It’s that time of year again. That time, when cities become ghost towns, when everything closes, and we leave ‘civilization’ behind to get in touch with our pagan roots. June 24, "Jāņi", is almost here.
Christmas is a lovely time in snow covered Latvia, as is New Year’s with our dark firework-friendly skies; and even holidays which have appeared relatively recently in Latvia, such as Valentine’s Day, are gaining momentum on the annual event calendar. But none of them even comes close to the midsummer celebration of the longest day and shortest night – "Jāņi" and "Līgo" evening on June 23.
Summer solstice is by far the most popular holiday in Latvia. It unites young and old, religious and non-religious, urban and rural, Latvian and other nationalities resident in Latvia. Pretty much everyone loves it, and if they don’t, then they are certainly ostracised, or at the very least frowned upon, for this brief period of pagan paradise. Because how could you not love this delightful mix of pagan celebrations which give full reign to the wildest of activities?
I couldn't tell you if it’s the flower or oak leaf wreaths we wear in our hair, the caraway cheese, which just tastes so darn delicious, that make it so incredible. Perhaps it is the ancient traditions of fire burning and jumping over them, the dancing and singing "Līgo" songs, visiting one’s neighbours with riddles and rhymes, playing games and going on quests. It could be the couple ritual of looking for the magical fern flower, which only blooms on this one night and results in an annual baby boom nine months later, or perhaps the fact that everyone (and I mean everyone, even the youngest among us) stays up all night waiting for the sunrise (which, admittedly is not such a long wait, considering that it only gets dark for a couple of hours that night). It could also be the national costumes people sometimes wear, or the copious amounts of beer consumed on this night. Perhaps it is the fact that the holiday is celebrated with good friends, with family, in the countryside, where we can forget our everyday worries (because I can promise you that no one is doing any work over summer solstice) and just be, while having an incredibly fun time with those around us.
I don’t know, what it is that makes this holiday so special. But special it is, and I for one am as jittery as a little child on their birthday to be only a few days away from this marvelous celebration.
Traditionally it is a pagan holiday in honour of the son of God Jānis – and to this day the traditions we practice during it reflect its origins. "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 at their most tangible. 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 have fun while taking advantage of an almost full day of day-light, two days off work, and of course, a chance to enjoy some of the ancient traditions which brought about this fantastic celebration.
While it’s certainly not recommended to celebrate Jāņi in the city, this year, as Rīga holds the title of the European Capital of Culture, the celebration can be pre-celebrated, or warmed up if you will, in Mežaparks park – the greenest part of Rīga. In the two days preceding "Jāņi" Mežaparks will (grudgingly) admit that Latvia is not the only country which celebrates the summer solstice as traditions from around the world will light up the park throughout the weekend. A world beer parade will also take place, highlighting the role of this beverage in summer solstice traditions in Latvia, and a multitude of workshops will teach solstice traditions ranging from making flower wreaths to caraway cheese, from learning songs and dances, to hearing summer solstice music from around the world, all of which will be followed by an impressive dance performance as dusk sets in.
If you’re visiting Rīga over this period, you can also head to near-by Sigulda, for traditional Jāņi celebrations on 23 June. And even Rīga itself will have traditional activities - Dome Square will host the annual market of all things green, and Dzegužkalns park will be home to music, singing, dancing and other traditional activities on 23 June.
But if you can, jump on a bus or a train or into a car, and head out of town, for this is an experience not to be missed.