Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Jāņi - the folklore

Around this time last year I was preparing for a trip to the US to visit family, and so a major Latvian holiday, Jāņi, passed pretty much unnoticed. Jāņi is the celebration of the summer solstice, the day when the axial tilt of a planet's semi-axis is most inclined towards the sun resulting in the longest day of the year. The word solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), and in many cultures is a celebration of fertility and fire. This year it falls on June 20th, and so last weekend we headed to the country to celebrate with our Chatenet friends.

Oaks symbolize virility and strength

The ancient Roman representation of the summer solstice celebration was Janus, the Greeks had Appolo, the Germans Ianus and the Latvians… Jānis. Although the day of Jānis and Žanis is celebrated on the 24th (and the summer solstice is on a different date from year to year so the exact date Jāņi are observed varies from year to year), many of the old pagean traditions still have a place in the modern day fête.

One of my favorite parts of Jāņi is the gathering of the flowers for the crowns

Singing plays a very important part of the celebration, and many of the traditional songs are interspersed with the word līgo, directly translated as “sway” but meaning to partake in the St. John’s festivities. The songs mark the beginning of the holiday, as they are sung during the preparations: cleaning, decorating and cooking.  Jāņu daudzināšana, as this warming up is called, helps to finish the work on hand; once Jānis arrives with the Jāņu bērni (children of Jānis, or guests), everything must be in order otherwise the guests will poke fun at the host’s laziness/messiness through song.

Although daisies are the most typical flower used in the crowns, any flower can be utilized

The traditional foods are prepared in anticipation of the guests’ arrival, most importantly Jāņu siers (the cheese of Jānis which I give the recipe for in my previous post) is made and beer is brewed. During Zāļu diena (the day of the grasses) the home is decorated with wildflowers and grasses, the girls weave their daisy crowns, the men make crowns of oak leaves, and oak branches are used to further adorn the house and yard. The symbolism behind this ornamentation is to protect the household against evil (those witches and wizards that especially on the shortest night of the year carry out their nefarious deeds). The greenery also has a specific meaning, it brings blessings and fertility, and the term zāles encompasses all the grasses, flowers etc. collected for this purpose.

Oak leaves adorning the front door of our Chatenet hosts home

Once the preparations are finished, the Jāņu svinības commence: the feast, more singing, the arrival of the mythological Jānis, aplīgošana, and the lighting of the Jāņu uguns, the fire.

A very French Jāņi - pīrāgi, Jāņu siers and a baguette!

The Jāņu bērni (guests) first honor the hosts, who in return offer cheese and beer before everyone sits down for the feast. As the meal continues, so does the singing, and after an extensive meal thanks is given to God and to the hosts. This also signals the beginning of the aplīgošana; with grasses, flowers and wreaths the guests visit every corner of the property, singing songs to bless the crops, the animals, the house and the inhabitants. Many times this carries on to the neighboring homes, and so on Jāņi every house must be prepared to welcome the Jāņu bērni with open arms! This would also be the point where an unadorned house or unfinished household chores would be noticed and teased through song.

Did you remember to bless your cows today?

Entire communities would come together to light the Jāņu uguns, usually on a hilltop or even on top of a specially constructed pole. The singing continues, as does the teasing, and the fire continues to burn until sunrise the following morning. One ritual still observed today is jumping over the bonfire, which brings luck and fertility. And speaking of fertility, Jāņi is traditionally a time to search for love. Which brings me to another custom, searching for the mysterious papardes zieds (flower of the fern), which would bring luck and happiness to the couple who finds it. However, such flowers supposedly exist only on Jāņu night, and the couple must search all night to find it…

The first jump over a bonfire for Lauris, ever!

Along with dawn goodbyes are said and the time comes to head home. I wish everyone a beautiful Jāņi and good luck in finding that papardes zieds!

Pār pļaviņu pāriedama,
Pļavas dziesmu nodziedāju,
Man piebira pilnas kurpes,
Zilu ziedu, zelta rasas.
            While crossing the pasture,
            I sang the song of the meadow,
            My shoes filling with
            Blue flowers, gold dew.

Sīkas puķes, lielas puķes
Ziede visu vasariņu;
Papardīte, gudriniece,
Tā ziedēja Jāņu nakti.
            Tiny flowers, large flowers
            Bloom all summer long;
            The clever fern,
            It blooms on St. John’s night.

Kas redzēja Jāņu nakti
Papardīti uzziedami,
Tas līgoja visu gadu,
Kā Jāņīša vakarāi.
            The one who saw on St. John’s night
            The little fern bloom,
            He/she will līgo all year,
            As he/she did on St. John’s night.

Also in this series -

1 comment:

  1. The flowers are so beautiful! What a beautiful solstice celebration. :)


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