June 24 – Jāņi in Latvia

Posted on June 24, 2015

Even though this holiday celebrates the summer solstice, which generally falls on June 21 or 22, Jāņi is celebrated in Latvia on the night of June 23 and the day of June 24. Apparently the holiday was moved in this way to honor St. John, whose Catholic feast day is today. However, Jāņi has nothing to do with St. John or the Catholic religions, and everything to do with earlier Pagan beliefs.

It's that celebration of the shortest night – and of course longest day – that is so common all over the world, especially in northern Europe.

Last night, on Jāņi Eve, people go gather flowers and leaves and make wreaths to wear on their heads. Men usually wear wreaths made of oak leaves, and women wear wreaths made of flowers.

People also decorate their house with bedstraw, cow wheat, vetchling, clover, birch boughs, and branches of oak, rowan, and linden. In the past, people even used thorns, thistles, and nettles, apparently to turn away witches and evil spirits, but aspen and alder twigs were never used, as they were considered “evil” trees.

The flowers, leaves, and sheafs of grasses often adorn gates and doors, on walls, in barns and courtyards, and behind ceiling joists.

Another common tradition is staying up all night and burning “Fire of Jāņi” (candles, tar barrel, or a tarred wheel pole), a custom originally meant to give people power and fertility.

Of course there are feasts and songs and dancing and romancing, too. One website I read said that this holiday is more popular in Latvia than are New Year's Eve and Christmas! Almost every hilltop and yard in Latvia has a bonfire, and people go from house to house, eating cheese and drinking and singing and generally having a good time.

I thought it was interesting to read that the ferns are supposed to blossom for a short while on the night of Jāņi. People are supposed to search for the blossom; those who find it will have a great spiritual revelation. 

Of course, if you know botany, you realize that ferns don't have flowers. 

Instead, ferns reproduce by means of spores.

In Latvia's capital city, Riga, there is a Grass Market where people can buy all the stuff that countryfolk can more easily find or make for themselves: medicinal plants, oak leaves, flowers, Jāņi grasses, plus pre-made wreaths and crowns, cheeses, beer, and traditional Latvian crafts.

The Jāņi cheese is sprinkled
with caraway seeds.

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