CHEERS: Beer is the Baltics’ Midsummer beverage of choice, usually drunk in a courtyard settings.
Midsummer or Jani in Latvian, Jaanipaev in Estonian and Jonines in Lithuanian is a traditionally pagan festivity marking the summer solstice on the shortest night of the year on June 23 - 24. John or Janis, Jaan or Jon is a deity of fertility. His day is celebrated as an end of the spring sowing season and beginning of the summer harvest.
St. John’s Eve (Jaaniohtu, also Jaanilaupaev) and St. John’s Day (Jaanipaev) are the most important days in the Estonian calendar, apart from Christmas. On Jaaniõhtu, Estonians all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing and dancing, as Estonians have done for centuries.
Understandably, some of the rituals of Jaanipaev have very strong folkloric roots. The best-known Jaanik, or midsummer, ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and the jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck. Likewise, to not light the fire is to invite the destruction of your house by fire. The fire also frightened away mischievous spirits who avoided it at all costs, thus ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.
For Estonians, is tied to Estonia’s victory during the War of Independence and the securing of a free and independent state.
For the Midsummer Day, there are the official public holidays, allowing the whole nation to prepare to party the entire night.
Certain similarities can be observed in how the three neighbours spend the occasion. These days many, particularly of the younger generations will openly admit to the fete being just an excuse to escape to the countryside with a group of friends and overindulge in the traditional Midsummer beverage of choice - beer. Many though still try to keep up other traditions too.
Beer is not the only thing on the menu. In Latvia a full table is vital for a successful John's Eve. Cheese is the staple food but not just any kind. There is a special sort traditionally made only for Jani but now fortunately or unfortunately available all year round in most supermarkets – ''Janu siers'' or caraway seed cheese. Great chunks take centre stage on the table next to grilled meat (''sasliks'') and sausages fresh off the fire, salads, cold soup and other local fare. Estonians share a similar menu.
In Latvia the evening's hosts provide food and drink but guests are encouraged to bring a ''grozins'' or contribution like more beer and more cheese. If there is an actual Janis present at the gathering (and this is highly likely as the name is the most popular for Latvian males) guests congratulate him with an oak leaf wreath he proudly dons for the night. Janis' dad and other close relatives may also receive them. Ladies make their own headdresses from flowers usually picked in nearby fields or, nowadays, along the side of the road on the way to wherever the celebrations are taking place that year.
Wreaths are often kept until the next year's Jani, then ceremonially burnt on the fire to bring good luck. Girls can also choose to throw their wreaths in a tree. The amount of times it takes to throw it until it stays hanging is supposedly equal to how many years you have left before marriage.
In both Latvia and Estonia couples are encouraged to go into the wilderness to look for the mythical ''fern flower'', this, in fact, a euphemism for outdoor love making. A Latvian NGO working to educate young people about sexual health appropriately calls itself ''Papardes Zieds'' or fern flower after the popular myth.
Estonian folklore talks of a particular couple Koit (dawn) and Hamarik (dusk) who only ever meet once a year on Jaaniohtu or Midsummer's Eve and exchange a quick kiss before going their separate ways.
While Latvians just search for the fern flower, Estonians are also on the lookout for Jaaniuss or glow-worms said to make their first appearances around about June 23. This is not a myth and not a euphemism.
Another tradition both nations share is the lighting of a Midsummer bonfire and the jumping over it. The ritual seemingly brings good luck to whoever successfully avoids the flame, and brings prosperity. The fire is also lit to frighten creatures away from the new crops thus ensuring a good harvest.
When taking part in Jaanipaev or Jani celebrations it's important to stay awake until dawn. This show of endurance is said to bring you lots of good luck. If you fail to greet the first rays of sunshine you risk not only bad luck, but also being made fun of by those with more energy and willpower to stay up.
