In Latvia, the midsummer festival is called Jāņi (yaaanyi), but can also be referred to as the Līgo Festival (Liigo sveetki). Occurring on 23-24 June, it celebrates the summer solistice and is heavy with traditions and symbolism celebrating life. Cities empty out during this time, while everyone, regardless of their age, journeys to the countryside in preparation for their Jāņi.
Foliage from rowan, oak, birch and linden trees is used to decorate homes, barns, fences, doorways and cars (travelling to your Jāņi celebrations with a car decorated with foliage is obligatory!). Don’t forget to also hang thorns, thistles and nettles to repel evil spirits!
Once the house and surrounds are decorated, it’s time to make a wreath to wear on your head. For men, the wreaths are made from oak leaves, symoblising an oak tree’s strength and longevity. A female’s wreath, when woven with 27 flowers and herbs is believed to prevent disasters and diseases and repel enemies.
Tradition dictates that Jāņi must be celebrated with a bonfire which is lit at sunset and burns to sunrise. Fires may be built on the ground, or, in a barrel which then sits on a long pole, high above the revellers. Whichever the method, the fire must be lit at the highest point in the landscape, where the heat and light of the fire will bestow power and fertility upon the fields and people who can see it. As the fire dies down, participants are encouraged to jump over the embers to bring good luck and health for the next year (possibly to also demonstrate their strength and virility for the exhausting fern flower hunt too (see below)
Singing Līgo songs should start two weeks before Jāņi! Aside from sounding beautiful, it is also a vital part of Jāņi to promote fertility and good fortune and must continue throughout the night.
Naturally sustenance is needed to last the night! Beer and cheese (see below for a recipe) are consumed in copious qualities. Aside from being delicious, consumption of these items is a necessity to encourage the barley crop and dairy production for the next year. Beer and cheese is also offered to neighbours during Jāņi, to share the good fortune.
Whoever finds a fern flower on Jāņi night will gain health, happiness and knowledge about past and future secrets. Some say a fern flower is mythical, however it’s gains are enough to send unmarried couples into the forests for hours on Jāņu night in search of it!
Wherever you celebrate, may your night abound in song, beer and cheese while you dance around the bonfire.
Quick Jāņa Cheese Recipe
Traditionally Jāņa cheese is lovingly and carefully cultured from unpasteurised milk. Not so easy for a time poor urbanite. This recipe is for a cheat’s version, utilising ingredients readily available from the traditional southern hemisphere supermarket:
200g Bulgarian Fetta (soaked for 8 hours in water)
Caraway seeds to taste
500g Lite Mozzarella, shredded
Drain the fetta, crumble it into a heatproof bowl and microwave for 1 minute.
Stir in caraway seeds to taste.
Add the mozzarella and stir. Microwave for 3 minutes.
Form into two balls and refrigerate until firm.