The Most Latvian of Holidays

That holiday is the Summer Solstice, also known as Jāņi. In Latvia, it’s a national holiday. If they can, city folk head out to the countryside where they can celebrate in the outdoors, close to nature. Of course, celebrations happen in the city, too, but Jāņi is basically a rural holiday.

Jāņa bērni. Jānis children who have gathered to await his arrival

Some people think that because Jāņi is celebrated on the 23 and 24th of June, it can’t be about the solstice because in the  Northern Hemisphere the solstice, the longest day, and the shortest night of the year falls on the 20th of June. But that date isn’t set in concrete. It depends on where you are. In the Central Daylight time zone (e.g., Chicago) the solstice arrived at 10:32 p.m. on June 20th, but in Rīga, Latvia it arrived at 6:32 a.m. on June 21. The Solstice can occur any time between the 20th and the 22nd.  That still doesn’t put it close to the 23rd. So why does the celebration begin then? Perhaps because the ancient Latvian calendar wasn’t all that accurate.

Whatever the case, Jāņi is all about the sun, celebrating the return of light, the ascent of the sun to the zenith, its highest point in the sky; its triumph over darkness. Jāņi is a pagan fire and fertility festival. Fire symbolizes the sun. Bonfires are lit on Jāņu eve. As night approached, people filled kegs with pitch, placed them on tall poles, lit the kegs, and raised them in the air. In the old days, these torches could be seen blazing from the tops of hills all over the countryside.

Solstice fires.

Much sympathetic magic, defined as a “primitive or magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought” are performed.

On farms, saplings were cur down and placed on either side of the door in order to keep witches and other evil spirits out of the house.

Wheels of straw were set ablaze and rolled down hillsides, another symbol of the sun.

Even the special cheese made at home for Jāņi is pale yellow and round yet another symbol of the sun.

Translated to English Jānis is John. The Latvian name day honoring Jānis, and all men who bear that name is on June 24th. Because of this many people believe that the holiday is named for John the Baptist. That is not the case. Jānis is a pagan deity, the son of the Latvian nature god, Dievs. Once a year Jānis rides to visit his children. He beats on a copper drum and blows a copper horn to summon them to the celebration. It’s true that the Teutonic Knights Christianized the Baltic people (Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians) early in the 13th Century and co-opted pagan holidays, and imposed their own meaning and symbolism on them in an attempt to stamp out what they considered to be herei It didn’t work out too well. 

Nobody goes to church on Jāņu diena (day), instead, revelers frolic in forests and meadows, sing, dance, feast, and drink beer. 

In order to make their crops grow better, people strip naked and run around their fields. Jumping over a bonfire is also supposed to be good for the crops–the higher you jump, the taller your crops will grow.

Wearing crowns woven of flowers or leaves is traditional. Men wear oak leaf crowns to gain the sturdiness and strength of the oak tree. Women wear coronets woven of flowers such as clover, cornflowers, and daisies. The flower wreaths are a symbol of maidenhood. Usually, only unmarried girls wear flower coronets, but at Jāņi, when anything goes, married women are allowed to wear them, too. A sign that for tonight, I’m single. Even cows are adorned with wreaths, which are made of buttercups to ensure that they will give rich, creamy milk.

Searching for the fern blossom, which blooms only on this one magical night, is a fun tradition. The blossom symbolizes romance, your true love. It gives young men and women an excuse to go off into the woods. The flower’s a myth, but not one that has been thought up out of thin air. Glowworms, known as Jāņutārpi, hide among fern fronds. Their light could easily be mistaken for a magical blossom, especially if you’ve had a few tankards of beer.

Where is that fern blossom?

As dusk starts to fall people gather around a bonfire to sing and dance. Folk songs (dainas) for this special night are known as līgo dziesmas (songs) because they’re sung only on this night, June 23rd which is known as Līgo vakars (eve) The word līgo means to sway. When the sun rises on the morning of the Solstice, it’s said to sway. When singing together, Latvians often link arms and sway. Perhaps they also sway from consuming too much beer. 

A feature of līgošana (singing līgo songs) is song wars. Girls sing songs teasing boys about being lazy, and lying in the sun instead of working. Boys sing songs teasing girls about having “long hair, but short minds.” Variations are numberless.

Staying up all night is a big part of the celebration–being awake to greet the sun as it rises. The belief is that if you sleep on this night, you’ll be sleepy for the rest of the year. You’ll also miss all the fun.

