The summer solstice has little to do with the birthday of St. John as celebrated on 24 June by the Roman Catholic Church. The Jāņi celebrated today is a living ancient pagan tradition. For others, the holiday is like a meditation based on the beliefs and actions of their ancestors. For others it's a way to cleanse the soul and body with song and with a visit to the bathhouse – and for others still it's a time to dance, eat, drink and be merry.
According to ancient tradition, the shortest night of the year must be spent by staying awake all night by the glow of the bonfire. The time is spent singing songs and enjoying traditional Līgo foods like cheese with caraway seeds and beer. The belief is that those who go to sleep before sunrise on Jāņi will be sleepy all summer long. Bonfires aren't confined to hilltops – a pūdelis, or a pitched barrel filled with firewood, is lit and raised up on a post. The farther the light from the pūdelis reaches, the farther the sacredness and protection of this magical night reaches, too. Women and girls wear a crown of flowers on their heads on Jāņi, while men wear a crown of oak leaves. Rooms and doors are decorated with birch boughs, shed and barn doors are decorated with rowan branches and rooms are scented by sweet flag. Many 23 June revelers get dressed in their traditional folk costumes and experience this holiday rich in tradition and rituals as if the mystery surrounding it gives them strength.
Jāņi songs or līgotnes and their traditional refrain of “Līgo!” can already be heard a few weeks before the actual holiday; but the real celebration starts on the night of the summer solstice. People sing by the Jāņi bonfire (Jāņi bonfires can be found across Latvia on this night and on almost every hilltop and in every yard) or they go from house to house, where the hosts greet them with cheese and other foods. Traditional food items on Jāņi are cheese and beer. On Jāņi, people greet each other with song, carry out various rituals with the help of song and walk through fields and cornfields to promote fertility; they even use song to tease those hosts who haven't cleaned up their homes or yards. There's at least one witty and shrewd song for everyone – nobody is overlooked on Jāņi when it comes to teasing shortcomings.
Līgo songs tend to become a bit “spicier” after midnight. Jāņi is also a night of ancient fertility rituals. Some people maintain an old Jāņi tradition of running naked through the morning dew to bathe themselves. The belief here is that he who bathes nude in the morning dew of Jāņi will have a year of beauty, endurance and strength. This tradition has seen a modern revival in Pedvāle near Sabile and in Kuldīga, where a “Naked Run” takes place across the Old Venta Bridge.
Another ancient belief is that ferns blossom for a short while on the night of Jāņi. The search for this blossom takes place alone. If you find the blossom, you'll receive a great spiritual revelation. An alternative is for couples to go search for the fern blossom. In these cases, one could say the magic of Jāņi night tends to improve the nation's demographic situation.
The spirit of Jāņi can also be experienced in Riga. A few days before the big holiday the city organises a Grass Market – wild medicinal plants, oak leaves and flower crowns, Jāņi grasses, Jāņi cheese with caraway seeds, beer, traditional Latvian crafts and Līgo songs – you can find everything that helps create the Līgo holiday feeling. The day before the holiday Riga is flocked by folk ensembles from around Latvia. Everyone is invited to participate in crown and wreath plaiting, Jāņi games and singing (if anything, at least with the “Līgo” refrain). These types of pre-holiday events are usually most widespread in Riga, on the banks of the canal not far from the Monument of Freedom. A large Līgo celebration also takes place in Riga at the Ethnographic Open-air Museum, several events dedicated to men with the name Jānis take place across Latvia and, of course, Līgo celebrations take place in each yard with each family. It is a holiday that can be celebrated and enjoyed by everyone!