Celebration Time – Come On

Party season really started in earnest this week; pre Jani party on Tuesday and dancing in the street with excellent live bands at a packed Kalnciema Kvartāls on Thursday and a school graduation celebration on Friday. Three midweek socials; life was never this hectic in London. Latvians really know how to have a good time.

Let me start with the pre Jani party. What I write now, is what I thought I learnt on Tuesday, so I apologise in advance to my Latvian readers if I get this wrong. Jani takes place over 2 days commencing on 23rd June and finishing on the 24th, which just happens to be Janis’s name day (John in the UK). The origin’s of Jani is lost in the mists of time, but it is thought that at one time it was celebrated over a wide part of eastern if not western Europe. Jani was originally celebrated on the 21st June to commemorate midsummer solstice, however with the coming of Christianity it was moved to John’s name day, so  St John the Baptist could be celebrated.

It would appear that all Latvians join in the celebrations and I’m led to believe that Latvians do things during Jani they wouldn’t normally do. I’m intrigued to find out what they do. During the Soviet occupation Janis was considered a bourgeois event, but even Russians were known to drink around the bonfires. Now there are a number of elements to Jani, so for my non Latvian readers I’ll highlight them in no particular order of importance:-

  1. Eating is considered very important and for a traditional Jani three things must be eaten: Firstly a special Jani cheese with caraway seeds. Now I don’t particular like Latvian cheeses, I find them too processed, but the Jani cheese we bought from Kaugari market was quite tasty. Secondly Shashlik and lots of it. Shashlik isn’t a traditional Latvian dish, more Turkish or Armenian, but the Latvians seem to have adopted it as their own and they eat it with gusto. Finally Piradzini. These are probably best described as mini croissants made with a yeast dough and filled with bacon and onions. Freshly made, very yummy.
  2. Drinking is also very important; any type will do but home made is best. I wonder why?
  3. Bonfires are made which resemble a piece of architecture and can take a whole day to construct. The Latvian authorities consider Jani a danger to public health and the practice of jumping over bonfires whilst consuming large quantities of alcohol makes it obvious why.
  4. Herbs and Leaves During Jani men wear crowns of oak leaves and women wear crowns of birch leaves and small flowers. Some crowns will have Rowan/Mountain Ash in the crowns which is meant to keep the witches away. Now we all know there is no such thing as witches, don’t we????
  5. Singing and dancing. Now this is an odd one. You are meant to sing bad things about your neighbours.  Now when half the Latvian population in the countryside don’t have neighbours how is this possible. Lots of dancing occurs but it is largely generic, I’m informed.
  6. Countryside. Jani celebrations must take place in the countryside, that is why Riga is a very sad place on the 23rd June.
  7. Janis’s Name Day Now 24th June is the name day celebration for all men who are called Jani and he is the master of the house and his wife the mistress of the house. Everybody else is the 3rd person ie Janis’s children
  8. Magic. Herbs gathered during Jani are meant to have special properties. Exactly what these properties are I don’t know, so any help would be appreciated.
  9. Fern Flower This is a bit like believing in Santa Claus. We all know he doesn’t physically exist but if we don’t believe in him, Christmas isn’t as much fun. As the story goes the fern only flowers during Jani and finding one is meant to increase fertility in couples hence the chances of pregnancy. It sounds to me like an excuse to have lots of sex.

Really looking forward to my first Jani. Any suggestions where I should go for an authentic, traditional Jani, would be appreciated.

The party also included a performance by Varis Vētra, actor, singer, songwriter and quite a charmer.

The pre-Jani Party was also eventful for one seriously embarrassing incident which almost caused me to get divorced before I got married. The incident occurred because of my lack of understanding of Latvian body and facial language. Before giving details I think it’s important you know something about me. All my working life up to the age of 30 was spent in restaurants and hotels. This experience formed my personality. I’m considered friendly, easy to get on with and can quite easily start a conversation with complete strangers. When in public and particularly in restaurants I like looking around to see what’s going on. That’s me, so now to the incident. At one point during the evening we were invited in to the kitchens of the restaurant, we were in, to practice making piradzini and sklandrausis. So I put my apron on, so as not to get my clothes covered in flour and started to practice rolling the piradzini. After a couple of attempts I was starting to feel quite pleased with myself. I looked up and noticed a tall, attractive, blonde lady who was younger than my daughter. She had been watching my attempts. She smiled at me, so being the gentleman I am, I smiled back. Thinking nothing of this incident, Inta and I went back upstairs for dessert and waited for the chefs to bake the piradzini. So I’m eating my “Eton Mess” (strawberries, meringue and cream) minding my own business when I look up and this same young lady is in my line of sight and smiles at me again. So I smile back. At this point, I started to feel uncomfortable because every time I looked up a smiley face was there. Of course Inta noticed all this, and I could tell she wasn’t too happy, so I had to move my chair to avoid any further contact. I decided we had better leave quickly and without waiting for the piradzini. Inta subsequently explained to me that in Latvia smiling at women you don’t know is not advisable unless you intend to take things further. A lucky escape I think.

