Every year before Jāņi, the Midsummer solstice celebrations in Latvia, I get more excited than a kid before Christmas. There is something totally magical about the shortest night of the year. I am usually a sceptic about supernatural phenomena, but this is the one day and night of the year where I utterly believe in mystical things. The feeling I get at Jāņi is completely jubilant, an awe for nature and the universe, and this feeling, which I reckon most Latvians feel at this time of year, continues on for a few days after - a kind of celebratory daze which is probably partly alcohol fuelled, mostly a natural high.
Maybe its because all of the countryside smells like honey, and is buzzing with bees and some kind of energy which only occurs at this time of year. Perhaps it's about all the songs that get sung all through the night - about the sun, and the oak trees, and the pagan deity Jānis, witches, about the flowers and the dew and the rain and fire. Maybe it feels magical because of all of the fire "rituals" that are performed - when we light the big bonfire, or put up a post with a fire at the top, or roll a burning cartwheel down a hill, or float a burning raft in the lake at dawn. I think the light really has a place in creating a feeling of other-worldliness - the evening light is golden and gorgeous, lighting up a glowing landscape before it dips down beyond the horizon. It never really gets dark at Jāņi - you watch the sun go down around 10pm, but the sky is still a deep blue, and remains that way until the sun rises again only a couple of hours later.
This year, what added to the magic for me was all of our friends working together. A group of close friends/families turned up a couple of days before hand to help us prepare Kūgures for the celebrations. We fell into traditional gender roles - as you do at Latvian celebrations like this - women cooked and looked after kids and planned the feast, while the men built bonfires and rafts, mowed grass and chopped branches and listened to instruction from the ladies (!). It was a little community working together to create a breathtaking celebration for everyone. We rested, went in the sauna, drank and ate outdoors, and awaited Jāņi together. On the actual day we decorated the house with birch branches, oak and rowan leaves, made floral wreaths to wear, made a gate through which we would watch the sun set, and waited for other guests to arrive.
This year we had around 40-50 people at Kūgures, which was a good number, and we sang most of the night away. The object is to accompany the sun as it sets and greet it when it rises in the morning - the boys passed out around 1am - this year we let them try to stay up as long as they could. Most Jāņi I myself go to bed around 3am, in fear of the kids waking in a couple of hours and the fact that I need to cook breakfast for a load of people. But this year I pushed through it, which was totally worth it. There were only about 7 of us (no counting the two nude guys who boldly strode out of the sauna at that moment) who greeted the sun at 4.30am with songs, and it was a perfect end to a completely amazing night.
Jem and friend Dainis devised a cunning and spectacular way to light the fire on the post - a fuse that they lit from the ground.
Dancing, dancing, dancing
The bonfire was built by our friend Gatis, who had never built a bonfire like this before, but had watched his dad do it stacks of times. It was lit without the aid of paper or accelerant, and was a source of great pride for the maker! It also created a fabulous, glowing pyramid later in the night, which we watched crash down as the supporting joints burnt out.