A Midsummer night's dream

  • 2007-06-20
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

LORDS OF DANCE: Revelers at a midsummer festival wear crowns made of flowers (for the women) and oak leaves (for the men) and dance until the early hours of the morning.

RIGA - Quests for magical fern blossoms and healing springs, talismans to ward off evil spirits, fertility and sun cults, naked nymphs fleeting through the morning dew... This all may seem like something out of a fairy tale, but on a magical, dizzying Midsummer's eve it all becomes a reality for one short night.
Celebrating Midsummer is an old pagan tradition of magic and mystery that has survived everything from Christianity to Soviet occupation. It's considered one of the most important holidays in the Baltic states, rivaling 's and perhaps even surpassing 's Christmas.

The Midsummer is festival, known as Jonines in Lithuanian, Jani in Latvian and Jaaniohtu in Estonian, marks not only the shortest night of the year, but also a change in the farming cycle 's from spring sowing and planting to summer reaping, harvesting and hay-making. This is one of the things that makes it a very nature-oriented day, focusing on birth, growth and fertility. It also means that for the most part people will spend the weekend out in the countryside, among nature, visiting friends and family.
"The summer is so short, this is it, and now we must celebrate the growth of everything, our being happy, healthy and having a real future. We should spend the time thinking about the good things that we don't normally, …that you are a part of nature, and so to be thankful for the sun and the crops," said Arija Duroskina, a folk enthusiast and representative of the Latvian Open-air Ethnographic Museum.


The most important and widespread Midsummer tradition is the lighting of huge bonfires. The bonfires which dot the countryside are believed to have purifying powers and are used for a number of different traditions surrounding the holiday. In Latvia, at least some of the bonfires should be built on top of a "mountain" (the term has to be used loosely since the highest hill in Latvia is only about 311 meters), or failing that a wheel soaked in tar and wrapped with straw is lit and raised to the top of a tall pole.
In Estonia, the fires are often built using the scrap wood from old fishing boats, especially on the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. The Estonian midsummer fires help to frighten away mischievous spirits, thus ensuring a good harvest. Also, to not light a fire would be to invite a highly destructive fire into one's home.
Tradition has it that young couples soon to be married jump over the fire together, or young suitors jump over in hopes of finding a bride. Young couples and lucky suitors then disappear into the woods to search for magical springs that can heal wounds and bring long life. The water from these springs is only magical on midsummer's night, but can have amazing healing powers if found. Upon failing to find the magical fountains, the searchers instead settle for running naked through the morning dew and deriving healing benefits from that.

Another popular thing to search for is the mystical (and non-existent) fern blossom. Whoever finds the fern blossom, which only blooms at midnight on midsummer, will supposedly be rich, prosperous, happy and healthy for the rest of their life, and will also gain the ability to understand birds and other creatures. Often these forays into the wilderness and the thrill of the hunt lead to relationships 's particularly those of the passionate and short-lived variety 's between young bachelors and bachelorettes. Fortunately for them, folk tales also say that stinging nettles and poison ivy lose their potency on this specific night.

In Lithuania, young girls make garlands from flowers and grass, place candles on them, and send them into a nearby river or lake. If the garland stays afloat, then the young girl is sure to get married. In Latvia, the young girls instead throw the wreaths into a nearby oak tree, and the number of tries it takes them to get it to stay up will be the number of years they will wait to find a husband. The garlands themselves are also very important in Baltic tradition. The wreaths are made from flowers, herbs and grasses for the women and from oak leaves for the men. The wreaths are not only for people, but they are also made for animals, mostly cattle and dogs. The garlands are saved until Christmas, and then burned for good luck.

While the Baltic states may differ in lyrics and dance moves, traditional singing and dancing are the blood and bones of all three nations' festivities. As is to be expected, the "singing peoples" have devised thousands of songs devoted to all the different aspects of Midsummer's night. These songs are sung about everything that can be found in the surrounding nature, from animals to lakes and trees.
The Latvian songs sometimes turn into friendly griping, somewhat akin to ancient Latvian hip-hop battles on a more friendly level. "For example, one person might sing, 'You have a very nice dress today, but those shoes are old and worn out and look awful.' The other person would then respond with something like, 'You have a very nice voice and a nice mouth, but your tongue is too sharp,'" Doroskina said. 

As the festival focuses on spending time with family and friends, socialization is a major part of the festivities. One tradition is to go to all of your neighbors' homes and share beer and cheese in preparation for the feast. It is considered rude to arrive or leave someone's home empty-handed.
Lastly, a crucial element to the midsummer festivals is staying up all night 's which isn't as difficult as it sounds when the sun rises at 3:30 a.m. Not doing so is a sign of both current illness and worse to come.

History with the Church
Not much is known about the origins of many of the traditions behind the midsummer festival. It was derived from an ancient pagan feast called Rasos in Lithuanian and Ligo in Latvian. It was originally a day presided over by the fertility, sun, and phallic cults of the ancient religions (not a cult in today's sense of the word, but simply those that followed one specific god in a pantheon of many). The celebration itself is far older than the arrival Christianity, but the Church has managed to exert minor influence over the day.
When crusaders arrived in the late 12th and early 13th century, they renamed the holiday "St. John's Day," and the name has stuck. People today use the day as a special occasion to greet anyone named Janis, Jonas/Janina, or Jaani ('John' in Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian, respectively), an extraordinarily common name in the Baltic states. It is considered an especially important day for them.

Aside from their renaming and working with a few symbols, the Christians had little effect on the traditions surrounding Midsummer. The Church didn't approve of such a blatantly pagan festival taking place under their noses, but couldn't find any way to change the behavior of the revelers. Many of the crusaders and monks living in the Baltic states in the coming centuries complained of the natives preferring to light fires and drink than participate in church functions. 
With its mysterious origins, mythical traditions, and mulish resistance to change, Midsummer in the Baltics is perhaps best summed up by Doroskina's simple assessment: "It has been and it is. There is nothing more to be said."