Summer Solstice, or “Jāņi” is by far and away the most popular holiday in the year in Latvia. Everything closes, and people head to the parks and the countryside to celebrate the longest day and the shortest night of the year. People light fires, sing songs, dance, eat cheese, have enormous barbecues, and drink beer all night long while waiting for the sunrise. Some actually do jump over fires and go looking for the fern flower while sporting stunning wreaths made of field flowers for women and oak-tree leaves for men.
While the holiday is great fun, it's observance also has a strong political legacy. Over the centuries, Latvia has been invaded by the Swedes, Russians and Germans (with the Russians and the Germans even coming back for a second go). Observing ancient traditions helped Latvians hang on to their sense of national identity, even in the darkest days of foreign occupation.
Jāņi is a pagan holiday which is held in honor of the pagan deity and son of God Jānis. “Jāņi” was thought to be the time when the forces of nature were at their most powerful, and the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds the closest. Midsummer was the point when farmers had finished plowing and sowing the crops, and had not yet started the harvest. It was a very good time to have a party. The Jāņi traditions are also constantly in flux. There is some debate about whether jumping over the bonfire guaranteed you wealth, luck or love. There is also some confusion as to whether the flowers in the girls' hair meant they were virgins or just looking for love.Since women of all ages war flowers in their hair, it's probably the latter. Since this is the night when evil spirits are about, traditionally Latvians would protect their livestock by decorating them with wreaths made from branches and leaves. Nowadays, most Latvians decorate their car mirrors and bumpers with greenery instead. The date is also a bit confusing, since it comes a couple of days after the actual longest day of the year. It is thought it was moved after Christianity arrived in the Baltics in the 12th Century, to coincide with St John the Baptist's feast day. The missionaries may have hoped that the Latvians would soon forget their pagan ways--instead they kept doing the same thing,but just a few days later.
We were on holiday in Riga the week of Jāņi and had the pleasure of watching the preparations and attending the festival. In the run-up to the big night, outdoor markets were held; women shopped for crowns made of delicate flowers;families stocked up on traditional cheeses and rye breads; beers were packed into coolers; and folk songs were performed on stages scattered throughout the old city.An old friend of ours, Indra, packed an enormous picnic dinner and took us to one of the Jāņi festivals on the outskirts of the city. Thousands of people were there for the singing, dancing, barbecues, bonfires, and a never ending supply of barbecue and beer. We returned to our hotel after midnight, but far earlier than most, after a thoroughly enjoyable Jāņi. These imagesin this series were shot in the run-up and during the Jāņi night itself in Riga in June of 2022.