Latvia awaits the longest day of the year in what seems to many like the longest year in their lives. Especially if you are trying to balance a budget. Your own, or a government’s.
But the summer solstice on June 21 is a turning point. Spring ends, summer begins, the days get shorter, the nights get longer, and plants, animals and other living things all feel a shift in the world around them.
In ancient times when people watched the sun rise and fall every day with great care, the solstice was a singular event and signaled a significant change in cosmic direction. If you were used to one climactic pattern from January until June, you got ready for the reverse in the second half of the year. You hoped the same applied to your fortunes.
Those who live in steel and concrete cities with fluorescent sunsets, or in tropical climes where the sun is always around, may not relate much to the wonders of the summer solstice. But up here on the 57th parallel by the Baltic Sea where the sun goes away to hide for months on end, and sometimes barely comes up for a few hours, the month of June is a month to be treasured.
For reasons I can’t begin to explain, Latvians celebrate Midsummer’s Day on June 23. We call it Līgo Day, and the day after that we call Jāņi. For Latvians, this is both their favorite holiday and also their oldest. We’re fairly certain that our ancestors have been singing and dancing around bonfires at this time of the year for several thousand years.
Latvians celebrate the solstice by gathering flowers, decorating everything, building bonfires, drinking beer, singing songs, eating cheese, dancing in circles and staying up all night.
It’s very important to stay up all night in Latvia on June 23, because if you don’t, the sun won’t rise the next day. We have special songs you have to sing when the sun goes down, or else it won’t come up again in the morning. We light the bonfires before sunset so that the wandering sun can find a light once it approaches Latvia again. We do all this with ritual tenacity, and our ancestors have been doing the same thing, year after year, for countless centuries. So far, it has worked. The sun has always risen on June 24.
In the last week, the Latvian government, parliament, business community and their social partners have also been working around the clock to avoid an economic catastrophe. The entire world has been watching as Latvia has struggled with massive budget cuts, painful gross domestic product drops, struggling businesses, and growing unemployment lines. The finest economic minds in the world have taken up their rhetorical swords and have been bashing each other daily in a global debate over whether Latvia should devaluate its currency or not.
But as I write, the lat is still pegged to the euro. The government has agreed on a 500 million lat budget reduction, and the parliament has approved it. Now we await the International Monetary Fund and European Commissoin to give their nod of approval.
And we go out to the countryside, to build bonfires, pick flowers and fill pitchers of freshly brewed beer. We also stroll out into the forest in search of fern blossoms. You can find fern blossoms only at this time of the year, and if you don’t believe they exist, you will never find one.
If it sounds like Latvians look for a little magic around this time of the year, you are right. It can’t hurt. After all, we are facing another turning point in our lives. But one thing we know for sure. The sun will come up tomorrow.
The Midsummer holiday marks a turning point, and for Latvia perhaps things will get better. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)
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