The Summer Solstice in Latvian Tradition

The Latvians call the summer solstice 'Jani'. It is one of eight seasonal festivals which are celebrated by all the Baltic peoples. The name 'Jani' is connected to the Roman god Janus, an ancient Sanskrit word yana-h which means continuous way or movement, and is possibly also connected to the Chinese sun god Jan-di.

Traditionally the preparations for Jani day started a few days before the solstice itself. People finished off work in their gardens and fields and tidied their houses. Beer and cheese, the special food for the solstice were made.

The day before Jani (23rd June) was called 'Herb Day', because special plants were collected from the meadows and the forests. These herbs were gathered to bestow health, fertility, good luck and holiness. Homes yards and livestock were decorated with garlands and wreaths made of flowers, foliage, oak leaves and branches. Some plants particularly burdock, thorn, nettle and rowan branches were displayed to protect the home from evil forces. The people also wore wreaths during the celebrations, men wore wreaths of oak leaves while women wore clover or flowers.

A feast was held in the evening of 'Herb Day' with the obligatory beer and cheese. Beer symbolised the blessing of the cornfields while cheese symbolised the blessing of the cattle yards. During the feast songs were sung in honour of the deities Dievs, Mara and Laima in thanks for the rich food. Janis, the personification of the summer solstice was invited to join the celebration. In earlier times Janis was welcomed with bugles and drums.

After the feast the revellers wandered from house to house and walked though the fields. They sang songs to bless themselves, their gardens, fields and livestock. If the met anyone who hadn't finished their labours in time for the feasting they became the subject of ridicule. This wandering was especially enjoyed by the young who searched the forests for fern blossom which was said only to bloom on this night. Whoever founds the blossom would have good luck, secret knowledge, love and happiness.

Once the procession was completed the people met up on a hill top, a large bonfire was prepared to burn all night long. The feasting continued with singing and dancing and leaping over the fire. The fire of Jani was held in great esteem, the field that was not illuminated by Jani fire would be infertile, people who do not attend the ceremony would be miserable and have no children. The purpose of the fire was to give strength to the sun on the day before the nights grew longer again. It represented rebirth which explains the connection between the fire and fertility.

On the dawn of the 24th the people bade farewell to Janis and reminded him to return the following year. As the sun rose people collected dew and swam in waters that flowed towards the rising sun. Thus both fire and water are incorporated in this ritual of rebirth.