Australia: Where ‘Midsummer’ is cold and dark

It gets dark at 5 p.m. these days in Melbourne. Every morning the chill in the air is more and more noticeable. You can see your breath billow out in front of you when you go outside before the sun has started to warm the land. Even though most of the European trees have now shed all their leaves the Australian natives are still green as always.

Although it feels cold (no, never as cold as in Latvia or North America; the temperature rarely drops below -5C), by looking at the countryside you wouldn’t know that it is midwinter because the bush as well as the towns and cities are still primarily green. That’s except for the Australian Alps where the gum-trees will soon have a white cover (yes, it does actually snow in Australia).

To Latvians living in Melbourne this only means winter is well and truly here and that it’s time to start getting ready for the annual Jāņi celebrations as they have for the past 50-odd years.

It’s not that easy to go out in the meadow to pick fresh summer wildflowers to make your vainags (flower garland), like you would in Latvia. Some of the native bottle-brushes, grevilleas and gum trees are still in flower, though, but most Latvians still prefer to make their vainagi from more traditional European flowers. That’s why most of us would head to the nearest florist’s for our vainagi ingredients.

The men, if they’re lucky, can have their traditional oak leaf vainagi, as some of the oak trees, surprisingly enough, still have their leaves.

Some adventurous Latvians have been known to make their vainagi from eucalyptus leaves. The traditional decorating of the premises for Jāņi has often been done with branches from the gum tree branches instead of the birch, the customary Latvian pušķošanas plant.

This brings us to the celebrations themselves. If they’re happening out in the bush (as they do annually at the Latvian scout and guide camp premises “Tērvete” near Kilmore, an hour’s drive north of Melbourne) then Jāņu svinēšana is usually begun at about lunchtime, so that the bulk of the celebrating can be done during daylight hours. As it gets dark at 5 p.m. the remainder of this fun night has to be continued in darkness. The bonfire takes on a whole new meaning. It is a source of light as well as warmth for the revellers or Jāņu bērni. Everyone rugs up in a couple of layers of clothing for this celebration that takes place on the longest night of the year.

I’m sure the format of the celebrations is similar to those in other countries where Latvians have resided for 50 years and have formulated their own recipe for this annual festival. Usually song sheets are printed where the format of the celebrations is spelt out: first the coming together of the Jāņu bērni (Jāņu guests) and the mājinieki (the locals), then the apdziedāšanās (sex-segregated singing of līgo songs where the men make fun of the women and vice-versa) and then the rejoining of the groups where everyone promises to live together happily for the rest of the year. This, of course, is very simplistic, as other traditions such as the blessing of the house and farm could be part of this format, as could songs about the taste of the cheese and pīrāgi made by the hostess or the quality of the beer brewed by the host. And then we mustn’t forget the search for the mythical papardes zieds (fern blossom). We’ve never really found out if it blooms in the middle of winter.

One great thing about celebrating Jāņi during midwinter is that wearing your national costume may be the best decision you’ve made that year. All those woollen clothes and shawls will certainly keep you warm! Of course, there’s the other extreme in December when we celebrate Christmas in midsummer: 40C+ and flies everywhere! But that’s another story…

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.

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