hand with making and wearing beautiful flower wreaths in my hair (and which girl doesn't love that), singing “Līgo” songs that everyone knows (or making them up as you go along, adding “Līgo, līgo” to the end of each line), eating the best cheese of them all (made with caraway seeds) and doing seemingly crazy things such as jumping over fires, and going into the forest to look for a magical fern flower which, according to tradition, blooms only on this night.
As I got older and the novelty of staying up all night wore off, the occasion gained new relevance – spending a night in the company of friends, singing, dancing, drinking beer, discovering the literal meaning of the fern flower myth (I figured out the connection between couples looking for the fern flower on midsummer’s night and an annual baby boom in March at an embarrassingly late age), and while living abroad, introducing my foreign friends to these peculiar and entertaining traditions. I must say, that the flower wreaths were almost as popular as the concept of pairing off to look for the fern flower among my English friends, and the dry wreaths became a staple decoration in all of my London homes.
There is no doubt that Summer Solstice, or “Jāņi” as we call it here, is by far the most popular holiday in Latvia for young and old, rural and urban, religious and non-religious; it beats Christmas, New Year, Valentine ’s Day and everything else there is on the annual event calendar. Cities become ghost towns, everything closes, and everyone heads to the countryside to celebrate the longest day and the shortest night. We light fires, sing songs, dance, eat cheese and drink beer all night long waiting for the sunrise, and we really do jump over fires and go looking for the fern flower while sporting stunning wreaths made of field flowers for women and oak-tree leaves for men.
Traditionally it is a pagan holiday in honour of the pagan deity and son of God Jānis. “Jāņi” was thought to be the time when the forces of nature were at their most powerful, and the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds the closest. Similarly it was believed that this was the best day for collecting herbs as they were believed to hold magical qualities specifically at midsummer. Today it is an occasion to be in the countryside, to spend time with friends, to just have fun while taking advantage of an almost full day of day-light, a day off work, and of course a chance to enjoy some of the ancient traditions which brought about this fantastic celebration.
So, this weekend, whether you are in Latvia or not, head out of the city, pick some field flowers and oak leaves, make yourself a wreath, build a bon fire, bring out the barbecue, sing and dance your heart out, for the longest day comes but once a year.