The summer solstice is cause for celebration in many cultures—and rightfully so! In addition to marking the official start of summer, late June provides an abundance of warm weather, greenery, and daylight. In Latvia, my ancestral home, the midsummer celebration of “Jāņi” is an ancient tradition which is still beloved today. The festival is agrarian in origin--taking place between spring sowing and autumn harvesting, it is a chance to enjoy food, beer, and the company of friends and family while savoring long summer days. Latvia’s northern location causes there to be only a few hours of twilight between sunset and sunrise—a definite cause for rejoicing considering that Latvian winters are characterized by correspondingly short days!
Jāņi is a national holiday in modern Latvia during which Latvians leave the cities en masse to join family and friends in the countryside. We don’t have access to any property in the countryside, so for our own celebration we invited friends, family, and neighbors to our house in the city! The house was adorned in boughs of greenery and guests were invited to make and wear wreaths. Traditionally, women wear crowns made of wildflowers for Jāņi, while men wear crowns of oak leaves. Farm animals are often adorned with wreaths as well. Luckily for our “farm animal”, Otto, we never got around to making him a crown of his own!
First and foremost, Latvian midsummer celebrations are known for copious amounts of beer, of which we had a ready supply. Also on hand was a spread of delicious foods. We served several traditional dishes, including jaņu siers—a fresh cheese with caraway seeds that shares its name with the celebration. Ham, dark rye bread, sauerkraut, and potato salad were also served, along with savory turnovers known as Pīrāgi. Pīrāgi are small, bready rolls filled with bacon and onion. Despite typically being served in large numbers, they always go quickly!
Jāņi is a joyous holiday that is characterized by gathering with loved ones and sharing food, drink, and song while enjoying the outdoors. Latvians traditionally sing and dance together through the night. In fact, it is considered bad luck to go to sleep before dawn! It is customary for the host to build a large bonfire and maintain it until morning. We had to settle for a small fire on the back patio. The fire burnt out (along with most of the celebrants) long before the arrival of daylight, but I enjoyed the great weather, food, and company nonetheless!