Līgo Līgo!

This weekend sees the biggest celebration in Latvia roll around once again –  Līgo, Jāņi, or Jāņusvētki – otherwise known as Midsummer. It’s also the one time of the year when I don’t feel guilty about not wandering around in a forest as, joy of joys, the forest comes to the city instead. If, and this is a massive IF, there happen to be no trees around you, find some branches, leaves, flowers, weeds and sticks, tie them all together and strap them to any available surface in your home or office. For that instant ‘forest feel’.

Līgo (pronounced Leeg-wah) is even bigger than Christmas or New Year’s in Latvia. Of course, it has a rich history, complete with mystic rituals and even a touch of romance. So how do Latvians celebrate it, and what does it involve?

  • First of all, it needs to be celebrated out in nature (where else?) with a bonfire.
  • You must stay awake by the light of the bonfire until the sun comes up. Or else, legend has it, you’ll sleep all through winter (which doesn’t sound that bad to me).
  • Men should attempt to jump over the bonfire, but preferably not when it’s at its highest. For a festival that’s all about fertility, this doesn’t seem very babymakingparts-friendly.
  • Latvians believe that ferns blossom on this night and go rummaging around the forest looking for them. Any excuse. As they don’t actually exist, most couples end up doing other things under cover of the trees and the Latvian birth rate usually spikes 9 months later.
  • Women wear a wreath made of flowers on their heads and men wear one of oak leaves. At a certain point in the night, women throw their wreaths up into the trees. The number of times they have to throw it to get it to catch on a branch equals the number of years it will take for them to get married.
I bet she's got a powerful arm

I bet she’s got a powerful arm

  • Another tradition that’s undergoing a revival is the ‘naked run through the morning dew’. Seemingly if you do this, you’ll have a year of beauty, endurance and strength. So if you ever fancied seeing a Latvian’s wobbly bits, now is the time to visit.

Of course you can find reams of information about Līgo online, but I can save you some time and sum it up in three words: beer, meat, song.

I experienced my first proper Līgo last year when a Latvian girl I know invited me to her country house to celebrate with her and around 20 other friends. (Every Latvian has a country house, by the way.) We had been friends ever since she let me try her home brew which turned out to be delicious, and had the entertaining side effect of making me run into a tree, chin-first.

Now a country house may sound very fancy but envy not. My friend prefaced her invite with a warning that the house was a little ‘rustic’ with no running water and no indoor toilet. I think she was worried about how this city girl would cope in the wilds for two and a half days. But as my inner city girl was running screaming, my outer big mouth was agreeing to go, determined to show off my Latvian chops and show that I could celebrate Līgo just as well as any local.

And so, the day of departure rolled around and me, my beer and my baby wipes clambered into the car. A few hours later, we ended up here.

map_3d_26.2_57.5166667_AUMEISTERI

I was relieved to see that the house was actually quite nice, in a country sort of way, and well-equipped to have bodies all over it for two days straight. I claimed a bed and we set about unpacking the beer, bedding, extra clothing and enough food to feed a small army. The first night was relaxing enough, as most people weren’t arriving until the next day.

When her boyfriend and his friend arrived, they made a bonfire and the meat-cooking began. As any self-respecting Latvian will tell you, shashliks are an essential part of any Līgo celebration. In fact, every time I turned around over the next two days, somebody was shoving lumps of pork on a stick in my face.

MEAT

MEAT

The real celebrations began the following day. My memories of the day are something like this – beer, meat, meat, singing, beer, meat, singing, meat, beer, beer, meat, singing – but I’ll attempt to put them into some sort of coherent order. I do remember that the day started with some strategic rubbing with my baby wipes. Followed by realising that I could see the people around the bonfire through the gaps in the toilet door, and just had to hope that that didn’t work both ways.

There really was an awful lot of singing. People sang while walking around, they sang while cooking, they sang while getting refills, they sang while crouched over the outdoor loo – probably. They formed two lines – men vs. women – and sang the traditional Līgo Līgo song. This involves the women making up a clever verse that pokes fun at their men – everyone sings the Līgo Līgo part.  Then the men come up with a clever retaliatory verse – everyone sings the Līgo Līgo part. It goes something like this ‘dum duma dumi dumam dumu dums dum dumigi Leeg-wah Leeg-wah, dum duma dumi dumam dumu dums dum dumigi LEEG-WAH’! Or at least, that’s what it sounded like to me. This can continue for around 5 hours.

Then there was dancing. Again the men lined up opposite the women. Some of the ladies were sitting this one out so I tried to hide behind them but no such luck. Because I hadn’t really been able to partake in the singing, the dancing was not optional. The first couple grabbed each other and proceeded to dance-hump down the aisle created by the other couples. Pair by pair everyone copied the first move. Then the next pair had to come up with something different which everyone had to copy. One couple ran head-first into a tool-shed which added a touch of drama. I decided that my partner and I would Irish dance when it came to our turn. This proved to be a poor choice as everyone loved it and we had to go twice.

