Midsummer magic in the Baltics

June in the Baltics is all about Midsummer: white nights, birds singing at midnight, and wildflower meadows in full bloom. This magical season culminates on Midsummer’s Eve, or Jāņi for the Latvians, Jaanilaupäev for the Estonians, and Joninės for the Lithuanians (the night of June 23–24). The celebrations include a great many ancient practices, including decorating the home with ferns, fragrant grasses, and freshly picked flowers, singing special solstice songs, lighting bonfires, and preparing traditional foods.

Midsummer was originally a pagan agricultural festival that existed long before the arrival of Christianity in the Baltics, but the traditions associated with it remain immensely popular to this day.

Photo by Reinis Hofmanis

At this time of year, nature’s fullness and magic can also be felt in the three Baltic capitals: Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. Not only do the city parks exude the intoxicating aroma of summer, but streets and squares are also decorated with stylized flowers, meadow grasses, and wreaths made of oak leaves and flowers. The main topic of conversations is ‘whose country house will you be celebrating at this year?’ ‘Country’ is an important precondition, because this is the time of year when nature is at its fullest, when the meadows are in full bloom, and when plants and herbs are said to possess magical powers.

Midsummer is the time of year when ancient peoples carried out fertility rituals and worshipped the sun for having returned to its highest point in the sky. For hundreds of years, an essential part of the solstice festivities has been the lighting of huge bonfires, searching for the mysterious fern flower, and, of course, making wreaths to wear. Each of these activities has a symbolic meaning. The bonfire and wreaths, for example, symbolise the sun, which is the source of life and warmth.

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How to make a wreath?

Photo by Reinis Hofmanis

Even in the contemporary Baltics, the wreath is a must-have accessory that everyone wears for the Midsummer celebration – young and old, men and women, even pets are given wreaths. Traditionally, women gather the necessary herbs, flowers, grasses, and leaves and make the wreaths on the day before Midsummer’s Eve.

They use flowers to make their own wreaths, but oak leaves to make the wreaths for the men, endowing them with the strength and stature of the mighty oak. These colorful head ornaments are also thought serve a protective function.

They are not thrown out after the festivities, but saved until the next Midsummer. Hanging on the wall or placed on top of a cupboard, the wreaths absorb any negative energy in the home. The next year at Midsummer, these old wreaths are thrown into the bonfire at midnight to burn up all the bad vibes that have collected during the year.

Making wreaths is a ceremonial process that must be done with special mindfulness. As a woman prepares to make her own wreath, she gathers wildflowers and fresh reeds and grasses, and as she weaves them into the wreath she will wear on her head, she also weaves in her hopes and dreams. It is believed that the flowers and grasses should be picked intuitively, trusting one’s hand to choose the most suitable ones; the subconscious knows which plant’s energy and healing properties the wearer needs most at that specific moment.

If you look out across a meadow of wildflowers and your eyes are drawn to, for example, the clover or bedstraw, then those are the flowers you should definitely pick.

If, however, the meaning of the flowers in your wreath is important to you, know that –

Daisies brings success in love

Poppy symbolizes fertility

Cornflower means beauty

Red clover is a sign of loyalty and family values

Chamomile ensure health

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Techniques for making a flower wreath

The simplest method is to take flowers with long stems and braid them together, adding a couple of flowers to each section as you would with a French braid.

Another method involves using a thin, flexible willow branch or wire as a foundation. Make a loop with it that’s big enough to sit comfortably on your head, and then add flowers to it, using a spool of thread to secure them to the foundation. This method works well for heavier flowers such as roses or peonies.

If you don’t have time to make a wreath, simply pin some flowers in your hair or braid. Just make sure you’ve picked the flowers yourself!

Making a man’s oak wreath involves systematically positioning small branches or clusters of oak leaves next to each other with a slight overlap, and securing them by winding strong thread around each cluster as you add it. The closer you position the clusters next to each other, the fuller and more beautiful the resulting wreath.