The amount of talent in such a small country, never ceases to amaze me. On Thursday evening we went down to Kalnciema Kvartāls  It was a lovely summer evening, lots of people eating, drinking and enjoying two excellent folk/rock banks. An all girl band called Sus Dingo and an instrumental band known as NFO. How does such a small country produce such talent? I suspect there are other bands around Latvia equally as talented. Amazing quality of music from both bands.

On Friday  we attended the school graduation ceremony of the daughter of one Inta’s close friends. Needless to say that I had to sit through the proceeding without understanding a word of what was going on. However we were treated to a number of musical performances by students ,of such a high quality, that would put many a UK school to shame. Latvia’s future is very rosy judging by the talents of the young people I have met so far. However I would like someone to explain to me the significance of all the giving of flowers. Everybody who went, took flowers to give to a student, but why?

Next week promises to be eventful. Should finally be signing contracts for the purchase of a house in Limbazi and we get our new car.  I’ll let you know how things progress.

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30 Responses to Celebration Time – Come On

  1. Nora says:

    The 23rd actually is called Līgo vakars (and is the nameday of Līga). The nameday of Jānis is on the 24th.


  2. Expat Eye says:

    Ah, your first experience of the Latvian Girl Death Stare – brilliant 🙂
    You forgot the naked run over the bridge in Kuldiga – that might be a good way for you to celebrate? Just make sure you don’t smile at anyone while you run or all sorts of trouble could ensue 😉


  3. I think under ‘Drinking’ you’ve missed out a word ‘beer’ so it sounds a bit like any drink will do (which regrettably works exactly like that for some) but Līgo (Jāņi) and beer are inseperable – any shape or form as you say but to be authentic it’s got to be home brewed in a nice wooden barrel 🙂

    As for shashlik – It just happens to be the barbeque food of choice for Latvians and we do want some meat after all the beer we drink.. Other than that there is no other connection between shashlik and Līgo and I think before the Soviet era few Latvians knew what the word actually means.. If we were ruled by the British for past six or so decades I think we would be eating burgers, buns and corn on the cob on Līgo.

    As for flowers for graduation – that’s how we express care, respect, gratitued and appreciation – birthdays, weddings, funerals – we even give flowers to our belowed actors on stage.. Graduation ceremonies are just not and exception.

    If you’re still unsure where to celebrate your first Jāņi worth while considering this: http://www.gardumuti.lv/vietas/selu-seta-gulbji.html (all the contacts are there).. the surroundings and the farm itself (with all the gubbins) is very very authentic and picturesque. The nice lady Rita told me she had around a 100 guests last year for Līgo and they did a whole lot of traditional activities – haven’t experienced that myself but sounded like exactly what you’re looking for.. Perhaps Inta can give her a call and ask for what’s in store this year..


  4. Sue Charlton says:

    Sure you must be gaining weight Andy! With a life focused on food, drink and socialising, keep an eye on the waist line. Sounds fab … Looking forward to visiting xxx


  5. eNVee says:

    Hello! First of all let me say thank you for a very interesting insight of your adventures and life here in Latvia!

    Let me comment a little on Nr.5 Singing and dancing…
    The process, where you are meant to say something “bad” is called “apdziedāšana” (my english prohibits to translate this correctly, sorry for that!). It begins when somebody takes ones family, friends and guests, packs with cheese, beer, pīrādziņi etc. plus all the special decorations with oak leaves, flowers. Usually some musical instrument as well. Then all of them start moving to nearest neighbour, they keep singing and sharing everything they have. When they get there it is the moment when apdziedāšana takes place. It’s not meant to say something bad, but more like funny. Ofcourse, it usually happens to be something your neighbour is not proud about. 🙂 But it is never meant to be rude or harsh, nobody feels offended. After this it is neighbours turn to sing something about you or your people. When it is done they all share the beer, food and decorations. Now they should all join up and move to the next neighbour and start it all over again. In this way all the people from nearest surroundings are joining up and have a great time together at bonfire, have all the meals, drinks, singing and dancing until the sun comes up. 🙂

    Rules may vary, but in general it happens like this.

    Talking about drinks – martins0ex0londoner told it right. Traditionally it’s a beer and nothing else.