Modern revelers dancing around the solstice fire. Summer nights in Latvia are very short. Full darkness falls only around 2 a.m.

When pledges in Latvian fraternal organizations want to move on to full membership they are required to write and present a research paper at a meeting of their chapter. The paper I wrote for my sorority was about Jāņi. It’s a holiday rich in traditions and rituals, unfortunately, I can’t include them all here, but I hope I’ve succeeded in giving you an idea of what Latvian solstice celebrations were like in the old days and what they’re still like.

The two young couples in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream frolic around in the woods during the night of the solstice and meet the king and queen of fairies.

A modern interpretation of an ancient ritual and celebration.

Shakespeare Quote: A Prince of a Horse

Henry V, Act 3, Scene 7

DAUPHIN I will not change
my horse with any that treads but on four pasterns.
Çà, ha! He bounds from the earth, as if his
entrails were hairs, le cheval volant, the Pegasus, qui
a les narines de feu.
 When I bestride him, I soar; I
am a hawk; he trots the air. The earth sings when he
touches it. The basest horn of his hoof is more
musical than the pipe of Hermes.
ORLÉANS He’s of the color of the nutmeg.
DAUPHIN And of the heat of the ginger. It is a beast for
Perseus. He is pure air and fire, and the dull
elements of earth and water never appear in him,
but only in patient stillness while his rider mounts
him. He is indeed a horse, and all other jades you
may call beasts.
CONSTABLE Indeed, my lord, it is a most absolute and
excellent horse.
DAUPHIN It is the prince of palfreys; his neigh is like
the bidding of a monarch, and his countenance
enforces homage.

The Second Wave of Deportations

The Baltic deportations of June 14, 1941, were not the end of Soviet terror and oppression. In March of 1949, there was a second, larger deportation. By that time, my parents, three of my uncles were among the Balts who had fled their country to safety in the West. My father’s older sister and her husband were not so fortunate.

My father’s older brother had heard about the new deportations. Fearing that he and his wife would be arrested, he sent his nine-year-old son to stay with his sister. When the boy got to his aunt’s house, the arrest was in process. He ran home through the snow. His family was spared. After Stalin’s death in 1953, my aunt and uncle were able to return to Latvia.

This is a video from Radio Free Europe that tells a little about these events.

The Deported: 15,424

Today Latvians are commemorating the anniversary of the deportations.

This map belonged to my parents.

Deported by the Soviets from Latvia in one night, the night between June 13 and June 14, 1941. There was no due process, not really, not when you consider that the government of Latvia at the time had not been democratically elected, but was forced on it by the Soviets.

Among those loaded onto cattle cars and shipped to Siberia were men, women, and children, some as young as one.

What crime could a one-year-old child have committed? Being born to parents who were considered enemies of the people. Guilt by association. These enemies were government officials, educators, journalists, cultural figures, anyone who had the prominence and respect to influence others to oppose the Soviet regime. It didn’t matter whether they had done so or not. Their positions in society meant that the possibility existed. Preventive arrests for things people might do.

The link I’ve included is to an interactive map provided by the National Library of Latvia, which makes it possible to look up the deportations from any town or civil parish. Click on the green dot by a town’s name and scroll through the list of names to look for relatives and friends.

I searched for names on the list for my mother’s hometown, Limbaži. I didn’t find the names of any relatives on the list of sixty-six deportees, but I found the name of my mother’s high school sweetheart. He was twenty-four when he was sent to Siberia. Eventually, I don’t know how many years later he was able to walk back home. He lived long enough to see Latvia regain its freedom, but died not much later.

I don’t know how my maternal grandfather escaped being arrested. He was the deputy mayor of his hometown and the editor of the local newspaper. Just the sort of person who’d be most likely to be rounded up. It was probably sheer luck. The arrests and deportations were pretty much a hit-or-miss thing. The NKVD had such a long list of people to arrest that if an individual happened not to be at home when agents came knocking in the middle of the night, they went on to the next name on their list and never returned.

Town Hall

My father’s hometown, Alūksne had 167 victims. None of my relatives appeared on that list, either. But my father’s older sister and her husband were arrested and sent to Siberia in the second wave of deportations in 1949. They, too, managed to return, probably after Stalin’s death in 1953.

