This Sunday everyone in Latvia will be celebrating the traditional Latvian holiday Ligo. In other European countries especially in the North, they celebrate Midsummer’s Festivities. Participating in the celebrations are Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Finland, Sweden and also in Ireland and the United Kingdom and across the ocean in the U.S. and Canada. Latvians who live in the U.S. and Canada have especially continued the traditions and continue to celebrate this Ligo night.
For as long as anyone can remember this has been a very traditional holiday for Latvians. It is officially known as Jani and comes at the time when the night is the shortest and the day the longest. This year it falls in mid-week but it is an official holiday when no one works. The official dates are June 23 and June 24. The day before the Janu celebrations is called Zalu or Grass Day. In the afternoon on Ligo June 23rd women pick daisies from which to make wreaths which are worn by young and old alike. Little girls especially like wearing them. For the men, there are large wreaths made of oak leaves. The tradition of singing and dancing on Ligo night is concerned with fertility and warding off evil. If people have the possibility most of them spend this holiday in the countryside where they can celebrate uninhibited and light bonfires. For those who have no choice but to spend it in Riga, there is a big celebration made for them by the city along the banks of the Daugava with food, music, and dancing.
The celebration begins on Ligo night with the tradition of staying up all night until the next day which is traditionally Jani or John’s Day. Jani is a festival which began in ancient times and was celebrated in honor of a Latvian pagan deity Janis. Janis or John in English is one of the most common names given to Latvian males basically because of this celebration and that families are proud to have a Janis or John as a member of their own families. Even though most men wear oak crowns on their heads the proudest wearer is always a Janis as this day honors him. Jani is looked upon as the time when forces of nature are very powerful and at this time the boundaries between the physical world and the spiritual world start to intertwine. It was in ancient times that people believed that evil witches would ride around in the skies at this time and therefore people would decorate their houses with rowan branches and thorns to protect themselves from the broom riding witches. These days as tradition people still decorate but now the use birch or oak branches and flowers as well as leaves the most common being ferns. Not only do women wear daisy wreaths and men wear oak leave wreathes but in the countryside even cows get decorated.
This is also thought to be a great time to gather herbs as it was thought that on this day they had magical powers. Some of the other traditional Janu practices of magic include fortune-telling to be sure that there will be a good harvest of crops and that livestock will be fertile. A very well known tradition is looking for the mystical fern flower. Are you sitting there thinking to yourself that ferns don’t blossom? Well, there are those who suggest that the fern flower has become a symbol of a certain kind of secret knowledge and today it is almost synonymous with love among the ferns. So the tradition is that young couples who are close or have become close on Ligo night to go in search of the fern flower or blossom and have a fun time among the ferns so to say. However, it doesn’t matter how old you are and even married couples are known to go for a walk looking for the blossoming fern.
In tradition, the one to find the fern blossom will be lucky because all of his or her wishes will be fulfilled. A belief is that evil spirits will try to keep a person from getting the fern blossom and only a very brave person will be able to do this. So it goes like this that on this Ligo night you have to jump 8 times around a circle drawn on the ground while sitting on a broomstick. At this time you cannot speak to anyone nor can you laugh. When you have accomplished this task then you have to hop still upon the broomstick to the nearest growing ferns and for sure you will see the fern blossom. Another very important part of this tradition is the bonfire. A large bonfire must be lit and kept going from sunset till sunrise. Still part of the celebration is when people join hands and jump over the bonfire when it has burnt down quite a bit in order to ensure prosperity and fertility.
The basis of the Janu meal is dairy products, bread, and pork. A homemade cheese called Janu cheese made with curds and caraway seeds is traditional and the round form of the cheese is meant to symbolize the sun and the world as a whole. As each person takes a slice of cheese they are taking a part of the sun’s energy. A lot of Janu songs include the mention of cheese. Nowadays the basic part of a Janu meal is what Latvians call sasliks and is similar to shish-ka-bobs made with chunks of pork grilled on skewers. There is fish and bread and the first strawberries. The traditional drink is beer and some make it at home. In folklore, beer symbolized a farmer’s strength working in the fields and growing crops. Beer is made from malt extract, water, yeast, sugar, and hops.
When the day is drawing to an end and it is time for celebration all the work must be finished. The house and grounds decorated and the wreaths ready to be worn. Then the guests begin to arrive and traditionally greet the Janu host and Janu hostess because it is usual that the celebration takes place in the house of a Janis. However, now everybody celebrates even if in the family there is no Janis. The arriving guests are presented with cheese by the Janu hostess and with beer by the Janu host. When the guests have had their fill of eating then it is traditional to sing Janu songs and dance and gather around the bonfire.