Unfortunately a combination of sleeplessness and exagerrated alcohol consumption has lead to extremely high numbers of car accidents during the celebrations. The Estonian and Latvian governments and police are trying their best to inform people of the risks of drunk driving. Every year campaigns are organised to raise awareness and lower the number of accidents. This year Riga is ''decorated'' with huge model beds and posters encouraging drivers to have a proper sleep before getting in the car.
For those not risking driving or just choosing not to escape to the countryside, Riga City Council surprised everyone this year with its announcement of how much money it's putting towards the Jani in the city cause. 100 000 lats of the year's small budget are dedicated to the celebrations on the Daugava riverbank with more money going to other events around town too. To top it all off Riga mayor Nils Usakovs promised anyone will be able to take public transport for free within the city during the festivities.
Other towns in Latvia are also preparing big public events. Valmiera promises to gather the biggest Jani choir, Raiskums will host a performance by popular rockband ''Labveligais Tips'' and Liepaja is putting on a special new version of ''Trines Greki'', a Jani play by author Rudolfs Blaumanis.
In Tallinn, head to the Estonian Open Air Museum for a concert by Estonian-Ukrainian band ''Svjata Vatra'' and traditional Jaanipaev fun and games. Shows and an outdoor party will also be going on in Viljandi in the south of the country.
The Saint Jonas’ Festival in Lithuania is the celebration of summer solstice. Especially, it is very popular to have large fires lit on the beaches of the Curonian Spit and along the countless rivers found in the Lithuanian landscape, while the people sing local songs that celebrate summer and the upcoming harvest. The celebration of Midsummer Day is traditionally held throughout Europe on the eve of June 23, and for the people of Lithuania in particular it signifies a very special occasion. It is in fact the biggest fest of the summer in Lithuania, and all native people will be throwing some kind of party when this event kicks off in late June. Actually, it does not matter where you find yourself to be on this evening, countryside or town you are going to experience a special thing with celebration and partying in the air, so just get yourself ready.
The party of Midsummer Day is in Lithuanian called Jonines. It is a time for friends and families to come together, to go on trips or meet up for barbecues and other festivities, greeting the names with elaborate celebrations (of the names Jonas, Janina, Jone), as families pay tribute to special family members and provide them with garlands, made from decorative oak leaves and branches, which are then hung around their necks as a ritual. Together, they celebrate the longest and brightest day in the northern hemisphere, in its unique beauty of the long, bright midnight, appreciated by Nordic and Baltic peoples throughout centuries and still.
Throughout the period of spring, people in city and town are busy collecting branches and wood pieces for each their local fire, may it be in allotment garden territory or city. They are all preparing to dance around and celebrate the summer sun while impressing neighbors and friends alike. May it be in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, the second town of Kaunas, or the seaside resort of delightful Palanga; everyone seems to be preparing for a special summer season that commemorates ancient national rituals, initially originating from Baltic pagan culture.
Above all, it is a real dance of fire when at this summer solstice peoples of the Baltic region all come together and dance around hugely lit bonfires to celebrate Midsummer Day in a great party. Dancing on fire becomes not just a saying, but an actual act and event coming into fruition on this special eve of June 23, when people all over Lithuania build up big fires to celebrate life in its very essence.
Around a huge lit bonfire, women, men and children commemorate the summer season while dancing around the bonfire and singing folk songs. They tell tales of forgotten fortunes, and when the sun rises again they traditionally wash their faces with morning dew found in the fresh fields of the Lithuanian countryside. Around midnight of midsummer’s eve, they search for mystical fern blossom in the moist, moonlit fields, and men who find it are supposed to become clairvoyant and able to hear other people’s minds and secrets. In folklore, it is said to provide Lithuanian people with great wealth, fortune and happiness.
Saint Jonas’ Festival is in short full of mystery and desire. At midnight, young girls and men jump over the fire while holding hands, and the loving couples then eventually get married if faith carries them on. All through the night, they hope for love to find them and carry them on until the next summer tans their young faces once again.