Lake Alūksne

Some of my mother’s relatives lived in the capital, Rīga. I didn’t look for them. The number of deportees from Rīga was more than four thousand. My mother’s family was practically a tribe. Great-granddad was married three times; my mother had cousins even she couldn’t keep track of. I don’t know what towns they might have lived in in 1941. I don’t know how many if any of them were deported. People don’t talk about such things. The memories are too terrible.

If you’re a Latvian reading this post and want to look up a relative, don’t worry if you can’t read the language. It’s not necessary. You just have to be able to recognize the name of a person or place. Pagasts means civil parish; their names are included on the list.

Latvia’s Unofficial Anthem

I like the graphics on this Song Festival poster.

Latvians are a singing people. My mother often broke into song at home. Every community around the world that has a sizable (more than one?) Latvian population has a choir that sings in churches and performs at concerts on special occasions, such as Latvia’s Independence Day. Every five years, since 1873 national song festivals have been held in Riga. Latvians from all over the world flock to their ancestral homeland to attend these joyous celebrations of our music. 

The Tenth National Song Festival in Riga. Huge choir, even bigger audience.

The festivals went on even during the years refugees spent in Displaced Person camps in Germany, during the Soviet occupation of Latvia, and in our countries of refuge, the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in the free West.

The Song Festivals always open with a procession of participants. Exiles in Esslingen, Germany, 1947.

 One of my kind-hearted followers wondered if singing helped Latvians survive the horror of 1941. I can’t say for sure, but it seems reasonable. Singing helped slaves in the American South survive the horrors of slavery. Soldiers and sailors sing. Peasants sing in the fields. Boatmen on the Volga sing while hauling boats down the river. Science has confirmed the efficacy of music in helping people heal both mentally and physically.

I was able to attend a Song Festival in Rīga during the waning years of the Soviet occupation. Memories of the Grand Finale Concert are still vivid in my mind. Hundreds of us gathered in an esplanade in Mežaparks in Rīga. I think all of us were rattled when two or three small planes flew over the audience. They were probably just taking photos. But why would so many planes be necessary for that? Refugees and descendants of refugees tend to be justifiably paranoid. After the choristers had taken their places on the stage soldiers and sailors marched on from the same entrances. We have expected them to turn their guns on us.

Most of the songs on the program were ones I didn’t recognize. Any reminders of a free Latvia were strictly forbidden. Needless to say, that included the traditional national anthem. But all the “foreign,” visitors recognized at least one song, our unofficial anthem, which is sung in Latvian cultural centers around the globe. Unlike the real one, it’s not about God blessing Latvia, our precious homeland. It’s about a drinking, horse-racing young man who sails to Kurzeme (Courland) in hopes of winning a bride who’s been promised to him by her mother. A promise that the mother breaks because of the young man’s unsavory habits. I couldn’t tell if everybody cried. My eyes were full of tears.

Why has this song about a young wastrel become our unofficial anthem? In part, because of its innocuous lyrics, which the authorities saw no reason to banish. Or because of its wistful music. Because everybody wants to be in Courland. Maybe even because Courland was the last holdout against the invading Soviets.

Singing unites Latvians in good times and bad.

Free at last! Song and Dance Festival in Rīga, 2013.
I chose this video because it includes the lyrics of the unofficial anthem in English and because it was filmed during the Song and Dance Festival that celebrated the Republic of Latvia’s 100th anniversary of Independence in 2018. Interrupted for nearly fifty years, but always commemorated, even in exile.

The Great Oatmeal Debate

The Latvian vs the American Way, vs?

Some call it porridge, some call it gruel, some call it blah.

Until I stayed with relatives, I thought there was only one way to eat oatmeal: cooked in water, served with milk and sugar, maybe with sliced bananas on top. At the rellies house, we mostly had the usual things for breakfast, eggs, bacon, pancakes that sort of thing. But one morning my aunt cooked oatmeal. I stared in amazement as my uncle started eating his portion without pouring milk on top. He stared in amazement as I poured milk on my porridge. It was a long time before I tried eating oatmeal without milk.

Sometimes I really hate grocery shopping. I won’t go to the supermarket until my cupboards are almost in Mother Hubbard territory. Of course, my stomach doesn’t care that I don’t want to go shopping. It wants food now, not tomorrow, not next week, NOW. So, one time when I was out of milk but had rolled oats at home, I remembered my uncle eating his oatmeal without milk. Rather than go buy milk, I tried his way. To my surprise, it was good. After that, my oatmeal no longer sees milk. I eat it with blueberries, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Sometimes with raisins or craisins, sometimes with sliced strawberries or bananas on top.