And remember: if a woman makes a wreath for a man, she can use the power of her intentions and the magical properties of the plants to engage his affections.

Lithuanians and Latvians believe that unmarried girls must make a wreath from nine or twelve (in Lithuania) or even 27 (in Latvia) different herbs before midnight on Midsummer Eve. Such a wreath is not only a traditional accessory but also a mystical charm to draw the attention of your true love.

In Estonia, a young woman looking to get a peek into the future is advised to collect nine different types of flowers and place them under her pillow on Midsummer Eve. Her resulting dream is said to reveal her future spouse.

Those who prefer to sport a more contemporary accessory on their heads for this beautiful summer celebration are encouraged to check out the crowns made by Latvian artist Brigita Stroda.

Her creations can be worn on Midsummer Eve, but they’re stunning enough to decorate your home as well. In fact, many a bold and creative Latvian bride has even chosen to wear a crown made by Stroda on her wedding day!

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Secrets of the meadow

Nature is in full bloom, and the plants gathered around Midsummer are thought to have special healing powers for humans and animals alike. All plants gathered during the festivities are considered to be blessed by the solstice, and therefore they’re also used to decorate the home for Midsummer.

Some of the most common plants used for decoration are birch saplings, oak branches, and rowans. Obtaining these branches and saplings has traditionally been men’s work, which they do while the women gather flowers and grasses for wreaths and other decorations.

The saplings are usually propped up next to the doors of one’s house and in the corners of every room. On rural properties, all of the buildings are decorated, not just the house. That means barns, granaries, the sauna, and even the outhouse.

Folk belief states that the rowan protects against evil and chases away witches. Therefore, even nowadays a rowan branch is often left by the house door until the next year’s Midsummer festival. Sometimes grasses are scattered on the floor of the house as well – most often sweet flag that’s been cut into small pieces. This plant exudes a strong, pleasant aroma and has served as a purifying agent in homes since ancient times.

Photo from Latvijas Etnogrāfiskais Brīvdabas Muzejs

Although some of the natural decorations used at Midsummer are burned after the festivities are over, this time of year is also one of the most valuable times to gather plants for herbal teas. They’re usually picked in dry weather, soon after the dew has evaporated in the morning.

Photo from Latvijas Etnogrāfiskais Brīvdabas Muzejs

Many different types of herbs can be gathered at Midsummer, including red and white clover, chamomile, bedstraw, yarrow, peppermint, meadowsweet, mock orange, and cornflowers.

But remember to pick only plants that you recognize and know to be not harmful to your health! Also, never pick protected or endangered species of plants.

Another folk belief related to this time of year: roll around naked in the dew before the Midsummer sunrise if you wish to be beautiful.

Products for less extreme beauty-enhancing activities can be obtained from Mádara, an internationally recognised Latvian natural and organic cosmetics company. Mádara scrutinises legends about Northern healing herbs under the penetrating gaze of doctors and in the fierce light of scientific labs, which results in a large selection of natural face, skin, and hair care products.

The team at Plūkt, for its part, collects the intoxicating aroma of summer meadows and offers it to clients in its special line of teas. These hand-picked organic herbal teas from the wild meadows and forests of northern Europe have quickly become favorites among connoisseurs of herbal teas.

Photo from Plūkt home page

Other Baltic Midsummer rituals also have magical meanings. For example, one is not supposed to sleep at all on Midsummer night, otherwise one ‘sleeps away’ all of the magical energy of this night.

And one of the best-known Midsummer legends is about the flowering fern, said to hold the key to love and success. Folk tales describe how this fern grows deep in the forest, protected by animals and witches, which is why it is so difficult to find.

Most people, however, associate searching for the fern flower as the excuse young couples give for wanting to experience the magic of Midsummer’s Eve alone, with only each other.

Text by Ilze Vītola and Zane Nikodemusa

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