Me. Not really.

Me. (Not really.)

Next all the girls had to tramp around in waist-length grass picking flowers to make their crowns. After I’d picked about 6, I decided that I had enough. The Latvians had armfuls at this stage but my reasoning was that I had a small enough head and that would be plenty. After much laughter at my naivety, I picked another 4 or 5 and traipsed back towards the fire to attempt to weave them into some sort of garland.

Crown weaving

Wreath weaving

This, amazingly, is not as easy as it looks. After 15 incredibly frustrating minutes and much huffing and puffing, I had a lap full of petals and bugs and a few broken stalks. Which of course I pretended had been exactly the result I was going for. A few deft strokes of a Latvian hand later, and I had a crown fit for a queen. (How do they do that?)

Placed on my head, it turned out that not all the bugs had fallen out and they were now crawling around in my hair. But, despite my grumbling, I was not allowed to take it off – something to do with fertility. However, I was far more concerned with my frisky hair-ants’ fertility at that moment in time.

Proud Irish woman that I am, I persevered and didn’t remove it until ‘branch hoopla’. It took me two throws to hook it on a branch which means that I should be getting married in 2014. I’ll keep you posted…

I’d pretty much had my fill of nature at that stage and was up for a bit of relaxing, bug-free sitting and drinking. But no, now it was time to go and sing for the local business people. And so, singing, we set off down the dirt track that led to the local shop. Around 25 drunk people surrounded the owner’s house and started singing. We could see him inside, watching TV with his wife and kids. Unfortunately, the guy was Danish and didn’t seem to realise that this was ‘normal’ in Latvia. We then saw him slowly creep along the wall, over to the window and pull down the blinds. The Latvians continued singing until it was clear that he wasn’t joking and wasn’t going to come out of his house. (I didn’t really blame him.)

Thinking that we’d give up after that chilly reception, I started off in the direction of the house. Silly me. We were going to sing for the local milk lady. Again, we sang our way down a dirt track and surrounded the house. This time, however, we were rewarded with the whole family coming to the door and singing back at us. And a crate of beer. And her two sons who she gave us for the rest of the night. Thankfully there were only two business people in the village so it was time to go back. But this time through a field of cows. In pitch darkness.

Shudder

Shudder

I’m not a big fan of cows at the best of times but knowing they were out there, in the dark, plotting god knows what as I slipped and slid around on their strategically-placed dung was not my idea of a good time. With relief, we reached the fence and safety.

The singing, drinking and meat-eating continued but gradually, the Latvians started to disappear one by one. Despite promises of craziness, yours truly was one of the last people standing. Or rather sitting on a log, beer in hand, staring into the dying embers of the bonfire as the sun came up.

The next morning after some furtive baby wiping and a trek to the loo, a hearty breakfast was served by my host. The poor girl had hardly left the kitchen in two days. I had been given one job, slicing pickled gherkins, the previous afternoon, but clearly I couldn’t even do that right as I wasn’t let do anything else for the rest of the weekend. Except fetch more alcohol which I’m actually very good at.

After a couple of bottles of wine, it was time to bid farewell to Aumeisteri and go home. I may have shed a few tears of joy when I saw my toilet and shower again. As for the weekend, it was good fun, even if the whole nature thing isn’t really for me. Big thanks to my home-brewing friend for letting me share in a real Latvian Līgo. Just as the Līgo Līgo song is embedded in my brain forever, it’s an experience I’ll never forget. I’ll also never look at a baby wipe in quite the same way again…

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About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
This entry was posted in Culture and Traditions, Humor, Humour, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

59 Responses to Līgo Līgo!

  1. Pingback: Of mice and me | Expat Eye on Latvia

  2. Pingback: Road Trip! (Day one) | Expat Eye on Latvia

  3. I’m surprised how similar Latvian midsummer is to the Finnish one! Wow… I had no idea! 😀

  4. 1WriteWay says:

    Except for the pit toilet … what’s with you and toilets? Or am I just reading your posts too close together? Anyway, it all sounded like fun except for the pit toilet. I don’t mind using one if needs be but not when I have to share with a bunch of other people ;). Well, and I wouldn’t want to be walking amongst cows at night drunk (either me or the cows). I can’t dance, I don’t song. I don’t even like bonfires. Ok, sounds like a lousy time but at least you had fun 😉

  5. Laine says:

    This being 2013 and all, next week (4 to 7 of July) one can attend a masterclass on garland making in the Botanic garden of all places (http://www.botanika.lu.lv/puku-balle/).

