Jāni 2018: Latvian Midsummer Celebration

Jāni 2018: Latvian Midsummer Celebration

Midsummer. St. John’s Eve. The holiday is celebrated all over Europe, but it isn’t really a thing in America. In Latvia, the celebration of Jāni (both St. John and a mythical all-father sort of dude who is supposed to show up on the morning of the 24th of June) is probably almost as big as Christmas. On Jāni, we are all John’s Children (Jānu bērni)!

Laba laba Jāņa māte,
Vēl labāks Jāņa tēvs:
Jāņa māte sieru deva,
Jāņa tēvs alutiņu.

Growing up in a Latvian-American household, I learned of this tradition a bit later than most. We used to go to my cousin’s house in the summer to celebrate, but it was more about the fireworks for me than it was about a Latvian tradition.

2006 First Līgo Ashland

I remember the first time I learned about the tradition of jumping over the fire. Vitauts was a bit drunk, and we were lighting fireworks in our yard in Yutan. He sat on the porch as we started lighting the spent cardboard casings on fire. Then, he stood up and started dancing around the burning pile of trash, and he jumped over it a few times. He was so happy, and he explained the tradition to us.

 

 

Savana, Maija, Alexsei 2006

Later, when I was in college and he and my mom moved to Lincoln, I joined them out in the country for a traditional Jāni party near a lake. I didn’t know anyone, but I enjoyed the big bonfire and beer. I still didn’t really understand what it was all about.

 

Dome Square 2018, Latvian Crown

Some people refer to the celebration as “Līgo” as well because this is the refrain that is sung in many traditional songs. When I started digging into my Latvian roots, I started having an annual Līgo party in my backyard in Omaha. We did some of the traditional things, thanks mostly to my Latvian cousins. Karen Grinberg would bring flowers and she taught the girls how to make flower crowns “puķu vainags.” I remember one year, Maija and I searched all over for oak leaves to make “ozolu vainags” or oak crowns for the men. Valda made the traditional cheese (Jānu siers), and everyone helped with the food.

Singing is one of the most important parts of the festival, and John Grinberg managed to use his wonderful voice to share Latvian folksongs as well as other standards.

So, after moving to Latvia, I felt that I need to experience a real, traditional Jāni celebration. The problem is that we live in a small flat in the middle of Riga, and you can’t exactly build a fire and dance and sing here, so I contacted my wonderful cousin Ansis to ask if he would help me in my quest for a real Jāni. He said yes, and the wheels were set in motion. Rita helped by inviting some of her friends who love Latvian traditions and know a thousand folksongs.

After much preparation, June 23rd arrived, and we were ready for a real Jāni party!

Alu alu, Jāņa tēvs!
Tavus miežus izravēju;
Ja nedosi alus dzert,
Ar puišiem izviļāšu.

Latvians say that it always rains on Līgo. It rained on the summer solstice, and we were all worried about the weather reports. I assured Ansis that the weather would cooperate. It rained early in the day, but by the time the party started at 7 p.m., the sun was out and the weather was absolutely perfect.

Rita and I made many preparations for the celebration including buying food, making pickles, gathering flowers, and preparing to spend the night. Traditionally, the celebration lasts all night, which is another thing I tried to do with my American version. The kids made a tradition of going out for breakfast just after sunrise. Rita and I brought my Coleman tent so we could sleep outside after the festivities ended.

We took a taxi to Sēlieši, Ansis and Monta’s home on the Daugava between Ķekava and Daugmale. They were already busy with the preparations. Tables were being set up including a place for making the traditional crowns. Ansis had his grill prepared for food, which I would be in charge of, and we put all of the beer into the refrigerator for safe keeping.

The party began slowly, with guests arriving in shifts. Ansis’ cousin Arnolds and his family arrived from Ogre. Bruno was there and Maruta and her friend from Germany joined us later. Then Rita’s people started arriving in shifts with their children in tow. Pretty soon we had a critical mass.

I made American style burgers as requested by Ansis and his children. Nora seems to really enjoy burgers. Darta and her two friends, Agnese and Katrina, helped to prepare everything for the meal. I also cooked Arnolds’ incredible marinaded chicken while Bruno and Ansis made potatoes.

Everyone came with dishes to share, and pretty soon it was apparent that we would have way more food than all of us could ever eat! Latvians are very generous with their portions.

While we ate, children and adults made crowns and talked. In the meantime, Laura, Ansis and Monta’s second daughter, stayed inside to make crowns of her own. She made tiny crowns for all of her toy animals. It was an ambitious project that must have taken a long time and incredible skill and dedication. I was very impressed!

Rita and I had prepared a little book of folksongs, so that when the time came, we could all sing along: dziesmas 23.06.2018. copy  I actually tried to prepare by translating a few of the songs and listening to them on youtube.

