During Jāņi, we’re in for a very long night


Traditional folklore group “Vilki” greeting the sun at sunrise on Jāņu rīts (morning). Photo: Daina Grosa.

According to Latvian tradition, those who sleep on Midsummer night (Jāņi) are doomed to sleep the whole summer—in other words, be lazy. Still to this day Jāņi is the biggest celebration of the year for Latvians, leaving in its shadow even Christmas.

Originally a fertility festival, Jāņi marks the longest day and the shortest night of the year: the summer solstice. Astronomically speaking, the solstice usually falls on the 21st of June, but Latvians tend to celebrate on the night from June 23rd to the 24th. The 24th is the “names day” of all men named Jānis, hence Jāņi. The celebration is often called Līgosvētki (the 23rd is the “names day” for Līga), although Jāņi (Jāņudiena, Jāņunakts) is the older and therefore more traditional name, even though the proper name Jānis itself is most likely not Latvian in origin.

Latvians traditionally spent an awful lot of time preparing for Jāņi: cleaning, cooking, finishing farmwork, fixing up the yard, weeding the garden, washing clothes, decorating, brewing beer, etc. Think how crazy Americans become after Thanksgiving.

Once Jāņi arrived people often went from farm to farm, visiting neighbors and friends, singing and bringing with them good luck for the fields and cattle. Grass supposedly grows better in those places where līgotāji (those who sing “līgo,”  the typical refrain of Jāņi songs) have gone. That’s why they tried to walk past all of the fields. The hosts offered caraway cheese, pīrāgi and beer. A barrel full of tar was set on a pole and lit. Next to that blazed the bonfire. The fires were kept burning all night long so they would bring a good harvest to the fields and good health to the people. It was thought that the fields would be prosperous as far as the light from the fires shone, and that’s why hills were the optimal place for a Jāņi celebration, because the light shone farther from the higher elevation.

People still light bonfires and barrels of tar, eat cheese, pīrāgi and beer, and spend the night dancing and singing, laughing and visiting. The songs still often become teasing, obnoxious and risque, but no one takes lasting offence—it is a friendly and socially acceptable way to air grievances about others: “Pēteris is a lazy good-for-nothing!” “Kārlis has a long nose!” “Uldis lost his wife tonight!” “The girls are foolish for not letting me kiss them!” “Mārīte is round as a barrel!” etc. Every once in a while a young couple might wander off, supposedly in search of the mythical fern blossom. Of course, ferns don’t bloom, but who says you can’t look for it anyway!

Because all of nature is in full bloom at this time of year, flowers and grasses play a big part in the festivities. Many people carry tall grasses in their arms. Everything, including cattle and keyholes, is decorated with garlands, flowers and grasses. Jāņi is the best time of year to collect medicinal herbs—they’re said to be strongest then. All of the men and boys wear huge wreaths of oak leaves on their heads (the oak is the male symbol), while all women and girls wear wreaths of flowers. Because at other times during the year wreaths were traditionally worn only by unmarried women (married women wore scarves), no one knows at Jāņi just who is married and who isn’t; this tradition undoubtedly reminds us that Jāņi originated as a fertility festival. Does the Latvian birthrate really jump in late March, nine months after Jāņi? So I’ve heard.

Friends ask why we keep those dried flowers and leaves hung on our front door all year long. Those are our Jāņi wreaths from last summer, and we will throw them on this year’s Jāņi bonfire in order to get rid of the past year’s troubles and to start this year anew.

Because solstices were considered magical times, girls would sometimes do small rituals right at midnight to try to find out whom and when they would marry. Dew collected early the next morning was considered medicinal for humans, would ensure plentiful milk if given to cows, and would even repel flies if rubbed on barn ceilings. Jāņi night was also a prime time for witches’ activities, both good and evil.

Jāņi songs are often everybody’s favorites. With more than 2,000 melody variations, there are more songs for Jāņi than any other Latvian holiday. They do not have set texts, but singers are expected to improvise texts as the festivities go along. The typical refrain is “līgo,” and the songs have a lot of repetition, so that everybody can join in the singing. It is appropriate to start singing Jāņi songs a few weeks before the festival, and maybe a week or so afterwards, but they are out of place any other time of year.

