An Englishman in Latvia

On Jāņi, midsummer

June 17, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 16
On Jāņi, midsummer
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On Jāņi, midsummer
Jun 17, 2023 Season 1 Episode 16
Alan Anstead

Midsummer is the biggest annual celebration in Latvia. Bigger than Christmas or Easter. As with many Latvian traditions, it is pagan in origin. It involves oak leaf or flower garlands, a special cheese, plenty of beer, fire and singing, and witches! I’ll tell you about the origins of this celebration. I’ll share my experience of participating in Jāņi. An Englishman’s guide on how to enjoy Jāņi.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

Midsummer is the biggest annual celebration in Latvia. Bigger than Christmas or Easter. As with many Latvian traditions, it is pagan in origin. It involves oak leaf or flower garlands, a special cheese, plenty of beer, fire and singing, and witches! I’ll tell you about the origins of this celebration. I’ll share my experience of participating in Jāņi. An Englishman’s guide on how to enjoy Jāņi.

Thanks for listening!

On Jāņi, midsummer

Midsummer is the biggest annual celebration in Latvia. Bigger than Christmas or Easter. As with many Latvian traditions, it is pagan in origin. It involves oak leaf garlands, a special cheese, plenty of beer, fire and singing, and witches! It is still a very popular festival in Latvia and among the Latvian diaspora in Europe, North and South America and Australia. I’ll tell you about the origins of this celebration. I’ll share my experience of participating in Jāņi both in 1990s Latvia and the present day. An Englishman’s guide on how to enjoy Jāņi.

Jāņi is an annual Latvian festival to celebrate the summer solstice. It consists of two days, both public holidays, Līgo on 23 June and Jāņi on 24 June. It is mostly known as Jāņi now, but I am sure it was more familiar to call it Līgo in 1990s Latvia. To add a further complication, the summer solstice is astronomically a few days earlier, on 21 or 22 June. To find out why, we need to delve into history. 

A celebration of John the Baptist during the summer solstice was traditionally held in many European countries. Jānis is Latvian for John. Latvia’s elite were Baltic Germans, and the Catholic church had great power in what is now the Baltic States. In 1584, a Livonian writer, Balthasar Russow, wrote in his Chronicle of Livonia, that "All over the great land by Fire of Jāņi happened a great joyous dancing, singing and jumping”. At that time, Rīga’s marine workers - sailors to fishermen - and their families, would sail on the summer solstice to Pardaugava - the west bank of the Daugava River on the opposite side to old Rīga, or to the islands in the river. There they had a party until dawn.

In 1759 a rich Latvian entrepreneur, Johann Steinhauer (he Germanised his birth name of Jānis Akmenkalis) bought a mill called Zasumuiža. There he started Zāļu diena - green day, although actually a celebration of herbs - at the time of Jāņi. This annual celebration later moved to Hermeliņa manor on the right bank of the Daugava. Around 1790, festive fireworks on the Daugava were introduced to the celebration. 

The Latvian weekly newspaper ‘Tas Latviešu Ļaužu Draugs’ wrote the following article about Jāņi in 1832:

“These two days of Jāņi for us, city dwellers, are annual real fun days. On the first day's eve a large flower market opens at the edge of the Daugava. Then farmers, who were living in the vicinity, brought flowers, wreaths and various herbs, gardeners brought back their nicest and most expensive goods, and the townsfolk came and bought – either wreaths for children's joy, or flowers for whichever loved one as a gift, or foals, or mint and other such herbs, that help against various diseases. Others come, wanting to see a large crowd, play gambling, and walk until it becomes dark.”

After the establishment of the Latvian Republic in 1918, the celebration of Zāļu diena became a popular holiday. It was proposed that 22, 23 and 24 June should be recognised as national holidays, 22 June celebrating Heroes Day (to remember the victory in the Battle of Cēsis, the Latvian War of Independence), Zāļu diena on 23 June and Jāņi Day on 24 June.

The day before Jāņi is properly known as Līgosvētki, or simply Līgo. The name "Līgosvētki" was first used in 1900 in the Jāņi song collection by the Latvian composer Emilis Melngailis.  He later explained in 1928 in the newspaper Jaunākās Ziņas “By issuing my first collection, which included only Jāņi songs, I (Melngailis), on a new day – 1900 –  invented a new word Līgosvētki, which for some time suppressed the real ancient word: Jāņa diena, Jāņanakti. Silliness has often landed a place of honour, at least for a short time.” 

Sounds to me like a regret at complicating matters in the complicated history of the celebration of Jāņi, and perhaps goes some way to explain why I knew the celebration as Līgo when I lived in Latvia in the late 1990s.

There is a movement towards celebrating the solstice date. The Ethnographic Museum in Riga and many people in Latgale celebrate the pagan festival of summer solstice on the night of 21 June, but when I asked a Latgalian to talk about this on the podcast, he refused. Too sensitive an issue when the majority population celebrate 23/24 June. 

I think that two days of public holiday plus the opportunity to have a great party, means the date will remain 23 and 24 June in the Latvian calendar.

That’s the history of the celebration. How do people celebrate it nowadays?

On 23 June, people travel from the city to the countryside to gather, eat, drink, sing and celebrate the solstice by observing the ancient folk traditions of renewal and fertility. Many people dress their cars in oak leaves and other greenery. It is a sight to observe - from beat-up old Ladas to shiny new Mercedes. All with greenery attached. There are, unfortunately, many car accidents over the two-day celebration. Possibly because people can’t see clearly when driving because of all the adornments to the vehicle, and probably because of alcohol. 

