Saturday, June 23, 2007

Midsummer's Eve

When Arnhild and I first sketched out plans for this trip, she e-mailed me a first draft of the itinerary. She had us arriving in Riga today, Saturday, June 23. I went ballistic, sending her a speedy response that of all days June 23 was NOT the right one for first- time visitors. How could I explain that St. John’s Eve is the biggest, most widely observed holiday in the Latvian calendar, and that every red-blooded Latvian would be off to the countryside to celebrate—probably until Tuesday (when we would already be arriving in Stockholm)?

Fortunately, Arnhild was able to redesign the schedule. But you can’t claim to know anything about Latvia unless you have a nodding acquaintance with the green market, Līgo, and Jāņi, and pundeles. We have just passed the summer solstice on Thursday (6/21) when pre-Christians of northern Europe marked the longest day and shortest night. The outdoor green market, held yesterday and today in Riga and in cities and towns throughout the country, is the place to buy your St. John supplies: homemade beer, cheese, medicinal herbs for the year, flowers plaited into wreaths for the young women, wreaths of oak leaves for the men (especially for special guys named Jānis –John, who are also celebrating their name’s day), birch besoms for the sauna, meijas (garlands of flowers, tree branches, and herbs for decorating both the inside of country houses, gates, and outbuildings), and even cows get wreaths for the occasion!

The most important Midsummer plant, however, is the mythical blooming fern. According to legend, this magic flower only opens tonight, St. John’s Eve, in the darkest part of the forest. Traditionally, searches for these ferns are conducted by pairs of young men and nubile maidens, none of whom have documented any finds--despite “looking” all night.

Līgo is the characteristic refrain for the thousands of folk songs Latvians sing on June 23 about the sun, the sky son Jānis or Yanis, the hosts of each farmstead—Midsummer’s “mother” and “father” who are greeted in song by the celebrants (“Jānis’ children”) as they go singing Līgo, Līgo from farm to farm and doing lots of eating and drinking at each stop. Here is a Līgo that’s well known (note all the ligos (your basic “tra-la-la”) between each line):

Sieru, sieru, Jāņa māte, Give us cheese, Jāņi mother,
Līgo, līgo

Tev bij govis laidarā; You have cows in your barn

Alu, alu, Jāņa Tēvis, Give us beer, Jāņi father
Līgo, līgo,

Tev bij mieži tīrumā You have barley in your fields.

As soon as the sky darkens, bonfires are built on hillsides. Macho types sometimes jump over them to ensure prosperity and fertility, although this practice is now discouraged by the Latvian Emergency Services. Sometimes pundeles (small barrels of pitch on tall wooden poles) are put up instead and much singing, dancing, and drinking go on around them.

The festivities last all night, and then in the morning before staggering off for a nap, everyone greets the morning sun. Some go skinny dipping in whatever body of water is nearby. Washing your face in the morning dew on the grass is supposed to be particularly beneficial. Then the partying starts up again on Sunday.

Oh, dear. I just checked the current weather report for Latvia. It is now 8:30 p.m. Saturday evening. The sun should set at 10:22 pm and rise at 4:30 am. Currently it is drizzling, the temperature is 59 F (but it feels like 70 F because the humidity is 93%). Those folk costumes can’t be too comfortable. A thunderstorm is expected during the night—so much for bonfires and fern-hunting. Sounds like drinking and singing will have to do this year. Actually that was the situation the two Janis I celebrated there.


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