    • Expat Eye says:

      You’re great! I’ll definitely check that out! My sausage fingers trying to make a garland will make for a good post if nothing else!

  6. Ansh says:

    {Burbling mode on} Toilets…. you, overcivilized, always grinning products of rotten western culture, you, who can’t even pee by the tree without getting severe psychological trauma, what do you know from life at all? Supermarkets? Phe.
    Okay, gotta go to supermarket to buy some milk…

    • Expat Eye says:

      You don’t own a cow? I’m shocked. And if I pee in public, I get called British and arrested… 😉

      • Liigoo says:

        Ummm, aren’t outhouses very familiar thing in Ireland as well? If not now then some time ago. I read an odd book on the world’s toilets (yeah, who would make and read such things) and there were many examples of Irish outhouses. I’ve also met some English ladies saying that they’re quite used to outhouses – their parents had them in their houses (in the country, I’d imagine). In one of the German communes there was one without any door facing a field – hmm… Although some traditionalists still have the ‘heart-house’ in Latvia, most logically thinking people got rid of them ages ago. Who likes them?

  7. Antuanete says:

    Actually you are very happy, if you have had Jāņi celebration like this. Not many Latvian families or groups of friends can sing and dance all night long on their own (I guess your host and friends are involved in some kind of folklore troupe, traditional dance company or something) – yes, every Latvian knows a few Līgo songs,but after they have been sang,they look for help at Latvian Radio 2, which blasts poorly performed Līgo-themed schlagers.
    And you have been privileged to have a bed, normally in country houses, when there are many guests, they sleep in a hay barn – very romantic, but not very comfortable 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Now I do feel privileged! Not sure I’d survive a night in a barn – I’d be eaten alive by bugs – as I am now! I think a couple of them were part of a folk-singing group now that you mention it. Aren’t I the lucky girl!? 😉

    • Liigoo says:

      Are there any people who still let their guests sleep in a hay barn? Germans have opened hotels in hay barns – pay us money for us letting you in our barn to sleep on some hay. Latvians should’ve done it ages ago 🙂
      In the country, one usually sleeps in a tent if there’s no place in the house…

  8. bevchen says:

    It sounds awesome! Although I’m with you on the preferring a REAL toilet thing…

    • Expat Eye says:

      It’s a once in a lifetime thing! 2.5 days of baby wiping and watching the drop toilet get more and more disgusting is enough!

  9. lepirategunn says:

    Wonderful! I taught in Eastern Europe in 1991-1996, and Latvia seems more fun than where I was – Hungary. Since my wife-to-be comes from Latvia I’m sure I’ll be participating in a few yet..though maybe with less rustic ambiance!

    • Expat Eye says:

      Yeah, try to find somewhere with an indoor toilet at least 😉 It’s definitely worth experiencing! Once anyway!!

    • Expat Eye says:

      And I wouldn’t worry too much about the fabulous looking guy in the river – I’ve been here for nearly 3 years and haven’t seen any men that look even remotely like that!!

    • Liigoo says:

      Linking this also to the very first comment that Latvian Midsummer is so much like Finnish Midsummer, one can clearly see that the Latvian spirit and fundamental cultural traditions are Northern European and has little to do with Slavic world (Romania and Hungary is outside it too). Ask any Swede and he/she’ll say that Midsommar celebration is his/her most favorite festivity and one of the things they love about their homeland the most. I loved the post on Wikipedia about St. John’s Day or Midsummer when under Latvia was said that it has so many Midsummer traditions that every Latvian can choose their own. To celebrate the longest day and shortest night is especially important only to Northerners and the traditions are very similar.

      • Ye Pirate says:

        Actually I am not sure I agree with you there, despite your efforts to highlight a ‘northern’ cultural sphere. I think you are right about Latvia and Finland, though the Latvian celebration is bigger. Romania is a different issue entirely, but Hungary is very much part of the Russian sphere. Actually both Hungarian and Latvian languages are open to discussion about origins. Latvian is an early Slavic language and Hungarian is similar to a few languages within Russia. There no such groupings as ‘Slavic’ and ‘Northerner’, and you’ll find very little interest among Swedes maintaining there is. I will find all kinds of similarities between Latvians and Russians, just as I will between Latvians and Scots. Swedes never refer their country to ‘homeland’. I appreciate what you said, but we do not think like this. Latvia is, or should be a fully-welcomed part of Europe, not some kind of ‘northern’ racial fantasy.

      • Expat Eye says:

        Love this comment. I’m actually going to write a post on this later 😉

      • Ye Pirate says:

        Yes, recognised the language, unfortunately that tendency of ‘Eastern’ Europe of old sometimes. Keep swinging your hand bag!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Ha ha, I’ll have to after this one I think 😉 Be sure to come back and share your tuppence worth when I publish it!

