Summer Solstice: Latvia’s All-Night Party

IMG_6245Last 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.

IMG_6177

M. stands at the entrance to Rīga’s Līgo festival.

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.

IMG_6192

This woman did not let the rain get in the way of her singing and shaking her tambourine.

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.

IMG_6182

These women are hand-weaving freshly picked flowers and oak leaves into gorgeous crowns for Līgo-goers to don.

IMG_6184

I chose a simple crown of braided grasses with a tiny bouquet of flowers.

IMG_6213

This father and son proudly wear their oak laurels.

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!

IMG_6196

Much of the food at Līgo was grilled or sautéed over an open fire in grills like this one.

IMG_6210

Each food tent was decorated with greenery, wood, and flowers, to make the setting feel more forest-like. The servers were dressed in traditional Latvian costumes.

IMG_6202

We sampled the caraway cheese (left) and an apple-filled pastry (among other things!)

IMG_6201

This man takes a break from serving up beer to dance to the folk music.

IMG_0914

Celebrating Līgo with Latvian beer. That light you see is not the sunset; rather, it is coming from the huge Jumbotron above our heads!

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.

IMG_6215

The Līgo stage, featuring some of Latvia’s most talented folk singers and dancers. Latvians certainly don’t let a little rain stop them from celebrating!

IMG_6219

The Jumbotron made us feel a little bit closer to the entertainment without having to wrestle through the crowds.

IMG_6223

Cheers to Līgo! Or, as the Latvians say, priekā!

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.

IMG_6245

Although one of Līgo’s oldest traditions is jumping over bonfires, the ones at last night’s festival were a bit too tall for that, standing at about 15 feet high.

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?

Learn more about Līgo.

8 thoughts on “Summer Solstice: Latvia’s All-Night Party

  1. Ahhhh I wish I were there!! Looks wonderful, despite the rain! I love seeing all the staples–the music, dancing, beer, folk costumes, traditional food, flowers. What did you think of the cheese (Janu siers)? I actually had a rain-soaked Jani, as well. The whole party (at the Latvian center where we met up) was moved indoors, but we made the best of it! The band from Latvia was called Galaktika, and they were great.

    Like

    • Wish you could have been here, too! We liked the cheese. I really like rye bread, so the caraway seeds in the cheese were yummy! I’m glad you had a nice Jani as well! And if it doesn’t rain, it’s not Jani, right? 😉

      Like

  2. Interesting that you say that the original name for the solstice is Ligo. I was always told that Jani and Jana names are actually not Christian names at all – they are the names of the male and female face of Dievs or God essentially. Considering that there are Roman gods from ancient days similar to this – Jana/Janus Diana/Dianus – it seems more likely that the truth is that the original name for this festival is Jani day….and the pagans pulled a fast one on the invading Christians.

    Named after Jana – by my Omi from Latvija.

    Like

    • Thanks so much for your comment and providing some insight. Funny- when I wrote that post two years ago, I researched a bit of history about Jani because we hadn’t yet met many local people… and now when I went back to find the source of the information, I of course couldn’t. Your explanation makes a lot more sense- thank you. Cheers!

      Like

  3. I was in Riga on Friday (23/6/2017) to witness the Ligo festival of Latvia. Have now returned to Mumbai and researching for my tour blog. Your blog was extremely helpful and thanks for the same.

    Like

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s