Practice makes for better Midsummer celebrations

Several years ago Ilga Reizniece of the folk-rock group Iļģi began a campaign to popularize traditional Latvian methods of celebrating the summer solstice. The campaign, called “Piedzīvosim Jāņus”, consisted of various folklore groups and folklore-minded individuals leading short seminars that were open to the public.

These took place throughout the month of June at various locations throughout Latvia. Each seminar was a bit different, since each group or individual focused on those songs and traditions and aspects of the celebration that were important to them.

The seminars were fairly popular, and I’m happy that they still continue today, although this year’s financial crisis has toned down the advertising effort and publication of song booklets.

I have taken part in a few “Piedzīvosim Jāņus” seminars, both as a spectator and as part of a group leading a seminar. This June, however, I helped organize an informal seminar at a friend’s house near Burtnieki in northern Latvia. In other words, this gathering was not on the published list of “Piedzīvosim Jāņus” seminars. But it must be one of the things that Reizniece had hoped would eventually happen: friends getting together on their own, learning songs, trying out dances, thinking about and preparing to include some “folkloric” elements in their own summer solstice celebrations. 

I’ll admit that our gathering began a bit stiffly, everyone (mostly women, since most of their husbands “weren’t interested in that sort of thing”) sitting in a circle and singing songs from photocopied booklets. But the pace picked up when we refreshed a few of the typical solstice dance-games.

Later in the evening we made caraway cheese—Jāņu siers—outside over a small fire and discussed the different ways of “tying” the cheese. Later still we rested in the sauna, and then the last couple of night-owls finished off the evening by singing ballads (sans photocopied booklets) around the bonfire. OK, not the sort of thing that excites machos… but you’ve got to start somewhere.

What we pretty much ended up doing was holding a rehearsal about two and a half weeks before the popular celebration. Not a very spontaneous, organic thing to do (did our great-grandmothers ever hold rehearsals for Jāņi?), but probably necessary in our times. Next year’s celebration will already feel a bit more natural to this group of friends.

Preparing traditional Midsummer cheese

The traditional Jāņu siers is drained of water through a cheesecloth by a group of Latvians practicing Midsummer traditions. (Photo by Amanda Jātniece)

Preparing traditional Midsummer cheese

Cheese is placed in bowls to set, following a method used in Vidzeme. (Photo by Amanda Jātniece)

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