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New Europe

Day Eighty-eight: Riga

Celebating Jani 
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Celebrating Jani (the summer solstice) in the Latvian countryside. Dancing after the hat fell off.
Michael Palin - New Europe'A lot of the people are here for the first time, and they don't actually know what's going to happen,' says Ilga, a woman who teaches courses on how to celebrate Jani.

I'm given a garland of oak leaves as big as a lifebuoy, whilst the assembled gathering serenades me.

Ilga explains, 'The oak is the symbol of strength and virility, so you are crowned with strength and virility and they're singing that they wish you will see everything well, hear everything well and film everything well.'

Nigel, without the benefit of a leafy crown, is in fact so confused by the ceremony that he's finding it hard to film anything at all. Meanwhile, I'm trying desperately to stop this oak crown from slipping down over my face and settling round my neck. The women, many in embroidered skirts and white blouses, seem less encumbered by their garlands, in which twenty-seven different varieties of flowers have to be woven.

There isn't much time for hanging about comparing headgear as we are led in procession to bless the various parts of the property with songs and poems. So we bless the well, the sauna, the bee-hives, the barn and finally gather round a significant oak tree, around which we form a circle. Some of the women toss their garlands up into the tree. Folklore has it that if they stay up they'll be married within a year, if unsuccessful then every time they try again puts the wedding day off for another year.

The culmination of the evening is a Bergman-like procession up the nearby hill. We push through the long grass to a point where we can see the sun go down and welcome the new moon in a celebration of death and rebirth, decay and renewal. As the sun eventually sinks, fires are lit to preserve the warmth and the light, and, in a spectacular climax, a wheel is set on fire and sent rolling down the hill towards the stream.

Only then can we really start tucking into the beer and cheese with caraway seed. Not an abundant menu, but that's the point. Cheese and bread were all that was left before the new harvest was brought in. Groups sit round the fire, a group of visiting Lithuanians sing softly together, and as we leave to return to Riga around midnight, the purists settle in for an all-night session.
Celebrating Jani 
click to enlarge 
file size
Celebrating Jani (the summer solstice) in the Latvian countryside. No Health and Safety inspectors being present, our host lights the blazing wheel.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Eighty-eight: Riga
  • Country/sea: Latvia
  • Place: Riga
  • Book page no: 211

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