      • Ye Pirate says:

        Of course! Your blog’s certainly heating up!

      • Ye Pirate says:

        by ‘Slavic’ I mean your ‘Slavic world’ notion. Latvian is a proto Slavic language by the way, with links to Prussian among others. Have a good day.

      • Liigoo says:

        Not sure why it is important for you, Ye Pirate, to refute most of the information in my comment. Regards to Hungary being in Russian sphere, what are the evidence? By nowadays, Hungarian has diverged but it has evolved from the Finno-Ugrian branch along with Finnish and Estonian. Finno-Ugrian languages have also influenced Latvian language as Livonians were of Finno-Ugrian descent. Germanic languages influenced Latvian language until 20th century. Except Finno-Ugrian, all European languages have originated from Proto-Indo-European. Once everyone was using one source language and if two nations use the same word it doesn’t mean they’re related or one has taken it from the other, it might just as well mean that the word come from the ancient source language. We really can’t say that Latvian was an early Slavic tongue – tribes in Latvian territory spoke different languages and soaked up characteristics from different tribes around them. Some ancient sources even claim inhabitants of modern-day LV spoke a language close to one of the Celtic tribes (but who can prove it nowadays?) And there most certainly is a grouping ‘Slavic’ (for instance, in language, culture, and ethnicity). But sure, if we want to we can find all sorts of similarities between various nations. One can also do it scientifically through hard data and DNA samples. Very few European nations can claim they haven’t been affected by any outsiders. My intention wasn’t to insinuate any racial fantasies or realities. There is enough evidence to place Latvia also in the Northern European cultural space (which absolutely doesn’t mean putting equals sign between Latvians and Swedes). All I wanted to say is that, in my humble opinion, Midsummer is one of the most important festivals in Scandinavia, Finland, Latvia (and I assume Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania too).

  10. Jude says:

    Ps-I better be invited to the wedding!

  11. Aggie says:

    In Latvia Līgo In Ireland Burn Fire Night the same day, except in Latvia I don`t have to go to work next day but in Ireland I have to… And that meet is not Latvians tradition for Līgo, Russians bring it in… we had beer, cheese…

    • Expat Eye says:

      Do Russians celebrate it? I asked a guy yesterday and he looked offended and said he was a Christian and he would not be celebrating a pagan festival! That’s how I feel on Paddy’s Day here – no hangover day afterwards!

      • We do celebrate. Definitely.
        After all, many have Latvian-Russian mixed families.

      • Expat Eye says:

        Hi Dmitry, thanks for the comment and for following! Yeah, I think this guy is just a special case! 😉 Hope you have a good one! Linda

      • Yeah, I’m going to have some fun!
        This guys isn’t that special, I know few orthodoxal christians, who doesn’t celebrate. It’s official church position on that summer fest.
        But for the rest of the country it is a fest that unites people, not separates.

      • Expat Eye says:

        That’s the way it should be! Too much separation in the world – nice to have something that brings people together for a change! Don’t worry about any mistakes – just keep partying 😉

      • Sorry for mistakes, we’re already celebrating!

      • Aggie says:

        My husband is Russian orthodox but he always celebrates, his mother never did… I am Lutheran and not a pagan and most of Latvians are Lutherans… and when there is a celebration I prefer to be pagan than Christian and after celebration I can be Chritian again… 😀

      • Expat Eye says:

        My sort of religion! I’m technically Catholic but was full-on pagan this time last year. One has to be flexible about these things 😉

    • JJK says:

      Yeah, Russians might’ve brought it as far as LV but it is nothing more than a kebab. Turks enlightened me that this type of meat on a stick is always a kebab. Altogether, shashlik is neither Latvian nor Russian. Russians don’t celebrate Jāņi (some do by choice). In Midsommer people do BBQ – type of meat is irrelevant. Beer, cheese, mead, wreaths, singing and bonfire are the must-haves. But the main thing is to get out of the city and celebrate with people who know the traditions not just using the day for loading themselves (one can get drunk in any celebration, after all).

      I loved your post! Jāņi is a magical time when the nature is in its prime and it is sooo much fun.

  12. Jude says:

    Hands down my favourite post (except now I have the damn ligo song in my head!)

    So tons of march babies over there eh?

    • Expat Eye says:

      Tons of preggers women all the time as far as I can see! But will keep an eye out for bumps starting to show in September/October! I still have the bloody Ligo song in my head from last year. It’s everywhere now. They’re even singing ‘next stop’ on some tram and bus lines. Baltic Taxi have shrubs strapped to the front of their cars… 😉

  13. OmyOmyOmyOmy… I’ve just added this to my fast-growing list of must-NOT-EVER-do social occasions.

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