    • aedoxsey says:

      Sounds great fun, can’t wait. Thanks for visiting & contributing


    • Renāte says:

      Also because of this traditional singing, everything in garden, yard, farm and household should be in order so guests won’t have anything to sing about 🙂 it is ancient tradition, usually we don’t sing anymore but tradition still exists and even public property (grasslands, roadsides etc. that should be mown at least once a year are usually mown before Līgo). In countryside sometimes on this occasion even cattle, dogs and horses are seen wearing flower crowns. Traditionally crowns were ment for unmarried maidens while ‘aube’ (bonnet) by married but on this festival every woman could wear it.

      And if there really were nothing to sing about (or after some quatrains), prankish folk songs (nerātnās dainas) were sung. Also remaining of pagan ritual singing for fertility /very important in old pagan rituals especially solstice/


  6. Jane says:

    Just love reading these xxxx but wonder also if your clothes are getting a little tighter xxxx take care xxxx enjoy and speak very soon love jane xxx


  7. Zane B. says:

    Just for the insight: http://vimeo.com/74917918
    And this for the mood: http://youtu.be/MXXwX3IPIhI

    Līgo night (June 23rd) is my favorite holiday because of the singing, dancing, traditional games, lot of delicious food and beer (beer and only beer is considered the Līgo drink, those who choose smthg else are out of traditions) and the celebration of summer, joy and nature.
    No Līgo has gone without folk songs, making flower wreaths, waiting for sunrise and going in to sauna, This is believed to be magical night – but it can’t be explained – it’s just the feeling that all the nature around you is breathing life.

    There are different interesting traditions like running naked around the cornfield so it brings fertility to the crops, making “Sun gates” – one in the east one in west – so through one gate sun sets and through other one it rises, of course – looking for fern flower, bringing home rowan trees as it not only keeps off witches but is believed to frighten off all the negative energy; and many traditions about how to tell if you’re gonna marry this year (that deserves a separate topic).
    I hope you’ll find the perfect spot to celebrate it as it really is magical. 🙂


  8. Santa says:

    *”folk/rock banks” – i think you meant to write- “bands”?
    *the all girl band is called “SUS Dungo”


  9. santa says:

    I suggest you try to get your way to a real Solstice celebration on the 20th or 21st of June. That would be a unique and also a much less commercial experience 🙂 I love Sus Dungo very much and I’m glad to hear you enjoyed their show! There was a great little festival at the Ethnographic museum yesterday. I think, you should definitely check out the Latvian bands that were performing there! Iļģi are a must see this summer if you enjoy folk/world music!


  10. Spock says:

    You correctly state that the origin of the name “Jāņi” is lost in the mists of time, as are most other “traditions” now associated with the summer solstice. This is in large part due to there have being no written language in Latvian till after the introduction of Christianity and the, with it, their alphabet. Since most of the Latvians were still illiterate, early writings as to Latvian traditions were as seen through the eyes of foreigners, not an account by Latvians. All that follows, therefore, is conjecture and theory, based on some historical facts;

    As elsewhere, the early church worked hard to merge some pagan rituals with Christian ones to increase acceptance of Christianity. While being forced to mouth acceptance of Christianity, many kept up the old rituals as well, including marking the solstice on the 21 st. and 22 nd.. In the late (I believe, this is going off memory) 16 th. century the church encouraged the (imported) aristocracy to give the (Latvian) serfs a holiday on the (supposed) Birthday of John the Baptist, hoping this would cause them to abandon celebrating the solstice. That worked, sort off… The Latvians switched their celebration to the 23 rd. with a day of recovery on the 24 th. but kept up most of their pagan rituals.

    To keep out of trouble with their “lords” and the church, Latvians, while marking the solstice, had to claim they were celebrating Jāņi (John’s). It is probably only at this point that the solstice celebrations came to be known as “Jaņi”.

    Other traditions many now believe are original are also later add ons. Our ancestors DID look for ferns to blossom on midsummer’s eve, but those braving the witches and ghouls free to fly around on the solstice were hoping for wealth or wisdom. The idea that the fern blossom represented gratuitous sex apparently came into being in the mid 1930’s, during Latvia’s first period of independence, when many were also trying to recreate traditions lost during centuries of foreign domination.

    It is really rather sad that so much of our cultural heritage is lost for all time. I’m not saying we can’t develop new traditions that feel acceptable and that these aren’t just as good, but knowing something is irretrievably lost is still kind of sad.


    • aedoxsey says:

      It’s not lost if people like yourself keep reminding everyone. I spent a lovely Ligo/Jani at an old farm in the Latgale region and the lady of the house is another person who shares with anyone who cares to listen all Latvia’s old customs and traditions. Just keep reminding everyone.


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