Collected and used for decorative, therapeutic and symbolic purposes, plant material is very important to the celebration of Jāņi. Most herbaceous plants are used, but people typically collect Galium (commonly known as bedstraw), Melampyrum (commonly known as Cow Wheat), Lathyrus (commonly known as vetchling) and clover.

Plant material is used to decorate rooms and outdoor areas of the home, and is woven into wreaths. Specific tree species are used as sources of material for decoration. Branches of birch and oak are commonly used, as are rowan and linden, but not aspen or alder, as they are considered evil. Plant material is tied to gates, doors and as we have already described, to cars.

There is much tradition behind decorating with plant material. In 1627, the Latvian historian and pastor Paul Einhorn wrote:

“Jāņi Day is given the power and sanctity of the herbs and its daily gathering, and has great and excellent properties against fires, people's and livestock's evil plagues and diseases.”

Thorns, thistles and nettles are hung to repel evil spirits and witches. On Zāļu Day, herbs were used to make tea which was given to sick people and livestock. On Jāņi Day, rowan twigs were tied together, dried and used for a child's fumigation, to treat sickness, anxiety, or where an evil eye afflicted a child.

Let’s look at some of the other traditions at Jāņi.

Wreath making
Circular wreaths made of flowers, grasses and oak leaves are woven and worn on the head. Different types of plants are used to make wreaths for males and females. Women and girls wear wreaths made from flowers, grasses and herbs. Wreaths braided with twenty-seven flowers and herbs are believed to prevent disasters and diseases and repel enemies. Men and boys wear wreaths made of oak leaves, symbolising the physical strength of the oak tree. Oak wreaths were also thought to promise the blessing of horses and bees. Together with Jāņi cheese and fires, which we will discuss in a minute, wreaths symbolise the sun.

They are magnificent to see. I think of Roman Emperors when I see a man wearing this garland of woven oak branches on his head. Women wearing flower and herb garlands look terribly pretty.

During Jāņi, huge bonfires are lit and burned from sunset until the next morning. This practice reflects the belief that light from the fires will transmit to the next solar year. It is believed that fires should be burned at a high point in the landscape, from which the light of the fire bestows power and fertility on the fields and people on which it shines. Leaping over the Jāņi fire is said to bring good luck and health through the coming year. 

My advice from experience. Wait until the fire has died down a bit before jumping over it. You are less likely to have an accident, and anyway, you must stay awake until dawn. Otherwise, you will be sleepy for the rest of the year, goes the superstition. 

Singing Līgo or Jāņi songs is associated with promoting fertility, acquiring good fortune and preventing calamity. Historically, the singing of Līgo songs began two weeks before Jāņi, reached its highest point on Jāņi Eve and lasted until 15 August. After that, the singing of Līgo songs ceased until the next year. Singing Līgo songs on Jāņi night begins after dinner and continues throughout the night until the rising of the sun, with families often going from house to house in their neighbourhood. I’ve done that, and it is a lovely experience. People are in a good mood and very hospitable. Luckily for this Englishman, the songs are so easy to sing. Just repeat “Līgo, ja, Līgo” endlessly to the tune of the song.  And on Jāņi, people drink beer (lots of it) and eat cheese (to a special recipe), believing that it will promote barley growth and milk production in the summer. Both sound and taste good to me. Singing visitors from neighbouring houses are treated with cheese and beer. 

There is a belief that on Jāņi morning, milk witches are running on the dew and shouting, "Everything for me, everything for me!" If anyone heard it, they must respond with, "I butchered half of them!" Then there would be no shortage of milk. Witches are believed to disguise themselves as normal women by dressing in white robes and letting their hair loose. Once disguised, it is believed that they would cast spells or curses on the fields and livestock of their enemies.

Fern flowers
It was believed that whoever found a fern flower would gain wealth and happiness, learn the secrets of the past, and see into the future. "Whoever acquires the fern flower will be happy, because it can make anything they want to come true. Evil spirits hinder the flower, and only a brave person can get it”. It also has another meaning for couples. Finding the fern flower deep in the undergrowth is an invitation for … well, I think you get my drift!

Jāņi cheese (in Latvian: Jāņu siers) is a Latvian sour milk cheese, traditionally eaten on Jāņi. Nowadays, this cheese has become an important symbol of Latvian culture.

The basic ingredients of the dish are curd produced from both soured milk and fresh milk. Traditionally, caraway seeds, salt and eggs are added during cooking, as well as butter or cream if one wishes to increase the fat content. The cheese is made by heating whole milk, adding curd, and then cooking the mixture until the fluffy curds separate from the clear whey. The whey is discarded when the cheese mass reaches a temperature of 72–77 °C. The curds are placed into a skillet or cooking pan, and a mixture of egg, butter, salt, and caraway seeds is stirred into it. Once a solid and firm ball has formed, the cheese is placed in a muslin cloth to drain. The cheese is prepared a few days before eating and can ripen in a cool place before consumption.

In 2015, Jāņi cheese was included in the EU Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) register under the name Jāņu siers. Currently, only five manufacturers ("Valmieras piens", "Rankas piens", "Lazdonas piensaimnieks", "Straupe", and "Dundaga") fulfil the TSG criteria and can label their product as Jāņu siers. However, many people prepare Jāņi cheese at home.

In conclusion, a Latvian midsummer celebration is a great thing to experience. Full of history and traditions and well, just super fun. The problem of whether to call it Līgo or Jāņi is still a live issue for many Latvians. So as a former diplomat, I will take a diplomatic route by wishing you all, “Saulainus Līgo svētkus un Priecīgus Jāņus” - “Have a sunny Līgo and a happy Jāņi day”.

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