LĪGO DAY AND JĀŅU NIGHT – THE MOST CELEBRATED MOMENTS ON A LATVIAN CALENDAR
The Līgo Night and Jāņu Day are celebrated like nothing else among Latvians. Latvian culture is a crop-growers’ culture. As crop-growers, Latvians developed fertility cult, the Sun’s cult, and phallic cult. By singing Līgo songs on Jāņu day’s eve, Latvians tried to enhance fertility and to prevent misfortunes.
Midsummer Solstice – Jāņu celebrations have always been the greatest celebrations for Latvians. That’s because it is the middle of summer when the Sun rises at its highest point in the sky. This is the time when the days are the longest and the nights are the shortest. Ancient Latvians celebrated until Peter’s day (a week later) which is also called Lapainītis (The Leafy).
THE RIGHT TIME TO CELEBRATE LĪGO & JĀŅI
The correct way to celebrate Jāņi would be on the night of the Midsummer Solstice. Then, the shortest night follows the longest day. Latvian folk songs reveal that this is exactly what ancient Latvians did. Yet, in Latvia the national holidays each year are marked on June 23rd to June 24th. The Christian church caused it linking this celebration to the birthday of St. John’s (June 24th).
Jāņi is the most ethnic Latvian celebration, though influenced by foreign cultures. Ancient Latvians celebrated Jāņi already before crusaders brought Christianity to Latvia.
If we can believe old legends, only good and honorable men were allowed to be called Jānis or the Son of Jānis. Jānis for pagan Latvians is one of the main fertility gods. In Latvian folk songs, Jānis is pictured as the son of God who brings about the miracle of fertility. Jāņu time is the most fertile time of the year. That’s when people too feel most energy within themselves.
As regards the word “līgo”, in ancient Livs/Livonians (an extinct nation that used to inhabit a part of Latvian territory), it means “let it be” or “let it become.” Each line of the Līgo songs ends in “Līgo, līgo”. Ancient Latvians chanted these words like a mantra or incantation. They believed that by doing so they will be able to attract extensive blessing. That is why ancient Latvians actually sang Līgo songs from the morning of the Grasses Day till the morning of the Jāņu Day.
THE TRADITION OF TEASING THROUGH LĪGO SONGS
Most Līgo songs are energetic and many are mischievous. Their purpose is to relax, cleanse, purify and create. Līgo songs were to flush away all worries and sorrows. This is a process when people walked from home to home singing Līgo/Jāņu songs. They all were wearing wreaths made from flowers and oak branches. The singers brought wreaths to the houses they visited. Thus, they were bringing blessing and happiness to their neighbors and wishing them fertility and wealth. For similar reasons they also decorated their cattle and sang to them. Latvians also decorated all cattle and pets with wreaths.
BELIEFS RELATED TO JĀŅU GRASSES
Latvian people believed that grasses and herbs picked before Jāņi had the greatest healing powers. Specific grasses and trees were believed to have specific powers. A rowan-tree was supposed to cure children when they were sick or scared, or an evil eye had looked at them. Latvians believed that all grasses mixed together gave the most balanced effect.
The expected effects were enhanced beauty and health, and protection against evil. That is why Latvians decorate places and themselves with various grasses and wildflowers. The only tree that didn’t enhance anything was the aspen. Since it grows fast, it rather takes instead of gives energy. Yet, aspen can be helpful for reducing anxiety.
Beliefs related to Jāņu wreaths and other circular or spherical objects: Latvians believe that a wreath symbolizes a magic circle. The magic circle protects from misfortunes, diseases and ill-intending people. Jāņu wreath, Jāņu cheese, and bonfire also symbolize the Sun. The oak symbolizes stability, longevity, and strength. Typically, men wear wreaths from oak branches while women wear flower wreaths.
THE SYMBOL OF JĀŅU FIRE AND RELATED BELIEFS
Jāņu fire is to purify and enhance health and fertility. Bonfires were set in the highest place of the property. There are two types of bonfires – male bonfires and female bonfires. An example of male bonfires is a barrel that was set up on the top of a tall pole and lit. Female bonfires were set on the ground.
The belief goes that the people who have been in the light of Jāņu fire obtained strength and fertility. The healthy ones carried those who had fallen ill to the Jāņu fire so that they could enjoy its light and warmth, and heal.
JUMPING OVER JĀŅU FIRE
Jumping over Jāņu fire is a very popular tradition. It is to purify and get rid of unnecessary worries that people carry with them. Couples jump over a Jāņu fire hand in hand in order for the magic power of the fire to melt them together.
BELIEFS RELATED TO FERN BLOSSOMS
The belief is that the one who can find a fern blossom gets all their wishes fulfilled. Such a person also gets to know all the secrets of the past and the future. There are tenths or hundreds of various methods to find a fern blossom. One of them is to lie under ferns and watch them without blinking because ferns bloom for one blink of an eye. If petals of a fern blossom fall in a person’s shoes, they walk around unseen and unheard. Such a person can also make people return to them from far distances.
Another method is to go find a fern, draw a circle around it, then say Paternoster and wait until the fern blooms.
During Jāņu night everyone had a license to all kinds of sexual activities. Married women wore wreaths like young ladies and they could behave like unmarried. Erotic and sexual laxity was allowed during the celebration. It even had magic meaning. There was a belief such activities enforced the fertility of crops and farm animals. Of course, more babies were born 9 months later too.
There were various reasons why people undressed. It was believed that the crops grew better after people ran naked around and over fields. They also believed that one can see the devil if one stands naked in the gateway. Women walked to meadows to bathe in the morning dew for their beauty and health. Men danced naked around oak trees to emphasize their freedom and strength. The main Jānis undressed and led the dance of other naked ones around an oak tree.
NOT SLEEPING AT JĀŅU NIGHT
Everyone tried to stay awake all the Midsummer’s night. If you managed to not fall asleep, you would gain sharp vigilance and attentiveness for the rest of the year. Young adults who managed not to sleep had better chances to find their future spouses. By not sleeping anyone could contribute to better harvests. People believed that God saw them and awarded them.