The summer solstice has little to do with the birthday of St. John as celebrated on 24 June by the Roman Catholic Church. The Jāņi celebrated today is a living ancient pagan tradition. For others, the holiday is like a meditation based on the beliefs and actions of their ancestors. For others it's a way to cleanse the soul and body with song and with a visit to the bathhouse – and for others still it's a time to dance, eat, drink and be merry.
According to ancient tradition, the shortest night of the year must be spent by staying awake all night by the glow of the bonfire. The time is spent singing songs and enjoying traditional Līgo foods like cheese with caraway seeds and beer. The belief is that those who go to sleep before sunrise on Jāņi will be sleepy all summer long. Bonfires aren't confined to hilltops – a pūdelis, or a pitched barrel filled with firewood, is lit and raised up on a post. The farther the light from the pūdelis reaches, the farther the sacredness and protection of this magical night reaches, too. Women and girls wear a crown of flowers on their heads on Jāņi, while men wear a crown of oak leaves. Rooms and doors are decorated with birch boughs, shed and barn doors are decorated with rowan branches and rooms are scented by sweet flag. Many 23 June revelers get dressed in their traditional folk costumes and experience this holiday rich in tradition and rituals as if the mystery surrounding it gives them strength.
Jāņi songs or līgotnes and their traditional refrain of “Līgo!” can already be heard a few weeks before the actual holiday; but the real celebration starts on the night of the summer solstice. People sing by the Jāņi bonfire (Jāņi bonfires can be found across Latvia on this night and on almost every hilltop and in every yard) or they go from house to house, where the hosts greet them with cheese and other foods. Traditional food items on Jāņi are cheese and beer. On Jāņi, people greet each other with song, carry out various rituals with the help of song and walk through fields and cornfields to promote fertility; they even use song to tease those hosts who haven't cleaned up their homes or yards. There's at least one witty and shrewd song for everyone – nobody is overlooked on Jāņi when it comes to teasing shortcomings.
Līgo songs tend to become a bit “spicier” after midnight. Jāņi is also a night of ancient fertility rituals. Some people maintain an old Jāņi tradition of running naked through the morning dew to bathe themselves. The belief here is that he who bathes nude in the morning dew of Jāņi will have a year of beauty, endurance and strength. This tradition has seen a modern revival in Pedvāle near Sabile and in Kuldīga, where a “Naked Run” takes place across the Old Venta Bridge.
Another ancient belief is that ferns blossom for a short while on the night of Jāņi. The search for this blossom takes place alone. If you find the blossom, you'll receive a great spiritual revelation. An alternative is for couples to go search for the fern blossom. In these cases, one could say the magic of Jāņi night tends to improve the nation's demographic situation.
The spirit of Jāņi can also be experienced in Riga. A few days before the big holiday the city organises a Grass Market – wild medicinal plants, oak leaves and flower crowns, Jāņi grasses, Jāņi cheese with caraway seeds, beer, traditional Latvian crafts and Līgo songs – you can find everything that helps create the Līgo holiday feeling. The day before the holiday Riga is flocked by folk ensembles from around Latvia. Everyone is invited to participate in crown and wreath plaiting, Jāņi games and singing (if anything, at least with the “Līgo” refrain). These types of pre-holiday events are usually most widespread in Riga, on the banks of the canal not far from the Monument of Freedom. A large Līgo celebration also takes place in Riga at the Ethnographic Open-air Museum, several events dedicated to men with the name Jānis take place across Latvia and, of course, Līgo celebrations take place in each yard with each family. It is a holiday that can be celebrated and enjoyed by everyone!
St John's Eve (Jaaniõhtu, also Jaanilaupäev) and St John's Day (Jaanipäev) are the most important days in the Estonian calendar, apart from Christmas. The short summer seasons with long days and brief nights hold special significance for the people of Estonia. Jaanipäev is celebrated in the night between June 23 and 24, a few days after the summersolstice, when night seems to be non-existent.
