A primer on Ūsiņi, the start of summer

Although not as well known as other traditional Latvian holidays, Ūsiņi has a charm of its own, not the least of which is its cute name. The name makes one think of ūsas (whiskers), but is actually the name of the old Latvian patron of horses: Ūsiņš. Ūsiņš also symbolizes the dawn and light, and he is said to bring leaves to the trees and greenness to the grass in the spring. In other words, he is the bringer of the goodness of spring.

Ūsiņi marks the halfway point (May 10) between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, and as such it heralds the beginning of summer. In some places of Latvia Ūsiņi is instead celebrated on April 23, which is actually the day for the Jurģi celebration. Jurģis is another Latvian patron or deity, who in some places has melded together with Ūsiņš. Some researchers consider Ūsiņš and Jurģis to be two different names for the same deity, Ūsiņš most likely being the older of the two. Their respective celebrations are quite similar and thus are fairly interchangeable.

One tradition, though, belongs exclusively to the Jurģi celebration: moving day. April 23 used to be the day when the contracts of the farm help ended and they were then free to arrange work elsewhere and therefore to move away. Many beliefs are associated with moving; for example, if it rains on Jurģi, then the movers will be doomed to cry the whole next year at their new home. Another belief states that one is not supposed to say goodbye to anyone while moving to a new home at Jurģi, otherwise things will not go well at the new place.

The livestock were traditionally put out to pasture at Ūsiņi for the first time after the long winter. This occurred not only in Latvia, but also in many other agrarian cultures of Europe. Likewise, at this same time horses were put out to night pasture for the first time (they worked the fields during the daytime). Children typically worked as daytime shepherds (gani), while older boys and young men stayed with the horses, taking turns staying awake through the night to guard them from wolves. This mostly enjoyable nighttime activity was called pieguļa, and it was believed that Ūsiņš also took part with his own horses. Many songs associated with the Ūsiņi celebration revolve around horses, pieguļa, livestock, and wishes for Ūsiņš to help people during the coming summer, especially concerning their horses. An interesting note: the best horse of a herd was often named in honor of Ūsiņš.

After the usual feast, the Ūsiņi celebration continued later into the evening, when it was time to take the horses out to pasture. Many people joined the boys and men on this first night of pieguļa. They gathered around the campfire, sang, danced, ate and drank—activities that would keep the boys and men awake during subsequent nights at pasture. The best known Ūsiņi food is pentags, scrambled eggs with sausage. Of course, this one-dish meal happened to be very easy to prepare over a campfire in the pastures!

Just as at the spring equinox, Lieldienas, eggs play an important role at Ūsiņi, presumably because they symbolize life and the return of the sun. In some areas of Latvia shepherds and pieguļnieki were given eggs to take along with them—as many eggs as there were horses’ legs, or as many eggs as there were cows to take out to pasture. Sometimes the eggs were colored, especially a black color. One of many recorded rituals involved a person lowering a boiled and colored egg from the reins of a horse’s bridle into the hole left by a post pulled out of the ground. This was believed to insure that the horses would stay calm while at pasture. In another ritual eggs were put in an oak tree hollow to make the horses as strong and hardy as oak trees. In general, most Ūsiņi rituals, not only the ones done with eggs, were done to insure that the livestock and horses stay healthy for the coming year. Some of the old rituals even involved sacrificing a rooster.

Although not necessarily associated with Ūsiņi, there is a specific type of singing, called rotāšana, that is sung only in the spring, and only by women and girls. The song refrains, appropriately, consist of the word rotā, and songs with this refrain are sung only until a couple of weeks before the summer solstice, Jāņi, when the līgo-refrained songs take their place (which in turn are sung only until and during the Jāņi celebration, and not a day afterwards). The rotā songs are to be sung out in the open, not indoors, and preferably atop a hill. The perfect time is a calm, warm spring evening, when the voice carries particularly well and the fingers and toes do not get cold too quickly. When singing in a group, as it is usually done, one singer assumes the role of “sayer” (teicēja). She sings the verse first, while the others listen and learn the text. Then the whole group repeats the verse, some singing variations of the melody, others singing a drone accompaniment. When the teicēja tires or has run out of texts, another takes her place. The texts vary a lot, and are often improvized on the spot. Rotā melodies tend to be slow, yet often quite ornamented.

Girls and women sing rotā songs out of joy for the spring and for once again being able to sing together out in the open. But it is said that young men used to pay close attention to the singing from neighboring farmsteads and sometimes chose the best singers for their brides. Unfortunately the traditional way of singing rotā songs has pretty much died out, although plenty of the melodies and texts have survived in folk song collections.

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