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Midsummer night to remember

  • 2009-06-18
  • By Kate McIntosh

LIGO NAKTS: Latvian revelers celebrate a traditional midsummer night festival, replete with bonfire and hanging crown of leaves and flowers.

RIGA - Bonfires, beer, dancing, jumping over fires and all-night-long parties are a central theme to Midsummer celebrations in the Baltics, marked annually across the region.
Midsummer celebrations take place throughout the Baltics and the event is widely considered among the most significant festival of the year.
Midsummer-related traditions pre-date Christianity and modern day celebrations are still very much centered on ancient pagan culture and beliefs.
In Lithuania the holiday is celebrated as Saint Jonas' Festival (or Rasos), while in Estonia it is known as Jaanipaev (John's Day).

In Latvia the celebration of the summer solstice festival, or Jani, remains the most ancient and beloved holiday, marked with great enthusiasm throughout the country.
Celebrations typically kick off on June 22, continuing with Ligo-Day on June 23 and Jani the following day 's June 24th.

Steeped in ancient rituals and traditions, Latvia's Midsummer is a celebration unique in Europe, where many of the customs have long since died out.
Most Latvians leave the cities enmasse to gather around ceremonial bonfires in the countryside to welcome the arrival of summer in the company of friends and family.
During this time the countryside comes alive with all-night parties in which people make fires, sing songs, dance, make and wear wreaths of flowers, drink specially-brewed beer and eat homemade cheese.

Founding member of Latvian folklore group Auli Mikus Cavarts said music is a central uniting element during Midsummer celebrations throughout the Baltics.
"Everybody comes together to participate. These sorts of traditional songs are made so everyone can participate. It makes a special mood and feeling," he said.
Music has had a strong influence on Baltic culture since ancient times.
"Actually music is like a symbol of Baltic countries. It is this distinctive and interesting tradition first for the people and as symbol of identity. The Baltic countries are rich in history and nature and also rich in these traditional melodies and songs," said Cavarts.

The 10-piece group, which formed in 2003, compose their own original compositions, drawing inspiration from the medieval music styles of the Baltics and Western Europe, and are due to play at Lithuanian Midsummer celebrations this year.

ANCIENT TRADITION

Midsummer celebrations roughly correspond to the astronomical beginning of summer.
The period marks a change in the farming year, specifically the break between the completion of spring sowing and the hard work of summer hay-making.

In pagan times, Ligo and Midsummer were feasts of fertility. A remnant of those ancient times is the tradition of amorous couples going into the forest together to hunt for the mystical fern flower, said to bloom only at Midsummer and believed to bring love and happiness to those who find it.
The evening of June 23, which marks the longest day of the year, is the highlight of the holiday. According to legend this is the one night of year that you must not sleep.
To celebrate, Latvians gather wild flowers, make oak leaf wreaths and decorate houses, animals and themselves.

In ancient times people believed that midsummer plants had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night.
Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again.
People stay up all night around a fire, girls pick flowers to make themselves delicate wreaths while men named Janis don huge wreaths of oak leaves.
Today's celebrations remain steeped in pagan fertility rituals including lighting bonfires, drinking, dancing and singing.

In Estonia, the best-known Jaanik, or midsummer, ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck.
Estonians celebrate Jaaniohtu (John's Night) on June 23 when people all around the country gather with their families to celebrate with singing and dancing just as they did in ancient times.
Celebrations in Lithuania also include a lively agenda, which peaks on June 24 with the rising midsummer sun and washing the face with morning dew. As tradition dictates, young girls also float flower wreaths on rivers and lakes.