In the Baltics (especially Latvia and Estonia) Midsummer (Jāņi/Jaanipäev) is as big a deal as St Patrick’s Day is in Ireland, Bastille Day is in France and Oktoberfest is in Germany. Midsummer is celebrated throughout the Baltics on June 23 in honour of the shortest night and the longest day of the year, but die-hard pagans take to traditional celebrations of the summer solstice a few days earlier than that. The rest mostly spend this nationwide day off sitting by a bonfire, drinking beer and listening to Midsummer folk songs set to a schlager tune. But should a foreigner show up, the Baltic people will proudly puff out their chest and bring all the ancestral customs to the table. We tried to put together the most popular ones so that you’re morally and physically prepared.
Going to the countryside for Jāņi is a must. Only haters and people with no friends stay in the city. Although there are organized public large-scale festivities in certain places, true Jāņi revellers put as much distance between them and civilization as possible. This is the day when a dedicated city-dweller is ready to heed the call of the ancients and be at one with the nature, even if that involves sleeping in a tent, washing yourself in a pond and waking up with your face covered in mosquito bites the next morning.
Many Jāņi traditions have withered away or transformed, but drinking beer is absolutely safe from the ravages of time. Whether you brew it yourself, buy it from a shop or mix one up out of whiskey and coke – absolutely everyone drinks beer for Jāņi. It’s a matter of honour to drink more than your ancestors – evolution demands that children best their parents, right?
The traditional Jāņi food is cheese with caraway seeds and meat or sausages you stick on a skewer and grill in the bonfire until they’ve acquired a pleasant ash flavour. Revellers might occasionally compete in who marinates their shashlik in the weirdest stuff or who has made the biggest cheese. But the main thing is for everyone to bring at least three times as much food as they can possibly eat. The next day can then be happily spent sorting the contents of the leftover bags and boxes and trying to guess what food they resemble the closest.
Garlands of flowers put around one’s head were a thing in the Baltics long before the first hippie and hipster communities reached this neck of the woods. Maidens fair head into a meadow and make themselves flower crowns. In ancient times it would be a symbol of their virginity, but these days we’re pretty certain it only serves an aesthetic function. A special oak leave wreath is usually worn by everyone named Jānis on this day, but that has nothing to do with their virginity – it’s a sign of their special status at this festive time. When the celebrations are over, the ladies are free to fling their crowns up into an oak tree – how many throws it takes to get it stick up there, that many years until you get marries. Ah, girls and their hopes!
Bathing in dew
Folk beliefs say washing your face in the dew of Midsummer morning is a source of beauty and health. But quite possibly that’s made up for those who pass out somewhere in the meadow and wake up face down in wet grass to make them feel better. A bit of extra beauty does them no harm indeed.
Waiting for the sunrise
At Jāņi there’s no going to bed before the sun has gone up, otherwise throughout the next year you’ll be beset by sleep and other ill fortunes. To be fair, most of the time it’s a long stretch to say reaching this honourable objective is a victory for those party animals by the bonfire. But looks can be deceptive, and the dark path toward the sunrise is never easy!
Baltic locals have known all about roasting and freestyle battling since time immemorial. Essentially you put banter into song, slapping a “līgo, līgo” at the end of each line. Nowadays most of the revellers skip the singing part and get straight to teasing though.
Baltic people are great fans of foraging for nature gifts in forests and meadows for food, beauty and medicine. Ancient beliefs say plants blooming in the meadow on Jāņi day have special healing and beauty-enhancing properties, so you put them on your head and everywhere else as well – on the table, on the floor, even in your bed. No Hollywood rose petals can compare to a true Jāņi indoor meadow.
Poor Baltic kids don’t just believe in Santa, they also believe that ferns can bloom. In fact, the “fern blossom” that you go to search for on Midsummer night is just a euphemism for romantic intimacy. What you actually search for is your better half. But poor kids still wander the woods at Jāņi, hoping to find something they’re not even allowed to yet. Midsummer night is regarded to be a very fertile and sexually charged time, and around nine months later is a particularly busy birthday season in the Baltics. But let’s not forget there’s also some very fertile beer drinking going on at Jāņi…
Many Midsummer folk beliefs have to do with taking your clothes off – ancient Baltic folks must have been quite the exhibitionists. Some examples – “On Midsummer night run around the field naked to make your crops grow better” or “On Midsummer night a maiden should take her clothes off and put a rose wreath on her head. The lad that catches her will be her future husband”. Traditions at each household differ, but be prepared for at least a naked run or some night-time skinny dipping. And there’s no refusing – that could be considered disrespecting your host.
As if summer and bonfire is not enough, Baltic people also take to the sauna on Midsummer night. That’s where their love for nakedness and all kinds of plants comes together, as trees and herbs and weeds are cleverly used to make sauna whisks. Actually this has nearly nothing to do with Jāņi – locals hop into a sauna whenever they have a chance. It’s where they even celebrate their birthdays.
The most traditional Midsummer celebration symbol (beer comes a close second). When the revellers are sufficiently mellow, they put their sausage skewers aside for a bit and remember the tradition of jumping over a bonfire. No one quite remembers why, but who cares? It’s just so much fun. Particularly when someone screws it up.
That’s not a tradition. That’s fate.
Written specially for airBaltic blog by Anete Konste.