Its been a week of celebrations here in Latvia, firstly my stepmum Maira had her name’s day on Monday, then on Thursday it was Liga’s names day, and on Friday it was Janis’s names day.
Liga is one of the most popular female names in Latvia, and Janis (John) is the most popular boy’s names so it culminates in two days of public holiday for Liga Festival (mid summer solstice) throughout the whole of Latvia, when people tend to head to the village or rural areas for the festivities. In our household, that means taking bunches or hanging baskets of flowers to our friends called Liga, and likewise to our friends called Janis, having coffee and a snack with them, and maybe some vodka.
Liga fest is very important in Latvian life, especially since so many people live off the land and because the weather can be so variable. Liga fest is held between 23rd and 24th of June usually and marks the longest day and shortest night of the year, of midsummer solstice, a pagan festival, and where it barely gets dark all night. Traditionally, Liga fest was believed to be a night for the evil witches to gather, and so people would use different trees and herbs to ward the bad spirits off. Its also the best time to pick herbs and plants because they have the strongest magical powers now, and at this time, we are believed to be the closest we can be to the spiritual world. Traditionally, we light a fire, which we must keep going from sunset until sunrise, and it is usual to sway or ‘ligo’ through the night, to bring in the new day. Its also usual to jump over the fire, to bring prosperity and fertility, and tonight is meant to be the most fertile night of the year, which also coincides with the best time for birth in farming terms, 9 months from now. Its always a nice night though, and a chance to enjoy the daylight after the dark winter and minus temperatures.
Birch is a popular choice for warding off evil and for decorating the house, animals, and people, and we often make birch juice to drink, which has special healing qualities and can be drunk for all manner of things throughout the year. The birch is then hung in all the rooms, put in the bath house or sauna, and used to make head dresses, along with wild flowers from the garden or field. In our sauna, we throw away the old birch, and tie little bunches of birch together, to be used for bashing each other to remove any dead skin and to stimulate blood flow. It all sounds a bit s and m, but its really not as dodgy as it sounds!
The sauna is a traditional part of Latvian village life all year round, and is something that I really miss in Georgia and in the UK. Our sauna Is basically like a wooden shed with two rooms. In the front room, we get changed, and in the winter have a little fire so that it isn’t so cold for getting oneself into the nip, and you can hang up your towel and clothes here. Then you enter the back room. Its dark, with big benches to lie on, and has a massive brick stove. In one corner we have scalding hot water, heated by the brick built wood burning stove, and in a barrel in another corner we have cold water. On the walls we hang big wooden spoons, and we have large enamel wash basins which we stack and use as required, and there is a very specific sauna smell, of wood and smoke, which is lovely, especially in winter.
It takes a lot of work for the sauna, but is well worth it. We have to fill up the water containers by hand, and get the fire going for several hours before we can use the sauna. Then traditionally the couples go in together, or all girls, or all guys, as you wish really. Its normal not to wear anything, and can be a bit strange if you are a foreigner or don’t know your sauna mates, but its fine to wear swim wear if you feel too self conscious. Usually we pour water onto the fire to create steam, and to increase the temperature, steam ourselves for a bit, and sometimes add herbs, spices or oils to the water to clear the sinuses or whatever. Usually we cover our skin with locally made honey, honeycomb, or salt, to help cleanse and exfoliate the skin. Often, we will then run to the sea in just pur towels, swim naked in the sea, and then run back to the sauna for round two and warming up. Usually we take it in turns to ‘beat’ each other with birch twigs and leaves, and then finally wash ourselves.
Many homes in rural areas don’t have a bathroom per se, but instead they will take a sauna regularly. We have a bathroom in our house, and both an indoors and outdoors toilet, since the indoors bathroom is just a few years old. But if we have a storm, then we often lose power and can’t run the electrical pump for the water or toilet, so have to go back to using the outdoors one instead. We also heat the water differently depending on the time of year. In winter, we run the wood burning stove from the kitchen, which heats the whole house and warms the tiles, and also heats the water. This is lovely and makes the place toasty warm, and means we can make toast on the fire. Its also much cheaper to run. In the summer, we don’t use the wood stove, but instead have to rely on electricity to heat the water, which is much more expensive. But we tend to cook outside on the barbecue and to eat more salads, cold meats, and fish.
This year for the Liga fest, we all took a sauna, then swam in some large waves under the moonlight, and then sat outside around a big fire and eating barbecued meats and fresh strawberries. It was a lovely evening, and even the midges weren’t too bad.
