Our guest blogger this week is Anita Piwowarczyk. She lives in the 'burbs, has two beautiful daughters, Lilija and Evija, and also happens to be Latvian. June 21st marks the official beginning of summer; in Latvia, it's known as Midsummer and is ceremoniously celebrated (June 23rd - 24th). Enjoy this glimpse of Latvian culture and see how Anita passes down the tradition to her children.
When most people think about Midsummer, they think about Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which a magical place exists-- an enchanted forest alive with mystical figures, such as King Oberon and Queen Titania of the Fairies, and the mischievous folk character, Puck.
However, what many people don't know is that Shakespeare was not the only one who dabbled into the enchanted world of a Midsummer Night; Latvians have been visiting the Midsummer magical forest longer than Puck and the other fairies. Nope. It's not those Shakespeare fairies dancing in the shadows of the early morning light, just us crazy Latvians.
Latvia (in Northern Europe, across the Baltic Sea from Sweden) may be one of the smallest European Union countries with 2.3 million people, but our celebrations are huge! We are a people of great passion and stamina, and boy, when you celebrate a time of year like Midsummer (also known as summer solstice, or in Latvian--Jani, pronounced, yah-nyi), you need the passion and the stamina!
There is folk singing, with the refrain of "ligo," which means to "sway." This refrain is perfect, as the flowers you hold while singing, sway in tandem with your body. Oh...and the sweet wildflower aroma is an elixir that swirls through the air. There is polka dancing and wreath making for the young and old--flowers for the ladies and oak leaves for the guys. ("Why is your dad dressed as a tree?") Flowers and oak wreaths are placed EVERYWHERE, around the house, even on animals. Dress up whatever you want in flowers and oak leaves! Bring the outdoors inside; Midsummer is all about communing with nature.
There is bonfire jumping; homemade caraway cheese eating, perfect with homemade beer. And, I cannot leave out the elusive flowering fern that all lovers walk into the deep dark woods to find. (Okay, as ferns don't actually flower, this is just an excuse for two lovebirds to....) And all this is continuously maintained from sunset to sunrise! Yes, that means staying up all night! Pop that ephedrine; you're in for a ride!
Getting back to the bonfire jumping...
I know a few of you are still lost back there... I mean, who would ever do such a stupid thing like that, right? I've only seen it done maybe twice in my life, when all kiddies were tucked into bed. Is jumping over the bonfire a traditional by-product of beer drinking? Some may believe that. But, our forefather farmers believed bonfire jumping ensured prosperity and fertility.
Prosperity is an important Midsummer theme, as farmers are done plowing and sowing their fields this time of year. Now it's time to party and pray for those crops to grow! Hey, even us office folk can understand prosperity, right? (Dolly Parton, "Workin' 9 to 5.") And partying, well, we've seen what kinds of shenanigans occur after a little too much punch at those Christmas office parties. So, is jumping over a bonfire really too far-fetched? Fertility is also key, since not only crops procreate--remember that flowering fern?
As a little girl, I looked forward to Midsummer. What child wouldn't love getting dressed up in a folk costume and picking flowers to fashion into a head crown? (I felt like a true fairy princess!) The singing, the dancing, the food, the reverie, was all so magical. And when dusk came, when the massive bonfires in big old pagan-style and the barrel perched up high on a pole were lit, it was otherworldly---the fingers of those fires lapping against the darkening blue sky...pure heaven.
Today, I carry on celebrating Midsummer traditions with my girls. Lilija and Evija love it as much as I did as a child. The night before, we clean house and make our own caraway cheese. Then, the day of Midsummer Night, we drive slowly down gravel roads in Southwestern Michigan, picking beautiful wildflowers from the ditches. And the mad wreath making begins!
What better way is there to celebrate the longest day and shortest night of the year? Midsummer is the best kick-off to summer! I know that after the summer solstice the days slowly get shorter again, but who cares? We all still think of it as the official start to summer, which it technically is. I think that reason alone is why this time of year is so magical.
And now I'm going to let you in on a little secret--Midsummer Night is not only for Latvians; it's for you and your children, too! Have fun picking flowers and cutting oak branches down; make those wreaths with your children. Make a batch of summer solstice cheese and sit down by a bonfire, sing songs, dance some polka, or any happy dance. And if you're feeling the spirit, lift those legs and JUMP over that bonfire! After all, this is the time of year when the forces of nature are at their most powerful-- physically and spiritually.
Perhaps even Oberon, Titania, and all the other forest fairies will hear your voices and poke their heads out from behind the trees. Call them over! Offer them a homemade brew! I guarantee long after the kiddies are in bed, long after the sun comes up and the embers of the fire burn down, many of you will arise from your slumber wondering if "all the visions that did appear" on Midsummer were "no more yielding" than a dream. However, the good news is, like Santa Claus, the flowering fern comes back every year.
A Latvian beer commercial showing Midsummer, including a bonfire jump