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New Europe

Day Eighty-eight: Riga

Celebrating Jani 
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Celebrating Jani (the summer solstice) in the Latvian countryside. With friends who know how to dress for a pagan festival.
Michael Palin - New EuropeToday we're venturing deep in the other direction of Baltic history. The pagan past still means a lot to these countries who all came late into the European religious mainstream. (So late were the local tribes in converting to Christianity that around 1200 a Crusade to the Baltics was organised, bringing with it the usual mix of missionaries and mercenaries.)

Throughout Latvia tonight they will be celebrating Jani, an unashamedly pagan way of marking the summer solstice, and we've been invited out to a party deep in the countryside, some three hours from Riga. Such is the enduring popularity of this ancient animist tradition that traffic on the way out of town is of Bank Holiday proportions. Many of the cars are decorated with leaves and flowers and along the roadside some have pulled up so their occupants can gather wild flowers from the fields.

We find ourselves heading down more and more obscure roads with the forest, which still covers nearly half the country, closing in around us. We park in a field and carry on down overgrown woodland tracks between cow parsley and wild roses until we emerge at a collection of old wooden huts with steep roofs, set beneath a towering maple tree. It looks and feels like somewhere straight out of a children's fairy story, and the sense of time being stretched out only intensifies as our host, an elderly, professorial man with a high forehead and greying hair, tells me one of the cottages has stood here for over 250 years. And they still have no electricity.

Before we can join the fifty or so others present we have to go through the ritual of being teased by the host and having to respond with jokes in a poetic chant. Terrifying really, but as none of us has any Latvian, we attach ourselves to others who do and maintain fixed grins till it's all over.

The Latvian flag is then ceremonially raised and ash tree branches are drawn along the threshold of the property to symbolise, I'm told, the opening of the gates and the disbanding of the evil forces.

The owner of these isolated cottages, and most of those he's invited, look like well-educated city folk who've chosen to keep Jani pure and traditional. Some twenty-five years ago the old folk songs and rituals began to be revived after the communist authorities had tried to ban them. They found 1,200 melodies to be sung on this mid-summer night and 28,000 song lyrics.
Celebrating Jani in Latvia 
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Celebrating Jani (the summer solstice) in the Latvian countryside. Spectacular effects of the hair tonic.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Eighty-eight: Riga
  • Country/sea: Latvia
  • Place: Riga
  • Book page no: 210

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