HISTORY OF ST. JOHN’S DAY
Jaanipäev was celebrated long before the arrival of Christianity in Estonia, although the day was given its name by the crusaders. The arrival of Christianity, however, did not end pagan beliefs and fertility rituals surrounding this holiday. In 1578, with some disgust, Balthasar Russow wrote in hisLivonian Chronicle about Estonians who placed more importance on the festival than going to church. He complained about those who went to church, but did not enter, and instead spent their time lighting bonfires, drinking, dancing, singing and following pagan rituals.
For Estonians, Jaanipäev celebrations were merged with the celebration of Võidupüha (Victory Day) during the War of Independence when Estonian forces defeated the German troops on 23 June 1919. After this battle against Estonia's traditional oppressors, Jaaniõhtu and the lighting of the traditional bonfires became linked with the ideals of independence and freedom.
Jaanipäev marks a change in the farming year, specifically the break between the completion of spring sowing and the hard work of summer hay-making.
On Jaaniõhtu, Estonians all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing and dancing, as Estonians have done for centuries.
Understandably, some of the rituals of Jaanipäev have very strong folkloric roots. The best-known Jaanik, or midsummer, ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and then jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck. Likewise, to not light the fire is to invite the destruction of your house by fire. The fire also frightened away mischievous spirits who avoided it at all costs, thus ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.
Midsummer's eve is important for lovers. Among Estonian fairy tales and literature there is the tale of two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk). These two lovers see each other only once a year and exchange the briefest of kisses on the shortest night of the year. Earth-bound lovers go into the forest looking for the flower of the fern which is said to bloom only on that night. Also on this night, single people can follow a detailed set of instructions involving different flowers to see whom they are going to marry.
Former President Lennart Meri has provided another perspective on Jaanipäev in his work Hõbevalge (Silverwhite, 1976). Meri suggests that the Jaanipäev traditions re-enact the fall of the Kaali meteorite in Saaremaa. The meteorite's fall is also said to be the inspiration for Nordic and Baltic mythological stories about the sun falling onto the earth. This idea suggests that the present day bonfires and celebrations actually symbolise Estonia’s connection with its ancient past.
The tradition before the Soviet occupation, which has now been restored, was for a fire to be lit by the Estonian President on the morning ofVõidupüha (June 23). From this fire, the flame of independence was carried across the country to light the many bonfires.
During the transition to the re-establishment of Estonia's de facto independence, Jaanipäev became an unofficial holiday, with many work places closing down. It once again became an official national holiday in 1992.
Midsummer, also known as St John's Day, is the period of time centered upon the summer solstice, and more specifically the Northern European celebrations that accompany the actual solstice or take place on a day between June 21 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures. Because he was alleged to have been born on that day, the Christian Churchdesignated June 24 as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St John the Baptist, and the observance of St John's Day begins the evening before, known as St John's Eve. These are commemorated by many Christian denominations. Midsummer is especially important in the cultures ofScandinavia, and the Baltics. In Sweden the Midsummer is such an important festivity that there have been serious discussions to make the Midsummer's Eve into the National Day of Sweden, instead of 6 June. It may also be referred to as St. Hans Day
A firewalking ritual on Enyovden (Midsummer day) in Bulgaria
On Midsummer day Bulgarians celebrate the so-called Enyovden. On the same day the Eastern Orthodox church celebrates the day of John the Baptist and the rites and traditions of both holidays are often mixed. A fire-related ritual is also performed in Bulgaria on that day, it involves barefoot dance on smoldering embers and is called Nestinarstvo. Bulgarian folklore states the beginning of summer starts on Enyovden. It is thought that in the morning of Enyovden, when the sun rises, it “winks’ and “plays”. Anyone seeing the sunrise will be healthy throughout the year. It is believed that on Enyovden a variety of herbs have the greatest healing power, and that this is especially true at sunrise. Therefore, they have to be picked early in the morning before dawn. Women–sorceresses and enchantresses go to gather herbs by themselves to cure and make charms. The herbs gathered for the winter must be 77 and a half – for all diseases and for the nameless disease.
In Croatia, midsummer is called Ivanje (Ivan being Croatian for John). It is celebrated on June 23, mostly in rural areas. Festivals celebrating Ivanje are held across the country. According to the tradition, bonfires (Ivanjski krijesovi) are built on the shores of lakes, near rivers or on the beaches for the young people to jump over the flames.
