Monthly Archives: June 2010

Jāņi Festival

The classic Jāņi cuisine - the beer and caraway cheese

The classic Jāņi cuisine – the beer and caraway cheese

Latvians have many important days to celebrate both the independence days in November 18 and  May 4 but most excitement comes at June 23-24 when traditional festival Jāņi is celebrated. This is a time for big open air festivities, large gatherings of friends and recreation of Latvian ancient traditions.  Jāņi (pronounced [jaːɲi]) is clearly a biggest Latvian festival to be celebrated for many decades.

Jāņi usually are celebrated at the country side. People who live in the cities drive to countryside to celebrate at open air. Mostly Jāņi is celebrated at evening and then all night till dawn. It’s because June 23-24 is the Summer Solstice when once a year longest day and shortest night comes. Most people spend night with family and friends at their country homes, but many go to open air concerts that happen all around the country.

While in reality the summer solstice appears in  June 21-22 May over the years the festival time has shifted to . June 23-24 June because of association with John The Baptist feast day. However Jāņi is more a Pagan festival than Christian. Latvian calendar also have names-days when every day every Latvian name has its own celebration. At  June 23 its names-day of female name Līga the most popular Latvian female name.  June 24 its Jānis -day the most popular male name in Latvia. Since name Jānis is linked to name John the celebration is held at this precise date.

Jāņi is the time when the forces of the nature is more powerful and the boundary between physical and spiritual world is most thinnest. This is the time when old Pagan rituals must be used. Houses are decorated with rowan branches and thorns.  Livestock is decorated also. Men wear an oak leaf wreath and women wear a flower wreath.

Traditional wreath worn at Jāņi

Jāņi is a good time for herb gathering since this time when herbs have a magical powers. Herbs are used for healing, fortune-telling ect. Important herb is a fern. It is believed that at only at Jāņi night a mystical fern flower appears. Young couples are encouraged to seek for it at night (this mostly means having sex, fern flower is child as the result of if it).

Another important thing is fire. Fire must be kept until sunrise. If it is a bonfire people must jump over it. Sometimes fires are held at tall fire towers.

Jāņi is time for a good meal and drink. Caraway cheese is selected good at every meal table. Jāņi cannot be celebrated without beer. In old times people made their own homemade beer, now it’s usually bought in stores, but in rural areas home-made beer is still available. Various kinds of meat is also pleased.

In 20th century a rapid Jāņi phenomenon is a theater play written  by Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863-1908) Skroderdienas Silmačos (Costumier days at Silmachi). The play tells a story of love, comedy and drama at time of Jāņi at house of Silmachi. At first play was ruined by critics in 1902 but slowly it became popular. It reached it’s height in 1955 when it was first played in Soviet times. Since then it’s played in national theater every year. Almost all cultured Latvians know every part of the play. Songs of the play is widely popular. Play also shows an interesting details about Latvian Jews as the they have special comedic part in the play (tradesman Abram climbs up the stove to spy on his son Joske and his lover Sarah only to blown up because someone had hidden dynamite in the stove).

Jāņi is the most happiest time in the Latvia. Filled with enjoyment and excitement Jāņi is most awaited festival of the year. Happy Jāņi to you all!


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Calendar Revolt in Riga

During the Livonian War Riga was a tasty bit for nations that attempted to conquer Livonia. Russians and Poles needed the rich Riga port for their economic interests. However there was no attempt to capture Riga from all sides of the war. Russian army came close to Riga three times (1559, 1560,1577) but at most times they only pillaged the city outskirts.  Despite that Riga merchants suffered financial losses because other cities in Vidzeme were bitterly damaged. The war prevented trade ships to enter the port of Riga at full-scale. After the end of the war Poland started to pressure Riga to surrender to them.

On 1561 October Poles first demanded Riga to surrender but Riga declined the demand. Poles finally took Riga under control in 1582.  March 12 when Polish king Stephan Batory entered Riga. Riga kept their privileges and rights. When Poles entered they started to restore Catholic faith in the city. Before that much of the city converted to Protestant Lutheranism. Poles took the Church of St. James and admitted Jesuits to Riga. This sparked anger within the Riga Lutheran citizens.

