Have you ever experienced the magic of the shortest night of the year? Some of my warmest memories are of celebrating midsummer in Latvia: lighting a bonfire on the beach, spending the short hours of darkness singing and dancing, and watching the sunrise over the sea.
Just like the winter solstice, the summer solstice in Latvia is a modern pagan celebration. Over centuries, different cultural influences have blended into unique local traditions, resulting in a celebration that I would love to invite everyone to take part in at least once in their lives.
Celebrating Līgo & Jāņi
The Latvian midsummer celebration is called either “Līgo” or “Jāņi“. Technically, Līgo refers to the midsummer night (the 23rd June) whereas Jāņi is the following day (the 24th June). The former name reminds of the pagan solstice traditions that are very much alive today. The latter is the Latvian translation for St. John’s Day: a Christian feast that’s celebrated across the world.
Both days are national holidays in Latvia and the biggest celebration of the year. According to tradition, the shortest night of the year must be spent by staying awake. In fact, if you do go to sleep before sunrise, it is believed that you will sleep throughout the summer. So Latvians spend the midsummer’s night lighting bonfires, eating and drinking, singing and dancing.
Midsummer in Latvia: the traditions
To truly experience the magic of the midsummer’s night, Latvians leave the cities and head to the countryside to celebrate. These are the most important summer solstice traditions:
One of the most beautiful midsummer customs is making and wearing wreaths from wildflowers. The usual choice for ladies’ flower crowns are daisies, cornflowers, and clover. But, as the saying goes, everything that grows on midsummer can be used! (in Latvian: visa laba Jāņu zāle) In turn, men can wear crowns made from oak leaves. To make it even more fun, at the end of the midsummer celebrations the wildflower wreath can be used for some fortunetelling (more on that below).
Cheese & beer
There are many foods that Latvians love eating on the shortest night of the year but there are two things that must be on every table: cheese and beer. The first is Jāņu siers – literally, Midsummer cheese, a fresh sour-milk cheese that is made from milk, curd, and lots of caraway seeds. The second is the traditional summer solstice beverage: beer. Local craft beers are especially favored, and some people even brew their own beer for the celebration.
A midsummer celebration is unimaginable without a bonfire. They are lit as the sun sets and burn throughout the night until the sunrise. Traditionally, the bonfires were lit on hills to carry the light – and with it fertility and good fortune – as far as possible.
Līgošana: Midsummer singing
Staying awake the whole night by a bonfire means a lot of singing and dancing. There are two types of traditional midsummer singing, both derive from the word “līgo” (“let it become” in old Livonian). The first is called “līgošana” and the songs are largely about promoting fertility and preventing misfortunes. The second – and by far the most fun – is “aplīgošana“: a teasing of family, friends, and neighbors in song-form.
Here’s an example of a līgo song:
Midsummer folk beliefs
The summer solstice is a celebration of fertility and is tied with dozens of curious superstitions. These are some of my favorites:
- If you jump over the midsummer’s bonfire, the mosquitos won’t bite you in the summer
- Make your wreath from nine different wildflowers, nine blossoms from each flower. Go to sleep with the wreath on your head and you will dream of the one you will marry
- Throw your wreath into an apple tree – how many times the wreath falls to the ground, that many years you have left until you will marry
- If you wish to be healthy and beautiful, bath naked in the morning dew as the sun rises after the solstice night
- Ferns blossom on the shortest night of the year and finding a fern flower will bring you luck and fortune
P.S. If on a midsummer’s night a couple takes off to the woods seeking “fern flowers” they likely have something else on their mind. Fun fact: babies born between late March and early April are sometimes referred to as fern flowers…