"Jaanipäev" ("John's Day" in English) was celebrated long before the arrival of Christianity in Estonia, although the day was given its name by the crusaders. The arrival of Christianity, however, did not end pagan beliefs and fertility rituals surrounding this holiday. In 1578, Balthasar Russow wrote in his Livonian Chronicle about Estonians who placed more importance on the festival than going to church. He complained about those who went to church, but did not enter, and instead spent their time lighting bonfires, drinking, dancing, singing and following pagan rituals. Midsummer marks a change in the farming year, specifically the break between the completion of spring sowing and the hard work of summer hay-making.
Understandably, some of the rituals of Jaanipäev have very strong folkloric roots. The best-known Jaanik, or midsummer, ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck. Likewise, to not light the fire is to invite the destruction of your house by fire. The fire also frightened away mischievous spirits who avoided it at all costs, thus ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.
Estonians celebrate "Jaaniõhtu" on the eve of the Summer Solstice (June 23) with bonfires. On the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, old fishing boats may be burned in the large pyres set ablaze. On Jaaniõhtu, Estonians all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing and dancing, as Estonians have done for centuries. The celebrations that accompany Jaaniõhtu carry on usually through the night, they are the largest and most important of the year, and the traditions are almost identical to Finland (read under Finland) and similar to neighbors Latvia and Sweden (read under Sweden).
Jaanipäev is usually spent in a summer cottage, where people light bonfires, or at a festival, such as Pühajärve Jaanituli in Otepää.
Since 1934, June 23 is also national Victory Day of Estonia and both 23rd and 24th are holidays and flag days. The Estonian flag is not lowered in the night between these two days.
On June 21 Hungarians celebrate "Saint Ivan's Night" (Szentiván-éj) (Iván derived from the Slavic form of John, translated as Jovános, Ivános, Iván in Hungarian). The whole month of June was once called Month of St. Ivan until the 19th century. Setting fires is a folklore tradition this night. Girls jumped over it, while boys watched the spectacle.
Most significant among the customs of the summer is lighting the fire of Midsummer Night (szentiváni tűzgyújtás) on the day of St. John (June 24), when the sun follows the highest course, when the nights are the shortest and the days the longest. The practice of venerating St. John the Baptist developed in the Catholic Church during the 5th century, and at this time they put his name and day on June 24. Naturally, the summer solstice was celebrated among most peoples, so the Hungarian's may have known it even before the Conquest. Although the Arab historian Ibn Rusta speaks of the Hungarian's fire worshipping, we so far have no data that could connect it to this day. At any rate, in the Middle Ages it was primarily an ecclesiastical festivity, but from the 16th century on the sources recall it as a folk custom. The most important episode of the custom is the lighting of the fire.
The custom survived longest and in the most complete form in the northwestern part of the linguistic region, where as late as the 1930s they still lit a Midsummer Night fire. The way of arranging the participants by age and by sex has suggested the possibility that these groups sang by answering each other, but there are hardly any remnants that appear to support this possibility. People jumped over the fire after they lit it. This practice is mentioned as early as the 16th century, although at that time in connection with a wedding; still, it is called “Midsummer Night fire”. The purpose of jumping over the fire is partly to purify, partly because they believed that those whose jump is very successful will get married during the following carnival.
In Latvia, Midsummer is called Jāņi (Jānis being Latvian for John) or Līgo svētki (svētki = festival). It is a national holidaycelebrated on a large scale by almost everyone in Latvia and by people of Latvian origin abroad. Celebrations consist of a lot of traditional and mostly pagan elements - eating Jāņi cheese (special recipe with caraway seeds), drinking beer, baking pīrāgi, singing hundreds of Latvian folk songs dedicated to Jāņi, burning bonfires to keep light all through the night and jumping over it, wearing wreaths of flowers (for women) and oak leaves (for men) together with modern commercial products and ideas. There are tens and hundreds of different beliefs and traditions all over Latvia on what should be done on that day for good harvest, for predicting the future, for attracting your future spouse etc. People decorate their houses and lands with birch or sometimes oak branches and flowers as well as leaves, especially fern. In rural areas livestock is also decorated. In modern days small oak branches with leaves are attached to the cars in Latvia during the festivity. Jāņi has been a strong aspect of Latvian culture throughout history, originating in pre-Christian Latvia as an ancient fertility cult.
