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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