Poles ruled Riga until 1621. It was a time of conflict between Polish king and City autonomy. Trade was weakened and city financial status became worse. Polish soldiers did damage to the city by pillaging the citizens and city property. Poles imposed heavy taxes on Riga worsening the financial situation.  This caused a rebellion against Polish rule which was triggered by international calendar reform.

Calendar reform started when church officials attempted to fix the bug in the Julius Caesar calendar which had 365 days six hours that did not match with real tropical year calendar with 365 days five hours and 48 seconds.   The error became more visible during the centuries and at 16 century 10 more days appeared on the calendar. Catholic Church was dissatisfied with this because the holy celebration days did not match with seasonal changes. Catholic Church finally attempted to fix it at 1582 with the reform of Pope Gregor XIII. But the reform was not welcomed by Protestants and Orthodox Church (Russia only abandoned the old calendar in 1917). Poland issued the new calendar and ordered it to be used in its Baltic provinces too.

The town council of Riga however decided not to announce the new calendar because of fear from protests against it.  Polish king was not satisfied with this and ordered to announce the calendar immediately or pay a penalty of 10 000 golden ducats. The town council was forced to agree and at 1584 new calendar was announced in Riga.

Town council tried to explain to the citizens that new calendar has nothing to do with religion. But Lutheran citizens saw reform as Catholic propaganda and sign of Riga government close collaboration with Poland.

Christmas was celebrated only by city officials and Catholics. Protestants continued to work.  Those who celebrated at St. James church was attacked by an angry mob. The church was demolished but town guard dispersed the crowd.  This started the calendar revolt. The revolt was active between 1584-1589.

The revolt was organized by the rector of the Riga Dome-school Heinrich Meller who opposed the Riga main priest Neiner. Meller organized many protests and celebrated the old New Year day. He was arrested and accused of insulting the royal majesty.

This only strengthened the protests and angry mob attacked the Town Council and freed Meller from his captivity. Main revolt force was low-income citizens who attacked homes of city authorities. The town Council lost its authority and city shifted to anarchy. This was used by powerful city guilds that organized opposition and elected Martin Gize as opposition leader. Gize shut all gates in Riga to prevent the Polish army from entering the city.

Finally at 1585 guilds forced the Town Council to admit its power. Guild secretariat became the main power in Riga. The new calendar was cancelled. Town Council member left Riga and complained to the Polish king. King started to order guild to cancel revolt. Martin Gize denounced all kings’ demands and executed two Town Council members. After this king declared Gize an outlaw. Guilds feared that king may order a military attack on Riga which could result extermination of all high-class citizens. Guild made a new deal with Town Council which took back its old rights but all rebels need to amnestied.

But king rejected the offer and demanded to punish rebels. Then Gize searched help abroad, he asked for Swedish king Juhan III help, but he did not give clear promises. Juhan’s son Sigismund was a candidate for the Polish throne so he had more serious things on his mind. Gize even asked for help from Russia.

1586 December 2 Stephan Batory died. This stated interregnum time in Poland when no serious action was done. Swedish Prince Sigismund and Austrian Duke Maximilian battled for the Polish throne.  Because of help from Polish oligarch Jan Zamoisky Sigismund won the throne in 1588.

Sigismund was fanatical Catholic. He supported the Town council. Gize took action by exiling all Jesuits from Riga and took St. James church back to Lutherans. He did everything to stop all means of resistance.

In 1588 Gize was elected as Grand member of Great Guild. But opposition against him became stronger because tradesman feared that king may close the Daugava trade route. This caused treason by Riga Representative David Hilhen who started secret talks with Jan Zamoisky. The Polish party started to gain strength and in 1589 traitors opened the city gates to the Polish troops.

This marked the end to the revolt. Polish representatives took over. Leaders were trialed and Martins Gize and his college  Hanss Brinken were sentenced to death. Town Council took back all rights and new calendar was issued again.

This was one of the longest revolts in Latvian history. Although low-income citizens mainly Latvians were actively part of the revolt this was mainly a struggle between middle class tradesman and high-class Town rulers.

Selected Biography

Zeids, Teodors (Ed.) (1978). Feodālā Rīga. Riga: Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmija. Vēstures institūts.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1964) Latvijas vēsture, 1500-1600. Stokholm. Daugava.

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