Last night, on the longest day of the year, I watched and listened as grandmothers and small children, teenaged girls, and young men drinking beer sang and danced to traditional Latvian folk music under dark, low-hanging clouds and light rain. Wearing laurels on their heads and smiles on their faces, the people of Rīga were festive and lively as they celebrated summer solstice, arguably Latvia’s most important national holiday.
Called Līgo (the pagan word meaning summer solstice) or Jāņi (the Christianized name for the holiday, meaning St. John’s Day) in Latvian, the summer solstice festivities last for two days: the first to celebrate and stay up all night, and the second to rest and recover. Latvia is one of the few European countries whose ancient tradition of celebrating summer solstice continues today, and with it comes folk dancing and singing, jumping over bonfires, partaking of traditional Latvian food and beer, and general merrymaking. The party starts in the evening and carries on until dawn. Most Latvians celebrate Līgo in the countryside among family and friends. In Rīga, the city sponsored a Līgo celebration on the Daugava River waterfront. M. and I spent our first Līgo there last night with friends and had a great time.
If you ask any Latvian, he or she will tell you that it always rains for Līgo. In fact, if ever there was a year when it did not rain for Līgo, there would be great concern throughout the country. Last night was no exception, as the rain began late in the morning and continued throughout the night, but that did not stop thousands of people from attending the festival. Dressed in our warmest coats and scarves, we stood under our umbrellas, joking about the irony of being able to see our breath while we sang and danced in streets to celebrate the beginning of summer. The “longest night of the year” was actually one of the shortest nights we’ve experienced since we arrived in Rīga, owing to the dense cloud cover that masked the sunset and brought out the darkest night we’ve seen in the last six weeks.
Rīga’s Līgo festival began at 8:00 pm and lasted until 4:30 am this morning. Although we did not stay for its entirety, we experienced some of the local traditions during the few hours we were there.
It is customary at Līgo for women and girls to wear crowns of beautiful flowers, and for men and boys to wear crowns of oak leaves. Coming in many different colors and varieties, these crowns were available for purchase at different tables throughout Old Riga and at the festival.
Smells from the food tents permeated the air as we meandered along the street, weaving around the umbrellas. Offerings included typical Latvian fare, such as grilled meats, sautéed cabbage, and roasted potatoes. If you so desired, you could also sample pig snout and ears, blood sausage, and various pastries. Latvian cheese made with caraway seeds – also called Jāņi cheese – is a traditional food made for Līgo and was available at most food tents. And of course, there was beer. A Latvian festival is not complete without beer!
At one end of the festival, a large stage had been set up, from which there was continuous entertainment in the form of folk singing and dancing. Given the rain and all of the umbrellas, it was impossible to get close to the stage. Two large Jumbotrons were set up along the street so that we could better see the singers and dancers. Although we didn’t stay at the festival all night, we can attest that the stage entertainment continued until dawn, as we heard it from our hotel room across the river, with the last song ending just before 4:00 am.
Just after 11:00 pm, some of the folk dancers left the stage and led a procession to two huge towers of wooden logs. Using long-stemmed candles, they ceremoniously lit the wood to start the bonfires that would last until dawn.
With the bonfires well underway, we made our way back through the street, stopping for one last bite and cup of beer before heading home just after midnight. In spite of the damp cold, our first Līgo in Latvia was an evening of joy and celebration, and a memory we will cherish for years to come.
Thank you for reading!
How did you spend your summer solstice?