This is an excellent example of one using the typical “Līgo” refrain: https://youtu.be/cEufEFph9os

This one makes me incredible happy because of the “ram-tai ram-tai” refrain. https://youtu.be/QIBwSHJP7sc

So, we joined together in song before walking together to the Daugava to watch the sunset. Most of the Latvians know the songs by heart, and only needed to look at the lyrics now and then. Even the children were singing along. It is just a beautiful, magical experience to see  a living culture in motion, in nature. The combination of the incredible natural beauty and the gorgeous company made for a magical evening.

We all walked together through the recently mown meadow to the banks of the Daugava to watch the sunset at about 10:30 p.m. It stayed light for many hours after. We sang a few more songs and then eventually returned to light the fire.

Ansis had prepared a beautifully stacked bonfire with large logs, and he lit it with a special tiki torch made of birch (a very spiritual Latvian tree) and wax. The fire itself was impressive, and while it was burning, we joined hands for some rotaļas, or choreographed games.

 

We joined together in “rīga dimd” holding hands and circling around the fire. Then we sang “Dindaru, dandaru, ozonliņi…” around and around faster and faster. Finally, we stood in two parallel lines facing each other and sang “Šurp, Jāņa bērni,” a song about John’s children. We clapped and sang, and then the two people at the end of each line would join together and dance through the middle. It was incredible.

Here is a creepy but cool version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPKlDswgxx0 (production quality is a bit higher than what I experienced)

Jāņu tēvs, Jāņu tēvs,
Dod saldanu alutiņu!
Ja nedosi alutiņa,
Iešu, miežus izviļāšu.

After the dancing, we waited and watched as the fire slowly went down. At first, it was so hot that we had to build a second, smaller campfire for the children to roast marshmallows. As it waned, me and another guy with an oak hat jumped the fire, just to prove that we could. Everyone else did it much later, when it had turned to just coals. At that point, Rita and I jumped together, and I actually landed on coals and burned my foot. Rita did as well. It isn’t as fun when you burn yourself, but it was okay.

My favorite part of the whole celebration was at about 1 a.m. Part of the tradition is to go around singing to neighbors. Imagine, having this big party and then going over to someone else’s house and sharing your joy with them? I think that could really heal a lot of issues. Bring people closer together.

We all got together behind Ansis as he led us through his gate and down the road to his nearest neighbor. We quietly snuck in, and then we started singing brash, traditional Līgo songs that we had practiced around the fire. The neighbor women came out, and at first I thought they might be angry, but the elder woman began smiling and singing along! Then, she invited us to sit down on her porch, and she brought us beer and bread. This is the Latvia I know and love!

After some more singing and dancing, we walked to the bank of the Daugava again, and stood by the water, singing some more songs.

Nākat šurpu, Jāņa bērni,
Nākat lieli, nākat mazi!
Lieliem došu alu dzerti,
Maziem siera gabaliņu.

Most of the celebrating was now over, and some people who weren’t spending the night started to leave. We went back by the fire, and Rita and her friends continued singing songs. I was exhausted but determined to make it through sunrise which was at about 4:30 a.m.

The night really never got completely dark. There was always a bit of light in the clouds and on the horizon. By about 3, it was like morning, and everything was again visible.

At about 4, we walked back to the cliff overlooking the Daugava. Instead of an entourage of 20 or so, this time it was just three of us. I threw my oak crown into the river (it actually landed on the side of the cliff), and we waited for the sky to get brighter. As we waited, Arnolds and Ansis joined us. Ansis went for a swim in the river, and after the sun rose, we walked back to the house to set up camp and to clean up a bit before retiring.

Now, just a few days later, it is all a bit of a blur. Maybe it was the alus, but I think it was the magic of Jāni. I had a nice conversation with an Indian man who came to the party. He is now living in Latvia, and we shared our love of this country. We both came to the conclusion that there is indeed something magical about nature here, and even moreso, the way the Latvian people embrace nature and are a part of it. It is hard to exactly explain in words, but once you experience it and feel it, there is no denying that it is real and true.

So thank you to Ansis, Monta, and Rita for making my Jāni miracle come to life! And thank you to all of the guests who helped make it such a special and memorable experience.

Photos

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Side note

One Latvian holiday leads to another. Next week is the national Song and Dance Celebration. Ansis will be in the parade, and he said there may be as many as 100,000 people marching on July 1. Unfortunately, I will be in Berlin for my own Punk in Drublic punk rock festival, but I will return to at least experience some of the singing and dancing that goes on to culminate to a huge party at Mežaparks on Sunday.

You can see some clips of what it may look like (only bigger and more special) based on the scene five years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07n-I71VfgE

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