You’re sure to find a Jāņi celebration almost anywhere there are a handful of Latvians. Some resemble the traditional festivities, down to the teasing songs and decorated keyholes. Others, both in Latvia and elsewhere, are unfortunately more like keg parties and rock music festivals. But at least you can find the obligatory bonfire pretty much anywhere. And, of course, beer. Probably that mild yellow caraway cheese, too.

So, find out about the Jāņi celebrations in your area, and go out next week to celebrate this ancient holiday!


Zāļu tirgus (Herb market) the day before Jāņi, an annual tradition in the centre of Rīga at Doma laukums. Photo: Arnis Gross.


Jāņu zāles are tradionally picked in the fields on Līgo vakars (Līgo night). All the flowers, grasses and leaves magically become “Jāņu zāles” on Līgo vakars. Photo: Arnis Gross.

A tasty spread of new music

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Every couple of years Latvians get a taste of some fresh butter. Sviests IV, that is – the compilation of what’s new in the world of Latvian ethnic and ethnic-inspired music (sviests means butter in Latvian). This fourth edition of the Sviests series was released in late 2011 and contains 22 samples of everything from a popular turn-of-the-20th-century song to modern music for the concert kokle, from a traditional harvest melody to folk-rock and ambient music.

Kristīne Kārkle-Puriņa and her band of Folkvakars musicians start off the CD with “Skaista mana tēva sēta” that brings to mind the Latin American tropics. “As beju muotei vīneiguo meita” introduces Vīteri, an energetic and fun group of teenagers from Rēzekne. Julgī Stalte and Leanne Barbo (a.k.a. the Estonian bagpipe player) form the core of Tai tai, whose catchy song “Opsasā” sticks in my mind long after the disc has finished playing. Krampis, a rock band from Līvāni, bases its songs on folk melodies. The Canadian-Latvian group Tērvetes trubadūri sings a gutsy rendition of “Kas redzēja auseklīti”, which is followed by another soldier’s song performed by the new group DER.

Latvīte Podiņa’s electric kokle has caused a sensation in Latvia. A song by her contemporary group Vētras saites is also included on Sviests IV and brings to mind Mike Oldfield’s “Discovery”. The heavier sound of Ēnu kaleidoskops and their “Upura dziesma” follows. Pērkonvīri make use of another electric kokle by adding a circus of percussion over loops of Laima Jansone’s playing. Trakula have taken a traditional name-giving ceremony song and given it a medieval reworking that includes the obligatory bagpipes and drums yet still concludes on a delicate note. The next song – “Kur tu skrīsi” by the youth group Rudzi – begins with the rough, rhythmic sound of the ģīga. Not really at home in either the world of ethnic or academic/classical music, the concert kokle finds a home on Sviests IV with an original composition for the Teiksma ensemble of concert kokle players, established in 1955. Liene Brence and Aiga Sprindža play and sing “Vysu dīnu jumi jiemu”, mesmerizing the listener with the cimbalom. Sviests IVhas included a song each by the exciting new group Miglas asni as well as the folk music icon Austris Grasis and his clarinet.

In between are songs by long-standing groups Iļģi and Laiksne and the more recent Vilkači and Lāns – can you pick out the “clay pot” without referring to the liner notes? The disc ends on a traditional, acoustic note with “Skaista muižeņa” by the Latgalian folk band Ilža, “Pa taciņu gar upmalu” by Hāgenskalna muzikanti, and a bachelor’s version of “Pankūkas”.

Next time you’re in Latvia, look for the all-yellow CD – it stands out on shelves like a tub of fragrant, freshly hand-churned butter on the table. Also available from Lauska: www.lauska.lv


Sviests IV

Various artists

Lauska,  2011

Track listing:

Skaista Mana Tēva Sēta
Trīs Rītiņi Saule Lēca
As Beja Muotei Vīneigo Meita
Suņi Rēja
Kuopu, Kuopu Kolnā
Kas Redzēja Auseklīti
Uz Kariņu Es Aizgāj
Šķērsu Dienu Saule Tek
Upura Dziesma
Tumsā Gāju Vakarā
Kūmāmi ledama
Kur Tu Skrīsi
Dejas Sajūta
Vysy Dīnu Jumi Jiemu
Labāk Kuļu Rudza Riju
Doncuot Guoju Ar Meitom(i)
Skaista Muižeņa
Pa Taciņu Gar Upmalu
Vecpuiša Pankūkas

On the Web


Find out more about this CD on the Lauska web site. LV

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Purchase Sviests IV from BalticShop.