Funny to think that Georgia and Latvia are both post soviet countries, with similar histories, yet they are also different in every way. The people are very different, in looks and mannerisms, and they like to wear bright colours, and have blonde hair and blue eyes on the whole, whereas Georgians like to wear black and have brown hair and brown eyes mostly. Both can speak Russian, but Latvians do not like to do so, and are less attached to their Russian heritage than in Georgia. Being at ‘supra’ for both countries this week, the differences were much more obvious, kind of refreshing, but also strange to readjust to. No one paid me any attention, no one pressured me to eat, no one made toasts in the same way, wine was drunk for pleasure instead of downed in one. In fact, the only similarity was the amount of vodka drunk! In Latvia every can stand during a toast, but in Georgia, only the men stand. Food is also very different, and Latvian food is much nicer and a lot more variety, yet the weather here should make growing conditions much more tricky than in Georgia. It is certainly colder here than in Georgia right now, but life is also different.
I have seen Latvia change so much over the past few years, and it makes me wonder how Georgia will change in the future. Latvia looks so clean and civilised to me, especially after Georgia, and I certainly has a more Germanic air to it, in terms of architecture and buildings and so forth. Yet both countries also have soviet remnants, buildings, art work, and a legacy. But how can two countries have so much in common, yet be still so different? Georgia looks like the soviets literally disappeared overnight, like aliens kidnapped them, leaving tools dropped on the ground, to be covered by weeds and plants, or sometimes like being in a time capsule. Bridges and buildings that were being constructed, are left dangling in mid air, half completed, and will never be finished. Strange to invest so much only to stop mid way through. Soviet memorabilia is fast fading in Latvia, and everything is so much more modern these days, new and shiny, and buildings being fixed up. Prices have rocketed here, to a point where I am no longer rich relatively. Lithuania, also has a different feel about it, and probably Estonia too, yet they are all neighbours. Its going to be something special to watch Georgia start to develop and bloom over the coming ten years, that’s for sure.
I found this bit of information on Wikipedia about the festivities, read on if you are interested:
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Caraway cheese is traditionally served on Jāņi
Also called Zāļu diena
Observed by Latvia
Type National; Ethnic; Pagan
Significance Celebration of summer solstice
Begins 23 June
Ends 24 June
Observances Staying up all night, making bonfires, singing, dancing, eating cheese, drinking beer
Jāņi (pronounced [jaːɲi]) is a Latvian festival held in the night from 23 June to 24 June to celebrate the summer solstice (Midsummer), the shortest night and longest day of the year. The day of Līgo ([liːɡu͡o]) (23 June) and the day of Jāņi (pronounced [jaːɲi]) (24 June) are public holidays, and people usually spend them in the countryside. The festival’s eve Jāņu vakars ([jaːɲu vakars]) is held in the evening of 23 June and goes on all through the night Jāņu nakts ([jaːɲu nakts]) , where people Līgo (sway) into the following day.
Jāņi is an ancient festival originally celebrated in honour a Latvian pagan deity Jānis, referred to as a “Son of God” in some ancient Latvian folksongs. Jānis is also traditionally the most common of Latvian male given names, corresponding to English name John, and everybody of the name Jānis holds a special honor on this day (Jāņi is a plural form of Jānis) and wears an oak wreath. Besides John, the name of Jānis is also etymologically linked with other names of various nations, such as Aeneas, Dionysus, Jonash, Jan, Jean, Johan, João, Ian, Ivan, Huan, and Han.
The festival’s current date has shifted a few days from 21 June/22 June when the summer solstice actually takes place due to its somewhat incongruous association with Saint John the Baptist’s feast day, which falls on 24 June. Still, traditions of Jāņi contain no reference to Christianity or any Christian symbolism.
Jāņi is thought to be the time when the forces of nature are at their most powerful, and the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds are thinnest. In the past, evil witches were believed to be riding around, so people decorated their houses and lands with rowan branches and thorns in order to protect themselves from evil. In modern days other traditional decorations are more popular, including birch or sometimes oak branches and flowers as well as leaves, especially ferns. Women wear wreaths made from flowers; in rural areas livestock is also decorated.
Jāņi also is thought to be the perfect time to gather herbs, because it is believed that they then have magical powers. Other practices of magic in Jāņi vary from fortune-telling to ensuring productivity of crops, as well as livestock fertility. A well-known part of this celebration is searching for the mythical fern flower, though some suggest that the fern flower is a symbol of secret knowledge; today it is almost always synonymous with having sexual relationships. Young couples traditionally search for the flower and many believe there is an increase in births nine months later. (In the past, this timing was ideal for farmers.)
Another important detail is fire: A festival fire must be kept from sunset till sunrise, and various kinds of flaming light sources are used; usually these are bonfires, which traditionally people jump over to ensure prosperity and fertility. Traditional food during Jāņi is a special type of cheese with caraway seeds, made out of curd, and the traditional drink is beer. Many people make the cheese of Jāņi themselves; a few also make their own beer.
Representatives of Latvian Emergency services often warn that Jāņi can be harmful to health because of the amounts of food and alcoholic beverages consumed, as well as maltreated fires.