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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…