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Lieldienas traditions celebrate rebirth

Although the ground is typically still snow-covered and frozen, the spring equinox, called Lielā diena or Lieldienas (The Great Day or Days), marks the middle of spring in Latvian folklore. On this day, March 21, night and day are of equal length.

Despite the empty cupboards at the end of winter, this is a happy holiday. The sun plays a large role at Lieldienas. Everyone celebrates its return and the lengthening days, marking the sun’s victory over darkness. At Lieldienas Latvians eat all kinds of round foods to signify the sun. Breads and sweets are baked in round shapes; puddings and head cheese are made in round molds.

And just as at the Christian Easter feast, Latvians eat hard-boiled eggs at Lieldienas. In many cultures, the egg symbolizes the beginning of life, of the world, and in this case, of a new year.

Ask anyone of Latvian descent, and you’ll hear about eggs wrapped and boiled in onion skins. The result is an array of absolutely beautiful brown, yellow and orange marbled tones. But red cabbage, turmeric, birch leaves, bark, moss and other natural dyes are also used. The dyed eggs tend to have earthy colors. Some people scratch designs into dark colored eggs, but they traditionally do not create intricately colored and decorated eggs like the Ukrainians.

Before you eat an egg, you should find another person with whom to “hit eggs.” Hit the ends together, and usually the person whose egg breaks gives it to the other person to eat. Some families play the other way around: the person with the unbroken egg keeps playing the game until his or her egg breaks, and only then can they eat it.

Spring really is in the air, and people cannot resist anything green. They like to bring lilac branches into the house a week to 10 days before the celebration to force leaves or to sprout oats or wheat berries in shallow dishes. And of course, what would a Lieldienas celebration (or Easter, for that matter) be without pussy willows—pūpoli—in a vase? (Hence, Pūpolu svētdiena, the Latvian name for Palm Sunday. Many of the pre-Christian Lieldienas traditions have been transferred to Christian Easter celebrations.)

Other outdoor traditions should be noted, too. One is supposed to wake up before dawn and wash one’s face in running water, such as a spring or stream. Unfortunately, often the ice has to be broken first and the water is really cold. This is to ensure that you will not be sleepy the coming summer. Also, water is said to have special healing qualities on the morning of Lieldienas. Then, climb the nearest hill and, as the sun peeks over the horizon, greet it with songs. If the sky is clear, this is truly a wonderful sight!

On your way back home make lots of noise to chase all of the birds away. This tradition finds very ancient roots in the belief that birds are the bringers of illness and misfortune. Those who did not wake up early receive spankings with switches and pussy willows. But these spankings are not meant to hurt; instead, they are supposed to bring health and alertness.

Perhaps the most widely practiced tradition associated with Lieldienas is swinging. Much attention is paid to where the swing is hung, as well as to who pushes the swing. The swings are often so huge, that two people at a time climb on and swing while standing up. Everyone is supposed to swing, even if it’s just a couple of slow swings back and forth, to ensure fertility in the coming season, but also so that the mosquitoes won’t bite all summer. The onlookers sing constantly: “Iešūpoja, ielīgoja, kas iekāpa šūpolēs?” (Swing, swing, who climbed onto the swing?). They make up the next verses describing the person on the swing, sometimes praising him or her, sometimes poking fun at or chiding the person. It is a good idea to have a few hard-boiled dyed eggs in your pocket, so that you can “pay” the person who pushes you. This is also a time for young people to flirt.

It’s also worth noting that for the die-hard folklorists in Latvia, the exact date the spring equinox is celebrated changes from year to year. For example, this year – 2012 – the folkorists will be celebrating the pre-Christian Easter celebration on 8th April, the same date this event will be marked on the Christian calendar. This could be for practical reasons, as the 21st March, the date of the spring equinox falls in the heart of winter.

Lieldienas is for the most part a morning festival, although the holiday used to be celebrated for three or four days, as was customary for big celebrations. The day gets off to a very early start, and by the time the meal is finished, it’s not even close to noon.

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Basket of Latvian traditional Easter eggs boiled in onion skins. Photo: Amanda Jātniece

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Folklore group “Savieši” celebrating Easter. Photo: Amanda Jātniece