In the western town of Kuldīga, revellers mark the holiday by running naked through the town at three in the morning. The event has taken place since 2000. Runners are rewarded with beer, and police are on hand in case any "puritans" attempt to interfere with the naked run.
Midsummer is commonly called John's Day (Joninės) in Lithuania, and is also known as Saint Jonas' Festival, Rasos (Dew Holiday), Kupolė, Midsummer Day and St. John's Day. It is celebrated in the night from the 23rd of June to the 24th of June and on the 24th June. The traditions include singing songs and dancing until the sun sets, telling tales, searching to find the magic fern blossom at midnight, jumping over bonfires, greeting the rising midsummer sun and washing the face with a morning dew, young girls float flower wreaths on the water of river or lake. These are customs brought from pagan culture and beliefs. The latter Christian tradition is based on the reverence of Saint John. Lithuanians with the names Jonas, Jonė, Janina receive many greetings from their family, relatives and friends.
Especially in northern Poland – the Eastern Pomeranian and Kashubian regions – midsummer is celebrated on June 23. People dress in traditional Polka dress, and girls throw wreaths made of flowers into the Baltic Sea, and into lakes or rivers. The midsummer day celebration starts at about 8:00 p.m. and lasts all night until sunrise. People celebrate this special day every year and call it Noc Świętojańska which means St. John's Night. On that day in big Polish cities (like Warsaw and Kraków) there are many organized events, the most popular event being in Kraków, called the Wianki, which means wreaths. In many parts of Poland the Summer solstice is celebrated as Kupala Night.
Sânziene dancing during the Cricău Festival, June 2013
In Romania, the Midsummer celebrations are named Drăgaica or Sânziene. Drăgaica is celebrated by a dance performed by a group of 5-7 young girls of which one is chosen as the Drăgaica. She is dressed as a bride, with wheat wreath, while the other girls, dressed in white wear a veil with bedstraw flowers. Midsummer fairs are held in many Romanian villages and cities. The oldest and best known midsummer fair in Romania is the Drăgaica fair, held in Buzău between 10 and 24 June every year. There are many superstitions related to this day, particularly those involving marriage or death. The term Sânziene originates in the Latin ”Sancta Diana”, and superstitions relating to this day are mainly erotic in nature, referring to young girls and their marriage prospects.
UKRAINE AND RUSSIA
Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala, by Henryk Hector Siemiradzki
Ivan Kupala was the old Kyiv Rus' name for John the Baptist. Up to the present day, the Rus' Midsummer Night (or Ivan's Day) is known as one of the most expressive Kyiv Rus' folk and pagan holidays. Ivan Kupala Day is the day of summer solstice celebrated in Ukraine and Russia on June 23 NS and July 6 OS. This is a pagan fertility rite, which has been accepted into the Orthodox Christian calendar.
Many rites of this holiday are connected with water, fertility and autopurification. The girls, for example, would float their flower garlands on the water of rivers and tell their fortunes from their movement. Lads and girls would jump over the flames of bonfires. Nude bathing is likewise practiced. Nights on the Eve of Ivan Kupala inspired Modest Mussorgsky to create his Night on Bald Mountain. A prominent Ivan Kupala night scene is featured in Andrei Tarkovsky's film Andrei Rublev.
The Yakut people of the Sakha Republic celebrate a solstitial ceremony, Ysyakh, involving tethering a horse to a pole and circle dancing around it. Betting on Reindeer or horse racing would often take place afterward. The traditions are derived from Tengriism, the ancient sun religion of the region which has since been driven out by the Russian empire, Russian Orthodox Church and finally the Communist Party. The traditions have since been encouraged.
Ivanjdan is celebrated on July 7, according to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Saint John (Sveti Jovan) is known by the name Igritelj (dancer) because it is thought the sun is dancing on this day. Among traditions are that girls watch the sunrise through their wreath, to become red as the sun, towards the evening in the heights, Ivanjske vatre (kresovi, bonfire) are lit, and dancing and singing takes place. It is a tradition for people to become Godfathers and blood brothers on this day, as John is a symbol of character and rectitude.