Along with Christmas, Jaaniõhtu (Midsummer Eve – 23 June) and Jaanipäev (St John’s Day – 24 June) are the most important days in the Estonian calendar. The short summers with brief nights hold special significance for Estonians. Jaanipäev follows the longest day (21 June) of the year, or the summer solstice, when night seems to be non-existent.
Thousands of bonfires are lit all over Estonia on St John’s Day
Jaanipäev was celebrated long before the arrival of Christianity in Estonia, although the day was given its name by the crusaders. The arrival of Christianity, however, did not end pagan beliefs and fertility rituals surrounding this holiday. In 1578, with some disgust, Balthasar Rüssow wrote in his Livonian Chronicle about Estonians who placed more importance on the festival than going to church. He complained about those who went to church, but did not enter, and instead spent their time lighting bonfires, drinking, dancing, singing and following pagan rituals.
For Estonians, Jaanipäev celebrations were merged with the celebration of Võidupüha (Victory Day) after the War of Independence when Estonian forces defeated the German troops on 23 June 1919. After this battle against Estonia’s traditional oppressors, Jaaniõhtu and the traditional lighting of bonfires became linked with the ideals of independence and freedom.
Jaanipäev marks a change in the farming year, specifically the break between the completion of spring sowing and the hard work of summer hay-making.
Understandably, some of the rituals of Jaanipäev have very strong folkloric roots. The best-known Jaanik, or midsummer, ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and the jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck. Likewise, to not light the fire is to invite the destruction of your house by fire. The fire also frightened away mischievous spirits who avoided it at all costs, thus ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.
Midsummer’s Eve is also associated with romance. In Estonian fairy tales and literature there is the tale of two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk). These two lovers see each other only once a year and exchange the briefest of kisses on the shortest night of the year. Earth-bound lovers go into the forest looking for the flower of the fern which is said to bloom only on that night. Also on this night, single people can follow a detailed set of instructions to see whom they are going to marry.
“In Estonian fairy tales and literature there is the tale of two lovers, Koit (dawn) and Hämarik (dusk). These two lovers see each other only once a year and exchange the briefest of kisses on the shortest night of the year. Earth-bound lovers go into the forest looking for the flower of the fern which is said to bloom only on that night.”
Former President Lennart Meri has provided another perspective on Jaanipäev in his book Hõbevalge (Silverwhite, 1976). Meri suggests that the Jaanipäev traditions re-enact the fall of the Kaali meteorite in Saaremaa. The meteorite’s fall is also said to be the inspiration for Nordic and Baltic mythological stories about the sun falling onto the earth. This idea suggests that the present day bonfires and celebrations actually symbolise Estonia’s connection with its ancient past.
During the occupation of Estonia, the Soviet Union made no attempt to stop Jaanipäev celebrations. For Estonians, however, Jaanipäev remained tied to Estonia’s victory during the War of Independence, the securing of a free and independent state, and free spirit in general. Jaanipäev, therefore, always reminded Estonians of their independence in the past, despite the Soviet attempts to eliminate such ideas.
The tradition before the Soviet occupation, which has now been restored, was for a fire to be lit by the Estonian President on the morning of Võidupüha (June 23). From this fire, the flame of independence was carried across the country to light the many bonfires.
During the transition to the re-establishment of Estonia’s de facto independence, Jaanipäev became an unofficial holiday, with many work places closing down. It once again became an official national holiday in 1992.
On Jaaniõhtu, Estonians all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing and dancing, as Estonians have done for centuries.
Cover photo: A bonfire on the grounds of Estonian Open Air Museum.