When midsummer is in the air

Not in the mood for Jāņi? Maybe no one around you knows what “summer solstice” means. Maybe you are in Australia, where this time of year the days are shortest, instead of longest. Maybe you’ve got no one to celebrate with. Maybe your friends don’t sing, they just drink.

That last point could well apply to you even if you lived in Latvia, where for some people Jāņi is just another excuse to not work and get drunk. But even so, getting in the mood is much easier there. (Finding a celebration that meets your expectations, though, is another matter.)

First of all, the summer solstice is a national holiday in Latvia:  June 24 is a day off for everybody. Even the big grocery stores close early on the 23rd and open late on the 24th.

Jāņi is on the air and in the stores throughout June. Radio stations play corny versions of Jāņi songs. Stores advertise several varieties and sizes of caraway cheese (no more need for the skill of actually making your own cheese). People fill the grocery stores on the day before Jāņi, stocking up on beer and šašliks (meat on a skewer), which have become the stereotypical Jāņi food. Markets sell cheeses, flowers, wreaths and strawberries. Try the Zāļu tirgus on June 22 in Vecrīga’s Dome Square, full of foods, oak leaf and flower wreaths and decorations for the summer solstice. Some sellers will even braid a wreath for you while you wait.

June is also high season for folklore groups. They are often engaged by various festivals, museums, parks and sometimes even businesses to provide ielīgošana, which means singing Jāņi songs to put everybody in the mood for Jāņi. In addition, the groups are busy learning songs and preparing for their own Jāni celebrations, but by the 23rd some groups are too tired to host big productions of their own.

Friends and colleagues talk about and plan where they’re going to celebrate Jāņi. You may receive several invitations from people who have decided to host celebrations at their homes. You weigh the pros and cons of each, but will probably not make definite plans until the very last minute.

And the most obvious thing is nature itself: Summer has arrived and the evenings become progressively longer. Pretty soon you walk out of the movie theater at 11 p.m. and it’s still light outside. You find yourself waking up at 5 a.m. when the birds are singing and the sun is shining brightly, and you can’t fall asleep anymore.

It’s in the air.

And Latvians feel it, even if they don’t care for—or scoff at—“traditional” celebrations with folk costumes, songs and bonfires. Jāņi is a celebration of light, life, summer and nature. At this time of year most Latvians need to get outside. Out of the city, out of the house, out of work, and into nature, even if it’s just to a friend’s house with a small yard on the outskirts of Riga.

Traffic out of Riga on June 23rd is awful. Summer weekends are bad enough, with everybody fleeing to their country homes on Friday evening or Saturday morning and back on Sunday evening. Rich and poor alike, everybody has someplace to escape to in the country. People stream out of the city to spend time at their own country homes, or they visit their parents still living on the farm, or they visit friends’ country homes. or they go to the beach or anywhere to just breathe some fresh air and feel the sun’s rays.

Agita, a woman in Rīga, put it very directly: “I need to get out in the country at least once a month for a couple of days. Then I can go back and live in the city for a while longer.” There’s still something in Latvians’ blood (almost all of them, not only the folklorists!) that yearns to get out of the city at every opportunity. It rejuvenates them and cleanses them emotionally. It continues to be passed on to children at a young age, as many parents living in Rīga send their children to live with their grandparents or other relatives in the country for the whole summer. Most Rīgans can reminisce about a place in the country where they spent their childhood summers.

Of course, this deep need for the natural world is most evident at Jāņi, being the culmination of summer and all. Rīga is left eerily empty on the evening of June 23.

What do they do, though, once they’re out of the city? Do they really sing all night, as our ancestors supposedly did? Most likely not, unless you’re with a bunch of folklorists, members of a choir or singing enthusiasts. Most people are familiar with only the one—or two or three, but no more—Jāņi melodies. If they know five or six dainas (verses) to accompany that melody, they’re doing well. Pop and modern music festivals and concerts are more popular than “traditional” celebrations. And the traditional celebrations can be hard to find, as most of them are private, unadvertised parties.

But not all people seek the company of others at Jāņi. Last year while I was celebrating with friends in Vidzeme, a stranger on horseback rode up to our farmstead sometime around 2:30 in the morning. Quietly he approached out of the mist, like an apparition of Jānis himself. He said good evening and, appropriately, we greeted him and his horse with songs. He turned out to be a distant neighbor and told us that this was the way he celebrated the shortest night of the year: just he and his horse on a long ride over the hills and fields.

So, not everyone needs noisy songs on the radio, five kinds of caraway cheese and big festivals to get into the mood for Jāņi. Sometimes all it takes is getting away from the city and out into the natural world. It may be in an arid or semi-tropical climate, with cacti or palms instead of the lush, wet grasses and trees of northeastern Europe. But at least you can probably catch something magical in the air.

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