That’s better.

Because my uncle was born and grew up in Latvia, I assumed that all Latvians eat milkless porridge, but I like evidence, so I posted the question in a social media group devoted to Latvian foods. No, eating porridge without milk wasn’t just my uncle’s eccentric preference. The majority of Latvians eat the hot breakfast cereal the same way. One woman even said that until she’d traveled outside Latvia, she’d never heard of eating oatmeal with milk. Another woman thought it’s yucky.

I learned of a variety of ways to fix and serve oatmeal. Not everyone cooks it with water. Many people cook oats in milk, then serve it with a pat of butter or with salt and/or cinnamon. One man cooks his with bananas and pours browned butter on top. Several people stir jam or jelly into their cereal.

In most cultures, only very young children drink milk. Sixty percent of adults around the world can’t digest milk. The rest, mostly Americans and Europeans still produce the enzyme that helps their bodies digest milk. Naturally, of the ones who can drink milk, some simply don’t like it or they like it with some foods, but not others. Being able to drink milk, or put it on their oatmeal, is what’s weird, not being able to is the norm. If you’re an adult who still wants wet oats, but can’t tolerate milk or want to save calories, and fat, you can wet your cereal with soy milk, coconut milk, or oat milk. Twice the oats.

I think there’s porridge under there. I’ll have to try this sometime.

The Joys (Not) of Apartment Life

There are some. The buildings in my complex are situated that no neighbors can see in my windows. It’s on a bluff. No new buildings can be built to obscure my view and make my living room a part of their view. I can see the sky, trees, and clouds. From my balcony, I have a fabulous view of Mt. Rainier. The fact that I have a balcony where I can grow plants and sit outside to enjoy the view, which sometimes includes bunny youngsters chasing each other across the back lawn.

Not so enjoyable. Walls so thin it sometimes sounds like people are walking around in my place even when I’m home alone. Annual inspections and other invasions of my privacy, such as installing energy-efficient light bulbs I never asked for because I already had them.

Starting Monday and all next week a company hired by management is going to be cleaning “bird guards” (whatever they are) and dryer vents. We’re advised to move our personal stuff off our balconies. The means I have to drag inside a chair, a wrought iron spiral plant stand, and fifteen flower containers. So I’ll be living in an indoor jungle for however long it takes them to finish up at my building.

The notice said that this is an annual event. Nope. They’ve never done it in the seven years (!) I’ve lived here. The staff turns over frequently. Even when they’ve been around awhile, half the time they don’t know what’s what.

I have four rectangular planter boxes that are about two feet wide. I may leave a couple of them on the balcony, next to the wall, where they’re less likely to be damaged. Maybe cover them with plastic trash bags.

This is one of the plants I have to move indoors. The hosta is almost three feet across from leaf tip to leaf tip. I’m crazy about it.

My favorite plant.
What my hosta looked like when I first brought it home from the nursery.

Another plant that’s going to be displaced. The geranium comes indoors during the winter, so it should be used to being indoors.

I’ve been babying this plant for several years now, so I’d be sorry to lose it and its friends.
Autumn fern. Those aren’t dead fronds; their color is the reason for the plant’s name. It’ll probably stay outside, pushed against the inner wall.

More displaced plants.

The petunias and bacopa (the little white flowers) live in railing planters.
A few more denizens of a railing planter. They’re a new variety, trailing pansies. They’re almost ready to climb out of their box.

I have no idea how long my plants will have to stay indoors. I haven’t bothered to ask the office staff; I’m sure they don’t know. My building is designated as “L,” which would make it seem logical that Wednesday would be the day to expect the cleaners, but logic has nothing to do with it. They may not start with building A. They could start with Z. This section of buildings is right next to the main driveway, so it could be the first one to get cleaned.

I guess I’ll know when the crew has arrived when I hear spray from their hoses or whatever machinery they may use. I live in suspense. Apartment living can be so exciting.

A Quote by Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson, American lecturer, poet, essayist, Transcendentalist.

Transcendentalism: an idealistic philosophical and social movement which developed in New England around 1836 in reaction to rationalism. Influenced by romanticism, Platonism, and Kantian philosophy, it taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity, and its members held progressive views on feminism and communal living. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were central figures.

For when we have doubts about our own self-worth.
Many lives, not just this tiny one, are made better because someone planted these flowers.